Why is it so hard to live sustainably?

Changing any behaviour is hard. Year in year out, our New Year’s resolutions get waylaid by daily life and our internal demons. We face the same difficulties with changing our environmental behaviours – with far graver costs for our future.

It’s important to understand why we find it so difficult to do what climate science demands. We need to recognise what are reasonable constraints and what are simply convenient excuses that keep us comfortably ensconced in our armchair environmentalism, pontificating on what others should be doing to protect our environmental future. Recognising the patterns that drive our behaviours allows us to catch ourselves before we repeat them. And when we understand that the barriers we face are common psychological traits, we can stop blaming and start sympathising with ourselves and others about the grief, loss, fear and powerlessness we feel about climate change. This acceptance is the start of change in most spiritual and psychological practices.

Perpetrator and victim

A useful starting point is recognising that we all have our foibles, remarkably similar despite our belief in our individuality. We are all both perpetrators and victims of climate change. Accepting this duality avoids getting distracted by accusations about who is not pulling their weight in the green game. A common rebuttal to the idea of an intergenerational apology is that other generations are responsible: boomers point the finger at GenZs flying off for long weekends, who blame the boomers for having done nothing to date. Both are right. Our consumption and political apathy make us offenders of climate breakdown that the global poor and future generations will have to pay for. At the same time, we are victims of a system focused on economic growth rather than individual and societal wellbeing.

Neo-liberalism, well-funded for decades, has sold us a lie that we can perpetually live bigger and better, and manipulated our societies and behaviours. The art of pushing consumerism, the life-blood of this ideology, has been honed through improved understanding of human psychology and masked by the myth of individual choice and personal growth, all nicely packaged in the addictive algorithms of social media and internet search engines. If you believe you’re independently choosing your next purchase, think of the estimated US$4 billion that Coca Cola, one of COP27 key sponsors, spends every year on convincing individuals – you – to buy their simple drink. And if you doubt the environmental and structural impact of buying that one bottle, read up on the plastic waste in our oceans and imagine their access to the COP decision makers shaping our environmental future, access denied to many civil society actors.

The study of environmental behaviour is extensive, going back decades. More than 90,000 academic articles were reviewed for chapter 5 of the 6th IPCC report, many based on mountains of academic research on other aspects of human behaviour. This wealth of knowledge needs to be continually distilled and made digestible for us non-experts so that we have the tools to change our behaviour and contribute to our loved ones’ climate future.

The internal voices fighting against changing your behaviour

Our behaviours are a battle ground for conflicting internal voices that keep us pinned to our armchair environmentalism, telling us that individuals can’t make a difference to the complex problem of climate change, or focusing us on the actions of our neighbours, friends, China and India rather than our own. We latch onto them as ‘valid’ excuses to avoid making the uncomfortable, inconvenient changes required for our environmental future.

Richard C. Schwartz developed on existing ideas of subpersonalities to formulate the internal family systems theory, which posits that we have a family of voices in our head, often conflicting and confusing, which influence our perceptions and behaviours: the scared child, the inner critic, the lecturing parent, the angry teenager – the range is as varied as our real-life families. Recognising, labeling and talking to these characters helps us resolve psychological and behavioural difficulties. The theory was popularised in the 2015 Pixar cartoon, Inside Out, enabling children to understand the confusing array of emotions they feel. I believe there is potential in applying it to the internal conflicts we experience about climate change. Labelling the voices in our head allows us to identify more easily when we are making excuses, and talking to them about why they are raising their voices allows us to move towards change. Below are just four characters, no doubt there are more. I leave it up to you to personalise their names.

Character 1 – status quo bias

Why fix something that’s not broken? The financial, tax and governance structures still work for the elite who control and influence the institutions of power, so it’s rational for them to use their power to maintain the system. It’s not working for those going on strike across the global north this winter, and climate science has proved it’s not working for our environmental future. Despite this, we still tend to decide in favour of what we know, defined in 1988 by behavioural economists William Samuelson and Richard Zeckhauser as the status quo bias in decision making.

This voice magnifies what we could lose rather than gain from living sustainably. It makes us feel deprived if we can’t fly off to our beach holiday, while underplaying the gains from changing our mindset: the joys of cocktails on the beach at sunset trump the touted benefits of living simpler lives and gifting our kids a liveable future. It tells us to ignore the risks of maintaining the status quo – explicitly spelt out by climate science – while quaking with fear at the risks of system change. Being afraid of the scale of change required to address climate change is logical. Ignoring the risks of doing nothing is highly illogical. Hoping that our wealth and some technological breakthrough will get us through the mess, it tells us to keep consuming and vote for the status quo.

Character 2 – cognitive dissonance

Cognitive dissonance sends our brains into a spin at the thought of climate change: its existential threat is incredibly hard to fathom, particularly for us in the global north who have experienced so many decades of relative stability and comfort. The mere mention of reducing meat, mobility and energy use run so contrary to our culture of immediate self-gratification that we turn away from climate reality, with its uncomfortable, frightening truths.

Recognising climate denial or apathy as a coping strategy to deal with overwhelming feelings of loss, grief and powerlessness in the face of climate change opens the door for positive ways to engage with this position. Likewise, it is helpful to understand the actions of climate activists throwing paint on precious art works and gluing themselves to highways as cognitive dissonance of the inaction and apathy towards the scientifically proven existential threat of climate change. We all have a voice of cognitive dissonance somewhere along this scale, telling us that what is happening is unbelievable and too hard to tackle.  

