I had a run-in with my armchair environmentalist (AE) again last night. I had to go to a meeting of a local environmental group I’m in. Of course, it’s pretty uncool to turn up to an environmental meeting by car, but sometimes I have no choice. Last night, though, I had loads of time.
That was the starting point of an absurd, internal dialogue. AE shot back with a grim weather forecast – rain. I checked the forecast again – yes, it might rain, but I hadn’t yet lost my one sturdy umbrella and thought I could manage the walk to the train station without risking either my health or my mascara.
AE: Yes, but you could get a couple of extra things done if you took the car – put on a load of washing, finally send those emails you’ve been putting off.
Me: No, I shouldn’t – gotta walk the talk when possible.
AE: But if you took the car, you could get the shopping done on the way – everything done in one trip.
Me: But for once I have plenty of time to go by pubic transport so I should make the effort – it’s embarrassing always coming by car.
Then – and it’s hard to admit it – my AE quickly identified all the parking places where I could hide my car close enough to the meeting and pretend I’d come by train.
Me: Really, could I?? No, for sure I’ll get caught out.
I won’t bore you – or further embarrass myself – with the rest of it. Needless to say, I didn’t succumb to its sneaky suggestions, or I wouldn’t have written this post. Ridiculously, I feel a sense of pride in doing the right thing. What finally swayed me was both social pressure from the group and appreciating that it was a simple thing I could do for my kids. Any downsides? I don’t feel like I lost an hour of my life. It passed pleasantly enough – and I got in some exercise, a little reading and a chance to think mindless nothings.
Daily life is packed with small decisions that impact the climate interests of our loved ones. Your AE may be scoffing at your paltry efforts to mitigate climate change, but you don’t have to listen. the simplification of the complexity of climate mitigation.This dissonance, between the complexity of the system we are part of and the simplicity of what we can need to do as individual citizens and consumers, is a great excuse to do nothing:
AE: Your 10-minute car ride has zero impact on reaching net-zero – we need big-picture, global solutions.
Me: Yes, we do. But, equally, we need everyone in the system to do what they can.
Atmospheric CO2 concentration is at its highest-ever level, caused by human activity – billions of small actions like unnecessary car-trips that have accumulated into the damage facing our loved ones. Converesly, small decisions to act and vote green result in less CO2 emissions and a change of mind-set that guarantees them a livable climate.
I might have to take my car next time, but that’s OK – like any healthy relationship, it’s about compromise not all-or-nothing, and I just proved to my AE that catching the train is doable – even enjoyable. So I’ll do it again.
Incredibly, half of the world’s population is observing a religious celebration this weekend – Easter, Ramadan or Passover. We could also add those who identify as spiritual, currently experiencing the rebirth of spring in the northern hemisphere. Next week, the world’s billion or so Hindus celebrate their New Year.
Regardless of whether it’s a deeply religious experience or simply a chance to enjoy some time off, every second person is touched in some way this weekend by humankind’s efforts to imbue our short time on this earth with greater meaning and depth than that proffered by daily life and the relentless commercialisation of our lives.
Imagine half of the world’s population responding this weekend to these religious messages of love and caring; every second person turning towards the relationships that sustain us as social beings and committing to lives that protect the physical environment we need to survive as animals.
Imagine this weekend as a social tipping point where enough of us commit to carrying on the stewardship of this earth that we received from our predecessors and gift it to those we love.
Imagine one out of two of us this weekend finally recognising that our loved ones need us to say no to meat, flying, and buying more stuff, and no to financing the fossil fuel industry, and yes to taxing carbon.
Imagine that every second person realized that it’s not so difficult to do, and that the benefits far outweigh the costs of doing nothing.
Half of us simply need to listen to the messages of love and wisdom that surround us this weekend.
Tik Tok’s latest life hack, the scary hour, is the perfect time and space to plan our actions for the climate future of our loved ones.
We’ve tied ourselves up in knots trying to stay upbeat about the existential threat of climate change: our need for positive messaging, incentives and nudges make a great parody – aka Don’t Look Up. We have blind faith in technologies that either don’t exist, or not yet at scale. People who go rogue from the positivity script are ferociously branded as scare mongerers, wet blankets or naive and ignorant. It has created a lurking dissonance, wafting around us like a bad smell, between what the world’s brightest minds have been telling us for the last five decades and what we tell ourselves to avoid changing our behaviours.
