Psychology of sustainable behavior

So lots of people in every country now acknowledge the massive problems of climate change and biodiversity loss, and even understand that these make for an existential threat to the future of humanity on the earth. This makes one wonder, why aren’t we acting faster to change our behavior? The rest of this page provides short summaries of some of the key psychological and economic problems that slow or prevent action towards sustainability. This isn’t meant to be a comprehensive list, and there is some overlap between concepts. Rather, this is meant to present a number of perspectives for seeing the struggles we have in taking more sustainable action. As time permits, these short summaries may be linked to longer pieces about each problem and some thoughts about how to work around them.

  • Decision fatigue – Requiring people to make too many decisions, or too complicated of decisions, causes people to make them poorly or avoid the decisions altogether. Right now, the most sustainable behaviors aren’t the default in most places. One has to go out of one’s way, educate oneself about what we should and shouldn’t do, and it can be exhausting. What we really need to do is to make the ‘good’ sustainable actions the easy default, so that people automatically and easily make good choices. This is really more about how society is set up, building institutions and practices that set us on the right path and nudges us in the right direction. For example, think about recycling. In many places, one has to sort out recyclables into many different bins, and then deal with putting them all out for collection. A better way is single stream recycling, where one can put any recyclables into a single container that will be sorted at the recycling plant. This simple adjustment as much as doubles the amount of waste that gets recycled, as it reduces the number of decisions and their complexity for all those people dealing with their waste.
  • Epistemology – Epistemology is the study of how we know what we know. How do form and justify the beliefs that we hold? In the post-modern world that we live in today, it feels like knowledge is less certain than ever, especially with someone like Donald Trump in a position of power in the US. Almost all of our knowledge is actually taken ‘on faith’, in that we know things only because others told us directly or through their writing, through radio or television, or through our educations. So the question often becomes who do we trust? Who are the authoritative figures that we want to believe? How do we double check that we are getting good information? We at Sunshine Saved would argue that the scientific method is far and away the best way to figure out the facts of the world, using hypotheses, rigorous testing, and revision of beliefs based on those tests. Those who use the scientific method, also known as scientists, are best able to provide us with answers. Unfortunately, groups with vested interests often try to obscure the results of scientific research, with climate change being a prime example. Almost all scientific inquiry points to climate change being a massive problem directly caused by humanity’s behaviors, but groups that favor the status quo try to undercut this work or state that other forms of authority should govern our behavior, such as that we shouldn’t upset the economy with action against climate change. We need people to know how to better vet the knowledge that they receive, to know which kinds of reasoning are valid and which authorities are worthy of our trust, and how others may be trying to manipulate them, so that they can form those beliefs that will lead to the best outcomes for themselves and humanity.
  • Fatalism – Climate change and biodiversity loss are enormous problems, global in scale. When faced with them, it is easy to feel small and insignificant, and to question whether there is even anything that an individual can do. Fatalism is the belief that whatever one does is going to have no effect, and therefore there is no point in doing anything at all. Falling prey to this type of thinking is paralyzing, and in the context of dealing with sustainability issues it means that people would adopt a self-defeating attitude. However, if one takes a step back, it is easy to see that these problems were created by individuals and companies, each burning a bit of coal or developing a plot of formerly natural landscape. The only way to fix the problems is through reversing them incrementally, by billions of people, millions of companies, and hundreds of nations each taking a series of small steps.
  • Future discounting – People discount future costs and benefits when comparing them to the present time. This is one of the reasons that people struggle so much to save for retirement, because the spending today feels so much more attractive than putting that money aside for your own future self. In sustainability, this makes the benefits today, of jobs and goods, seem more important than the negative side effects on the environment. Environmental degradation and global warming are easily viewed as distant problems in both time and space.
  • In-group loyalty, tribalism and cultural wedge issues – A now well-known finding is that people often figure out their group loyalties first, to nations, political parties, religions, etc., and then look to these groups for the opinions that they ought to hold on various issues. This is usually a good thing, in that one is looking to the elders of one’s group for which things one ought to believe or disbelieve. But this can also be very problematic, as leaders or influencers of a group can encourage thousands or millions of people to hold beliefs not in their own interest. Unfortunately this has happened with sustainability issues. No one wants to destroy the planet, but the political right of the United States has been largely convinced that climate change isn’t a problem, or that it isn’t man-made. It wasn’t always this way. George H.W. Bush (the first Bush, president from 1989-1993) was a Republican who acknowledged the problem of climate change and started to take some action to prevent it. But since that time, the political right has taken on disbelief of climate change as almost a plank in the platform. This has led to millions of Americans on the US political right dismissing climate science due mainly to their political allegiances. Going forward, one of the struggles is going to be to try to get almost everyone back on the same side. Other than those few who directly benefit from a societal addiction to fossil fuels, trying to stabilize the climate and save biodiversity should be an easy choice for everyone to make.
