A new paper calls for global recognition of a “Human Behavioral Crisis” to prevent ecological overshoot. Plus, The New York Times runs a fossil fuel ad on an article about climate anxiety.
This is a really important conversation, and one people like me (in environmental communication) think about a lot. One idea I wanted to throw out there has been around a while is the notion of "alternative hedonism." I think it came out of some of the Transition Town stuff in the UK a while back, but the notion is that living in more environmentally (alternative) beneficial ways can actually be quite pleasurable (hedonist, even!). But our social/transportation/economic systems in places like the US are set up to make it really difficult to make the move to the alternative, and this is especially true if you don't have money to hoist yourself over those barriers as an individual. So there has to be enough system change that engaging in environmental behaviors is easier and we can access the hedonist part more readily. Example: it can be really fun and pleasurable to ride your bike to work. You get to zip around traffic snarls, you're outside for a minute, you're moving your body, ebikes are fun and zippy to ride, etc. But a lot of our cities make bike-riding dangerous, or you can't afford to live near where you work, or you need a rebate to support purchasing an ew bike, whatever it is. Those systems have to be de-frictioned enough so that the hedonistic aspects of environmental action really rise to the top and displace the hedonistic aspects of consumer culture. Anyway, it's a way of imagining the different kind of future you're talking about that also nicely bridges the need for individual and system action both.
I find techno-optimist climate solutions that do not address systemic consumption woefully inadequate. Consumption is built into our efficiency language, which isn't at all about producing less, but rather about getting more out of the energy required to produce. It's really sinister, in my opinion. Like Emily, I am frustrated by this desire to just add renewable energy to the mix of fuels, rather than overhaul the energy cultures that create unsustainable behaviors. I don't know how we can go about doing that, which makes me scared and sad. I study the history of energy, which is how I make sense of troubling energy behaviors; but that doesn't change policy or assuage my fears of climate change and ecological overshoot.
Traffic deaths have been reduced by something like 95% over the past half century - not because people chose to buy cars with seatbelts and airbags instead of cars without them, and not because drunk drivers en masse chose to hand their keys to someone else. These changes occurred due to policy changes. Individuals, in many cases, were dragged kicking & screaming into this world of far fewer traffic fatalities.
We can easily extrapolate this fact into just about everything that is good about our lives today: these things did not come about as a result of "freedom-loving individuals" making good choices, but as the result of "socialist" government policies that altered a negative trajectory. So how on earth can anyone suggest with a straight face that the solution to climate change is individual choice?
I would love to trade my CR-V in for a hybrid or better yet, a fully electric car. But the prices are still too high, and I would have to spend thousands at my home to have a viable charging system in my garage. And I'm one of the few people who have a garage where I could keep it charged - what about those who live in apartment complexes, or have homes with no garage? Only public policy changes, like large rebates for EV purchases and subsidies for infrastructure changes can bring about the massive changes needed.
Big Tobacco spent billions to prevent rules about cigarette labeling and no-smoking areas of public spaces, and it took decades for society to move forward. But once individuals recognized the fact that clean air vastly improved their quality of life, public perception changed.
So keep on doing what you're doing, Emily! You're part of the solution, and although you're up against Goliath, you're making progress!!
No expertise to offer, just wanted to say that I'm really excited for you to explore this topic! The need for systemic cultural change so often gets lost in the individual change vs. policy/corporate change binary.
An idea I came across a few years ago that has stuck with me is that "norms are easier to change than beliefs." https://news.stanford.edu/2017/10/06/change-behaviors-changing-perception-normal/
I will apologize up front because I'm older and have been through this whole argument, so I have to rant. In the 70's there were a whole lot of us that believed in having fewer children and not consuming because of what we knew would eventually happen. I have no children and buy only what's absolutely necessary. There were also a whole lot of us that came along and saw the sacrifices our parents made and decided to build our McMansions and the heck with the earth, because we "deserved" it . The 80's came along and the Reagan economists squashed any idea of less consumption and population growth. The billionaires want more money.
The forces pushing for growth at any cost will continue, just like fossil fuel production, until everybody realizes they can't (not going to happen) or we start having resource wars (happening already). Bill Clinton once said something like "imagine if everyone in china drove an SUV". Well, we know what's happened, don't we? Societal pressure is effective but the world will not change until we make laws to change the powers of the wealthy who continue to make decisions based on profit and not the common good. My two cents from almost 70 years of environmental activism!
So much to unpack in this newsletter! Focusing on capitalism’s role in driving unsustainable consumption, I’d highly recommend Tim Jackson’s recent book “Post Growth - Life After Capitalism”, a terrific follow on to his original (and updated) “Prosperity Without Growth”. The key message here is, “A prosperity based not on wealth but on health. A struggle to unravel the systematic distortion of values that lies at the core of a broken capitalism. And to construct in its place an economy of care and craft and creativity, fit for purpose on a finite planet.”
So... I had an argument with a planetary health nursing leader a month ago or so, who told me that for her, thinking about climate as a behavioral problem framed the importance of nursing-- because we have a lot of theories and approaches in nursing that are generally focused on changing human behavior. I argued with her because I think the term human behavior centers the problem on an individual rather than system level. While individual decisions are important, systems influence the options we have available to us. Many children who care about the environment start out, for example, by trying to get people to recycle. Meanwhile, we as consumers know so little about what can actually get recycled when we buy something. Grocery stores literally sell everything in plastic. Also, fossil fuel industry has lobbied for urban sprawl, and we literally have to drive places or we'd take the whole day to get there and back. You cannot live in the US without having an outsized impact on the planet because of systems. So, I hate they used the term human behavioral crisis. This is a capitalism crisis. I also do think, though, that we can be happier with less consumerism (fueled by capitalism). Women especially are convinced we're only clean and beautiful if we use lots of products. I love now that I understand at a core level that we're being sold shit we don't need, I can not shave and not wear makeup and feel MORE confident rather than less confident. But yeah, we have a lot of issues around consumerism, but I think this is because of capitalism and manufactured needs, lots of impact of corporations on our policies and structures.