So how refreshingly honest to hear the words ‘scary hour’. It’s the latest TikTok trend from Laur Wheeler, proposed as a life hack to deal with those horrible things that we procrastinate about, like paying bills, getting the leak fixed, seeing the dentist, replying to that 3-week old email and calling the in-laws. It’s a cute way to make the unmanageable manageable by naming and dedicating a time and space to it. Whether it’s once a day or once a week is up to you. The important thing is that, once done, you can move onto the more rewarding parts of your life feeling a lot lighter.
Scary hour is the perfect place to finally address our individual actions on climate change – obviously because climate change is scary, which is why we procrastinate about it. But also because, like going to the dentist, it involves discomfort and who wants that? But spending just some of those 60 minutes on what I can do about my loved one’s climate future could be transformational.
plan what you want to say to your family and friends about this – super scary!
Scary hour is about facing up to our armchair environmentalist, that voice in our heads whispering that our steak has no impact on global CO2 emissions, that there’s point trying when our neighbours just flew to Timbuktu for their hols, that some expert will find a technology to save us, that we deserve more. It’s scary to think of missing out on our comforts and conveniences, but we have to say, “Sorry, mate (dude, bro, love, darlin’ etc), I’m not going to listen to your excuses anymore. I’m finally going to do what I can because I love the people in my life enough to take these easy steps.” As with most scary things in life, this first step is often more difficult than the subsequent actions.
Suddenly, you’ll find yourself acting as a climate mitigator, effectively contributing to the climate future of your loved ones. And you’ll be influencing others in your life to do the same – causing the ripples that create the waves of change.
2023 has started with some inspiring stories of individuals doing what they can to address climate change. How can we translate our admiration for them into personal action?
The starting point is to change the pronoun:”That’s what everyoneI should be doing.” It’s then important to frame this question with realistic expectations. We’re used to getting things, not giving them up. Unlike these guys, our actions probably won’t make the headlines or feed our need for immediate gratification and ‘likes’. So it’s hard to get motivated about living sustainably, which isn’t aligned with what we define as sexy, fun and successful.
Although climate responsibility for our loved ones can seem like just another chore in our busy lives, sustainable living addresses a deeper emotional need than that part shaped by individualism and consumer capitalism. Acting in the interests of our loved ones fulfills our need for connection and purpose.
Recognising, acknowledging and changing our behaviours as citizens and consumers, relative and friend, worker and boss, investor and social media user is easier when we do it in the interests of those we love.
At this year’s World Economic Forum, members of the super rich continued their years-long campaign for the introduction of wealth taxes. Given that they’ll still be left with billions, it’s easy enough to dismiss their campaign as a no-brainer. Except for the fact that us mere mortals consistently vote against increases in progressive taxes.
Such taxes would provide our governments with the revenue needed to address climate mitigation and adaption, such as the the Loss and Damage fund agreed at COP27. Think that’s not your problem? If we in the the global north don’t address the climate injustice facing the global south, our loved ones will face the fallout of unbelievable levels of forced migration, making the 2015 controversy of Germany taking in 1 million refugees look like child’s play.
Vote and advocate for the climate future of your loved ones.
In refusing to fly from Britain to Australia, 16 year-old athlete, Innes Fitzgerald, prioritised her climate anxiety and the climate needs of others above the opportunity to compete in the World Athletics Competition.
“I was just nine when the COP21 Paris Climate agreement was signed. Now, eight years on, and global emissions have been steadily increasing, sending us on a path to climate catastrophe. Sir David King, former government chief scientific advisor, has said, ‘What we do, I believe, in the next three to four years will determine the future of humanity.’ The science is clear. Turning this around is only possible through transformational change from collective and personal action.
I would never be comfortable flying in the knowledge that people could be losing their livelihoods, homes and loved ones as a result. The least I can do is voice my solidarity with those suffering on the front line of climate breakdown. Coming to a decision has not been easy, however little compares to the grief I would feel taking the flight.”
Recognising our own fear, grief and loss, and the feelings of our loved ones, can make us bury our heads deeper in the sand – or galvanise us into action. Think of the future of your loved ones and choose action. Reduce the emissions you’re leaving them by changing your mobility decisions. Reduce your meat consumption. Reduce your energy consumption through how you heat and cool, and what ‘stuff’ you buy and use. The emissions created in the production of the new toy you want to buy belong to you, not the factory in China.