  • Laissez-faire economics – Laissez-faire economics is an economic system where private parties and companies are allowed to make whatever decisions they would like, and the government stays out of the way of the market. The belief is that the market will, over time, fix all the problems and that governments would only mess things up if they tried to intervene. Business interests often try to push for laissez-faire attitudes, getting rid of as much regulation as they possibly can. While it is true that the free market is very effective and efficient in many domains, there are many others where it is not. Climate change and carbon pollution provide a powerful example where the free market, with no regulation, fails miserably. The market only works well when certain conditions are met, such as that all parts of the market can be priced, and priced appropriately. Historically there has been no price on carbon pollution so from the perspective of the market pollution has no costs. If carbon pollution is free (meaning everyone pays for the consequences) then it doesn’t influence personal or corporate behavior and business has no reason to try to reduce it (the pollution is an externality). It is only when government introduces regulations, such as requiring that the costs of pollution must be paid for by the polluters, that the free market could do a good job of handling carbon pollution. A carbon tax, simply requiring that polluters pay for the damage their pollution will cause, would unleash the forces of the market and then people would figure out innumerable ways to make money directly by reducing the pollution they emit. Carbon taxes (or other forms of putting a price on carbon) are one of the most efficient tools at reducing CO2 pollution everywhere.
  • Salience – We only have enough time and attention for a small amount of what is around us, meaning that we have to ignore most things. The salience of something is the degree to which our attention is drawn to it, and things that are more salient generally receive much more of our time and efforts. Many of the things that are important to sustainability, like CO2 levels, or industry practices, or even ‘nature’ that isn’t in our backyards, these are all low in salience. People don’t see them, feel them, experience them in a substantial way in their daily lives, and as the adage goes, “out of sight, out of mind”. Even the sustainability ideas that do really catch on are often those that are more ‘in your face’, like the current (late 2018) fight against single use plastics. Single use plastics aren’t good, but they are far from the top of the list of the problems that are most urgent. And in western countries with good garbage and recycling collection, they are a quite minor problem. Needless to say, it is a struggle to capture and hold people’s attention when you want them to think about atmospheric carbon dioxide, or exactly where their energy comes from – one needs to think about how to make the abstract feel more real to those you wish to reach.
  • Social signaling and effective action – Social signaling is the actions that we take in order to show what kind of people that we are. Young men often show how tough they are by participating in dangerous activities, and Christians may show their faith through a cross on their neck and their church attendance. One sees this with sustainability and being ‘green’, of people wanting to show that they  care about the environment, both to themselves as well as to others. This is great, but only insofar as people choose honest and effective signals.  Some people fall into the trap of doing minor ‘feel-good’ action, without actually accomplishing very much. So someone may choose to live in a giant home with enormous heating and cooling requirements (with energy all supplied by fossil fuels), but still feel good about their environmental credentials because they are buying environmentally friendly laundry detergent. Not that there is anything wrong with small actions, every step counts, but not if one substitutes these tiny steps for the big ones that we could be taking. If people are only going to give the time and attention to a relatively small amount of lifestyle changes to increase sustainability, those need to be the big ones.
    In a related point, there is an unfortunate tendency in sustainability messaging from the media to focus on these tiny behavior changes, of slightly healthier products or tiny lifestyle tweaks. Perhaps this is just so that they can have something new to say each day, instead of focusing over and over again about transportation or home energy use. Media messaging should spend much more time encouraging people to tackle the big things (such as those discussed elsewhere at Sunshine Saved).
  • Status quo bias – Everyone gets into a rut, doing things the same way as they always have before. Not because it is necessarily better than other ways, just because it is what we are used to. Society is currently used to a fossil-fuel intensive lifestyle, and an extractive mind-set when it comes to natural resources. In a world of 8 billion people, we need to change this status quo, which is made more difficult just from the inertia of many decades of having done things a certain way.
  • Stories vs. data – As mentioned in “epistemology” above, scientific reasoning based on experimentation, data, and evidence, are the most accurate way of figuring out what is going on in the world. However, data and charts don’t tend to be very motivating or engaging by themselves, especially to non-scientists. People have an incredibly long history of story-telling and tend to be drawn much more to a good story than to a bar graph. A good story with poor evidence to back it up often wins in the court of public opinion over reams of scientific findings with no compelling narrative to hold them together. What this means for encouraging sustainable action is that the story can’t be ignored, and that data alone is not going to be enough to convince people to behave in a sustainable fashion.
  • “Wicked” problems – A ‘wicked’ problem is one that is so complex and intractable that it becomes incredibly complex to solve. Putting humanity back onto a sustainable pathway is such a problem. To take two of the biggest factors, consider fossil fuels and land use practices. Fossil fuels are currently the energy source used to power most of our society, providing over 80% of all world energy. This energy is what allows humanity to function, it allows us to make things, move things, heat and cool, everything. And we need to reduce that proportion to close to 0, and replace all of it with sources that don’t have large negative effects on people or the environment. This requires an overhaul of the entire world economy. And then there is land use – we need food, wood products, mines, urban spaces, and more, and so there are thousands of reasons why people might want to cut down a forest, drain a wetland, or plow up a prairie. Humanity has been doing this for thousands of years. But now we are using a large portion of the earth’s biosphere and there aren’t many frontiers left to exploit. Further, we absolutely need to leave some areas in a relatively natural state. To come back to wicked problems, there is no simple cause to the problems that we face, and there is no simple solution. The closest thing that we at Sunshine Saved have yet seen to a comprehensive solution to climate change requires us to pursue each of 100 partial solutions, outlined at Project Drawdown. Making humanity sustainable is going to be one of the grand challenges of the 21st century.