This topic is right up my alley. We have created a resource and program to help those who want to do meaningful action on a variety of levels, and implore them toward aggregate actions through what seem to be practical common values (at least for many of us). One Year for Earth (1y4e) uses a super basic methodology in helping people to create a personal Strategic Action Plan and taking that into your school or workplace, club or community, and into the fragile future. Totally agree that demand drives supply, and we've seen what we can "do without" recently and how we might "do better" thanks to the pandemic, so why not try to push forward even if the battle is sooo uphill? We might be surprised that things can improve without major loss of quality of contemporary life. Like shifting to sustainable airline fuels and still flying... It's hard when so much backwards and terrifying stuff happens but there might be a "third way" in practical/pragmatic shifts in the value chain- especially in the US where the per capita emissions are so large. Check out the link to make your Sustainable Action Plan here (yes, shameless plugging but sent in the spirit of all good things: https://1y4e.org/sustainable-action-plan/
Take care & THANKS to Heated for your stellar work,
Our behavior is already changing, because for affluent people vacations are being disrupted and smoke is descending on cities 1000's of miles from fires. Ask Serge Schmemann of the NYT, in other words - or better, see Katie Couric talking about Serge Schmemann, here on her video channel with climate scientist Daniel Swain: https://youtu.be/Lt_XZtXp4G0.
re: people saying individual action did not work on tobacco (?) -- individual action is how anyone quits, as smoking is still legal. But also tens of millions of dollars of public information campaigns, changing norms, and once opinion had shifted, regulations, made it possible.
These six 10 minute films from Cambridge University Department of Engineering are worth a watch, and the principal researcher is worth an interview himself.
And Jared Starr would also be a good interview -- watch the video linked within, the disparity in both consumption footprint and more extremely in investment footprint is stark. 'Most Americans' are not the problem -- the core of the problem remains, ironically, many of the best-educated (and almost all of the wealthiest) Americans.
Agree that the problem of consumption and behavior is largely neglected, but the recent attention to the vast disparity among emitters within countries including the USA is helping to break the ice. I think that the opportunties for making excessive consumption less prestigious are huge but it often needs to be approached indirectly. An advantage of independent writers such as yourself is that it's probably easier not to depend on the conspicuously high consuming donors that frequectnt the boards of US NGOs and Enviros.
I recently read that Exxon Mobil, in a government filing, is counting on consumer resistance to behavior change, as justification for continued fossil fuel production. Changing human behavior requires a change of heart: according to Pope Francis, an ecological conversion. In Laudato Si', his 2015 encyclical, lays out the problem you're addressing. He was skeptical of technocratic solutions then. And he supports strongly what you are seeing: "... there’s vast political opportunity in imagining and pitching a future where our status and happiness is no longer based on the stuff we consume." As the song goes, consumerism is based on "looking for love in all the wrong places." A change of heart is not just an individual action; it's a community action. When groups of individuals show that what they value is a sustainable lifestyle, based on sufficiency and sobriety, the behavior of individuals is reinforced by the group. Faith-based climate activism can be a strong ally in this conversation.
Tackling climate anxiety has to go hand in hand with action, and I find that most climate communities don't hold space for emotions in their work. Today is the LAST day to enroll in the cozy Climate Solutions Cohort I'm hosting for the next 6 weeks (fully online). Transforming climate anxiety into meaningful action while building skills and coalition is our primary focus. Come make new friends!! Soapboxproject.org/community/join
Hey Emily - a few thoughts spring to mind reading this article. First, a film I used to teach with, many years ago, sadly feels just as relevant (if not more so) today: Surviving Progress (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sDdhA_qCfYw). Next, you might want to connect with my friend Kathy Trisolini who teaches law at Loyola and is writing a paper on local climate action in conservative districts. LMK if you'd like an intro!
As a wise man once said, “We buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people who don’t care.”
Counting on individuals to change their behavior is the least effective way to make change, per former CDC director Dr. Thomas Friedan's Health Impact Pyramid https://bit.ly/48yEfyF. Over 25+ years working on campaigns to change policy, I have absolutely found this to be true. The more effort that is needed from individuals, the less effective an intervention is. Policy changes to curb consumption could include increasing taxes by even a little, reducing availability of certain products or banning them, or making manufacturers responsible for their waste over the entire lifecycle of their products. Relying on individuals to change their behavior hasn't worked for tobacco or obesity, and it's unlikely to work for consumption.
The big issues for me are, in no particular order, the following:
1. Too much gratuitous and unnecessary travel...especially by air.
2. The meat and dairy "problem".
3. Too much waste and way too many biproducts from manufacturing.
4. Corporate greed ad the their need to just keep growing and pumping out useless stuff.
5. The oil and gas industry.
6. If we don't get this next election right it will all be for naught and none of this will matter because all our efforts will be stopped in their tracks.
I worry every day about the planet and where it will end up...often I feel powerless but I try to do what is best for the pice of the planet that I live in. Thanks for a very thought provoking article!