Add your voice and action to those being taken by others around the world. Yes, it’s hard to shift from being an observer to a mitigator, but the climate future of your loved ones is worth the effort and initial sense of sacrifice.
Despite our belief to the contrary, we’re all pretty similar. When it comes to climate change, most of us deal with it by telling ourselves some version of: it won’t be that bad; they’ll have found a technological solution by then; my actions make no difference; it’s their (read China, India, my neighbours, etc) fault; the bloody politicians should do more; why I should live sustainably when no-one else is; it’s my right to choose how I live; or, I deserve to enjoy what I’ve worked for.
These voices provide the excuses we need to pursue lifestyles that are unsustainable and selfishly put our own interests above those of others, including our loved ones. They make us apathetic about the most urgent crisis we face as individuals.
“The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it.”
Robert Swan, polar explorer and environmentalist
Internal family systems as a tool to find our motivation
We struggle to find the the motivation in our busy lives to argue against these convincing messages. Identifying and engaging with them as a character makes it easier. This pathway to climate behaviour change is based on Internal Family Systems therapy, developed by American psychotherapist Richard C. Schwartz in the 1980s. IFShelps individuals identify various internal parts and galvanise them into being constructive actors in daily life. It extends on the idea of the inner child, first brought to the west from eastern philosophies by Carl Jung, and it was the idea behind the acclaimed 2015 Pixar cartoon, Inside Out, which enabled children to understand the confusing array of emotions they feel.
Bundled together, the internal messages that discourage us from acting green make up our internal armchair environmentalist. AE for short, it poses alongside AI one of society’s greatest challenges. Coming from a long line of armchair politicians, it’s a character I’m familiar with. It drip-feeds me these arguments, allowing me to lean back into my comforts and rendering me blind to my own culpability over the last four decades. It lets me off the hook from making inconvenient lifestyle changes.
AE ‘s goal is not to hurt me. Rather, it tries to protect me from the personal emotional and practical difficulties posed by climate change. By outsourcing responsibility, it pacifies my sense of helplessness and fear in the face of a catastrophe I can now see and feel in my daily life. It’s lets me ignore a consumption addiction that seems too entrenched to tackle. It masks the loss I feel at the prospect of changes to the lifestyle and values that I define myself by. In short, it’s an internal movie of a great hero swooping in at the last minute to save my loved ones’ future which I watch on loop while stuffing popcorn in my mouth.
AE’s messages arise from common human responses to perceived threats and desires. We tend to stick to thestatus quoin the face of change and dissonance; adapt our behaviours according to our misperception of others’ behaviour; prefer short rather than long-term gratification, and in fulfilling this preference, are adept at deferring risk. They complement our other internal fears of loss – from loss of our comforts and convenience, to money, identity, status and power. Its messages find fertile ground in our lifestyles and values, shaped by economic and social structures that promote and reinforce our individualism, competitiveness and addiction to consumption.
“Why should I apologise?”
The purpose of an individual climate apology is to bring us face-to face with our AE, which immediately demands, “Why the hell should I apologise and change?” The scientific answer is that we have no choice. Sadly, however, we don’t listen to the science. More than four decades of facts and figures and mountains of information hasn’t moved us.
The other answer pulls on our heart strings: because we love and are responsible for others in our lives. This response gives voice to another internal part, one that the world’s religions and philosophies argue is deeper and stronger than Adam Smith’s portrayal of human nature as greedy and competitive. Love, for those around us.
The climate apology turns us away from our own interests towards those of our loved ones. It asks us to recognise the reality facing our loved ones. This requires empathy, a key trait of environmentally friendly behaviours. When we understand that our AE convinces us to behave in ways that run contrary to their interests, we can also turn this empathy inwards. It’s not that we are inherently selfish and greedy, but have been out-maneuvered by these internal messages and external realities of jobs, bills, individualism, consumerism and competition.
Seeing someone we love suffer generally provokes a response. We’ll offer anything from a hug and word of sympathy through to hefty practical and emotional support because we believe that our actions can help, or at least provide comfort. And so it is with climate change. Basic lifestyle changes (reducing meat and energy use, reassessing mobility choices) and serious acts of citizenry (e.g. voting & responsible banking) are practical, easy steps that can help our loved ones look at their future more hopefully. Regardless of whether you are willing to dwell on your past climate wrong-doings, acknowledging and enacting the power you hold as a loved one and citizen, consumer and social media user, worker and colleague, friend and neighbour is beneficial to your loved ones both in terms of their future climate and their current mental health.