Character 3 – social norms theory

Polls across the globe attest to increasing concern about the environment, an encouraging step away from climate denial. However, a 2021 study of US public support for climate mitigation found that a whopping 80-90% of Americans falsely perceive support by their fellow citizens for mitigation policies. This can be explained by the theory of social norms: we may falsely believe that others in our various networks think and act in the same way as we do, thereby normalising what can be individual dysfunctional behaviour; or we may believe the opposite, that our thoughts and actions are unique, leading us to disassociate from our networks.

The voice provides us a convenient excuse to do nothing; why bother when no-one else is. It is reflected in the politicisation and intergenerational accusations of climate change. It undermines people’s willingness to discuss and mobilize around the issue, reducing the social and political pressure to act. Those profiting from environmental exploitation own the media and technology to manipulate this voice in order to maintain the status quo: a classic case of divide and conquer.

Character 4 – discounting risk

We struggle everyday between instant and delayed gratification. The marketing world bombards us with messages that tips us towards the former: win now, only 2 seats left, only 1 room left. Buying an SUV provides us with better safety now, discounting its impact on our environmental future.  When we do plan for the future, it is framed in economic or health terms: we save for our retirement, our kids’ education, our future health. In the battle for our consumption, environmental considerations come last. To reclaim an economic used for decades to stall investment in renewable energies, we discount the future costs to those we love when we listen to the voice telling us to prioritise our current needs and desires.

The gap between intentions and behaviour

Despite all the discouragement from the family in your head, you’ve finally decided to go green. Climate headlines are increasingly disturbing, the unpredictable weather patterns have made climate change real to you, the science is getting clearer. What now? Do you just quiet that cacophony in your head and get on with it?

Sadly, it’s not that easy: research has found a gap between our intention to act green and our actual behaviour.[1] We know this gap from our other behaviours. When did you last say, ‘I had good intentions to (go for a run, call you, get up early, got to bed early, stop smoking, start exercising) but ….’? We don’t even have to finish the sentence to create a valid excuse. That combination ‘good intentions … but’ assumes that the person you’re speaking to understands and sympathises with your lapse.   

Our best intentions to act in favour of the environment get waylaid by factors ranging from the system we live in through to conflicting values and priorities through to slight inconveniences. Some people can’t reduce their consumption: they’re locked into behaviours they wouldn’t choose, like using cars in big cities due to under-funded public transport systems or urban sprawl. Many simply can’t afford more expensive green food and energy options. Juggling work and family commitments to children, ageing parents or sick relatives deprioritises everything else in our lives. A stubborn, moody meat-eater in the family can stymie efforts to reduce meat consumption at home. A drop of rain makes us jump in the car instead of taking the bike. That long-awaited holiday on a far-away beach at the end of an incredibly hectic, stressful year almost feels like a human right. For some, social status overrides all good intentions.

Acting as a green citizen throws up the same challenges. Voting is often one of those last-minute things that we haven’t had time to properly consider and so vote for the status quo – out goes effective climate mitigation policies that may appear to cost more when the costs of doing nothing aren’t recognised.  Other acts of citizenship, like taking part in community initiatives goes the way of all the other extra-curricular activities that can’t be squeezed into our overly busy lives. Concerns about the impact of changing the status quo on certain segments of society, such as farmers, can also dampen our intentions – although, of course, doing nothing will create far more havoc.  Although these factors depend on our individual physical, financial and emotional situation, they can lead to same result – inaction.   

It’s not a game of all or nothing

Thinking we have to do it perfectly or not all makes it impossible to realize our good intentions. More cynically, framing climate action as an all or nothing is an effective way to keep people in their environmental armchairs. The attacks on Greta Thunberg’s green credentials are a deceptively simple distraction to discourage people from even trying to start out on their journey to live sustainably.

Going green doesn’t mean going back to the cave. We can still use cars, electricity, fly, eat meat, live in houses with heating. However, if we can reduce how many of these things we use and do, and if we vote for real action that enables governments to regulate and finance a rapid transformation to sustainable economic and energy systems, then we can make a real contribution to our kids’ liveable future.

For the Swiss Overshoot Day on 13 May 2022, WWF launched a campaign that showcased the daily compromises made by people who have chosen to live sustainably. ‘Our planet, climate and biodiversity don’t need one person to act perfectly. They need millions who act imperfectly. We can have a huge impact in this way.’, explained Corian Gyssler.

Saying sorry to our internal voices

An interesting application of the climate apology is to apologise to that family in your head for no longer being able to do their bidding because you’re going to change your behaviours as a consumer and citizen. If that’s a step too far into psychobabble for you, say sorry to yourself as an expression of sympathy that living sustainably will involve overcoming ingrained habits and excuses that have become comfortable and convenient.

We don’t have a choice. The effects of climate change will force themselves upon us sooner rather later. Better to consciously change and shape our behaviours and socio-economic system rather than respond chaotically. The good news is that, like confronting most of our inner demons, it’s not as hard as we fear it’s going to be. And in doing so, we give our loved ones the best gift possible – a liveable climate future. Together, we’ve got this.

[1] Kollmus, A. 2002 Mind the Gap:  Why do people act environmentally and what are the barriers to pro-environmental behaviour?. Environmental Education Research 8(3)

One thought on “Why is it so hard to live sustainably?

  1. As usual, thoughtfully provocative. This blog is the defibrilator we need to restart.
    Re over-consumption, one thing that really seems to be making a difference to people’s choices/decisions is the hit to the hip pocket. As interest rates rise, so it seems do our concerns. Perhaps the battle govts face in taming inflation is one way to reboot our thinking and, consequently, our actions. At least when it comes to spending.

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