Sorry as a motivational word
The climate apology doesn’t aim to accuse or create guilt, but to lead people towards sustainable living by confronting us with our love and responsibility for those in our lives. The world’s religions and philosophies have always espoused our interconnectedness as the key to personal fulfillment. Economic models based on well-being and decent living standards do the same. But we find it difficult to find a personal path to this ancient wisdom when it comes to climate change.
That horribly overused word ‘sorry’ can become a daily trigger to keep drawing on our love to counteract our AE. Stop for a moment; see this as an Opportunity for the future of your loved ones; Reflect on your diverse roles as a consumer and citizen: Reduce and vote for change; and focus on what You can do for Your loved ones.
Focusing on your own actions in the interests of your loved ones effectively counteracts AE’s message that you can do nothing. You might even say sorry to your AE for not listening to it anymore. Saying sorry to ourselves is an expression of empathy for that difficult task of pulling ourselves up out of our comfy, safe armchairs.
As with so many things, the dread of sacrifice and hard work is far worse than the reality. Living sustainably for our loved ones doesn’t lead us back to the cave – that’s AE talking. Voting for serious climate policies and reducing your consumption of energy and meat changes little in your daily life; it does, however, have a big impact on the family, kinship and social networks to which you belong, all of which are essential parts of the global system requiring urgent mitigation and adaptation action.
And the personal benefits for you? Apart from becoming a great role model for those you love, you might find a gradual reduction in the dissonance created by pretending that everything is OK as climate change unleashes its fury around us. Action is a very effective antidote to climate anxiety. And in the process, you might also find that your armchair environmentalist turns into a determined climate mitigator.
Right now, your AE may well be telling you that this is all wishy-washy, psycho-babble bullshit – an aggressive reaction to a serious challenge. Don’t listen. These are the same ancient wisdoms and internal processes of change that have been repackaged and sold to us for billions of dollars as mindfulness, positive thinking and manifestation. If we believe in it when it’s packaged for consumption, we can believe in it for the future of our loved ones.
So, draw on that part of yourself that feels love and responsibility for those in your life. This leads us towards fulfilling our responsibility to do all we can to contribute to a livable climate future. Together, we’ve got this.
Governments can’t and won’t act without our demands and votes. So let’s use our power as consumers, citizens, parents, workers, colleagues, neighbours and friends – as climate mitigators – to demand a livable future for our loved ones. Do what is within your personal, financial and emotional capacity.
Reduce personal emissions in the areas of energy, mobility and meat consumption. There’s no need to tangle yourself up in knots about it – before each consumption decision simply ask yourself if it’s really in the best climate interests of your loved ones – and yourself. Most of the time it’s not and you can get back to enjoying yourself without that ‘thing’. Focus on high impact actions – mobility choices, meat, and energy consumption. And remember, the emissions from the new ‘thing’ you want to buy belongs to you, not the factory in China, Bangladesh or Pakistan.
Talk to your family and friends about your decision. There’s no need to argue about it – you’re only responsible for your own actions, but it’s good to share your story.
Vote for your government to meet its COP27/15 commitments if you’ve got an election coming up in your area. This includes financing – progressive tax increases for those who can afford it are going to be far cheaper than the future costs of doing nothing.
Demand that your political party develop and implement policies to meet their COP27/15 commitments. This includes financing – the future costs of doing nothing will be far higher for your loved ones.
Join a local environmental initiative.
Donate to and fund green initiatives.
There’s a tonne of information online if you’re not sure where to start. But if in doubt, just start with the word ‘sorry’.
S – stop
O – opportunity for positive change for the future of your loved ones
R – reflect
R – reduce
Y – for you and yours.
And if you find yourself flagging during the year, think of your loved ones living through these unpredictable and often ferocious weather patterns, and say ‘sorry’ as an expression of sympathy for this new reality and an acknowledgement that we didn’t do enough in past years to ensure our governments kept their commitments.
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. 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.
 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)
I’m writing this as an expert at giving up smoking. I’ve done it many times. I know how to avoid smoking that one cigarette that will kick-start my habit. I can just as easily light it up while convincing myself that the amount I smoke isn’t really a problem. But when I listen to that voice of addiction in my head, reassuring me that I’ll be calmer, happier, more relaxed after I smoke, I fall straight into that spiral of having my days and thoughts dictated by when and where I can manage to have a ciggie. I sympathise fully with smokers. But I also get why we’re social pariahs – it’s smelly, dirty and costs our health systems a fortune.
Alan Carr’s aptly named book, Stop Smoking, was my bible for a few years. It’s his messages that go round in my head when I manage to avoid taking that first cigarette. In his conclusion, he deplores the hypocrisy of social attitudes to addiction. “As a society we get uptight about glue sniffing and heroin addiction. Compared with cigarette smoking, these problems are mere pimples in our society.”
I’ve been asking myself recently why we get so worked up about smoking while continuing to destroy the lungs of the planet. Our concern with smoking seems highly exaggerated in the face of the pollution emitted by our high-consumption lifestyles. It’s inconsistent and illogical that I am not allowed to sit and smoke outside at a restaurant in Australia when people are free to drive past me in their outsized SUVs to pick up some milk, or fly to Bali for their annual holiday.
Let’s start viewing consumption from our anti-smoking lens. Obviously smoking is bad for me, and those around me; those SUVs are also bad for me, and those around me. Our over-consumption is a dirty, smelly, expensive habit that is killing the environment we need to survive. We’ve known this for roughly 40 years and yet we continue to ramp up our consumption. Which means either we are really stupid or we are addicted. Either way, let’s frame it as a problem and throw at it everything we can to reduce it.
Am I being facetious? About the addiction, no. Governments and the fossil fuel industry have known about the impact on the climate of burning fossil fuels for decades. But in the pursuit of their profits, we have been manipulated into consuming at a level far beyond our interests, and those of our kids. Governments implore us to consume to prop up our growth-based economic model. Shopping therapy is bandied around as a quick fix for life’s low moments. Ever-sophisticated marketing techniques, developed to trigger certain psychological responses, and the omnipresent social media and its influencers peddle new products and trends at an ever-increasing rate that we are told will make us happier, more efficient, more intelligent, more-fulfilled – simply more and more. But the fact that we go out and buy the next big thing shows how we are being manipulated. Just as smoking that cigarette doesn’t make me more relaxed or less stressed, so buying that shiny new thing doesn’t make me any happier. In both cases I’m just feeding an addiction. The only difference is that we are told that consumption is actually good for us.
We banished the Marlboro Man from our screens because he was manipulating us into smoking. So let’s banish those over-consuming stars, bros and influencers peddling their lifestyles and goods to fund their private jets and stuff and more stuff, whose footprint will be paid for by our kids. Let’s stop talking about shopping therapy as something helpful and start stigmatising our shopping addiction – that vacuous reflex of buying stuff that distracts us like a flashy bauble distracts an infant. Let’s stick a picture of dried-up rivers in south-west USA on the side of that fancy new SUV. Let’s require all online purchases to be delivered in packaging that show pictures of glaciers 20 years ago and now. And let’s slap taxes on luxury goods that actually reflect the emissions and mitigation costs of the whole production process – from raw material through to the end of the product’s life. That might deter some of our over consumption, just as higher taxes have deterred smokers.
OK, some of these suggestions are moot, because there’s no way industries will allow governments to do this – particularly as we seem hesitant to vote for political parties and policies that favour a healthy environment for our children. However, just playing with such ideas can change how we frame our role as consumers. Will we continue to allow ourselves to be manipulated for company profit when it goes against the interests of those we love?
Framing consumption as an addiction doesn’t mean we have to completely stop consuming. In his fascinating book, The Day the World Stops Shopping, J. B. Mackinnon explores the repercussions of a 25% reduction in consumption on individuals, societies and global economics. He concludes that while a starting goal of a 5% reduction would hardly be felt, it would lead us towards the mindset required to make deeper reductions – towards a willingness and curiosity to rethink how our society and economy is structured, and how and why we consume ever bigger and ever more. He is hopeful that we can address our shopping addiction by understanding the benefits of lower consumption. “The evidence suggests that life in a lower-consuming society really can be better, with less stress less work or more meaningful work, and more time for the people and things that matter most.”
One of my sadder experiences was finding, after his death, the AA bible in the bedside drawer of someone I loved very dearly, who had been unable to sustain his sobriety. It struck me as such a terrible tragedy: although he never managed it, overcoming his addiction had remained his private, most deep-seated desire until the very end. How awfully sad for the young people in our lives if we are not able to recognise, address and overcome our addiction to our current level of consumption, a level that is destroying their future.
So how do we start to reframe our consumption levels as a damaging addiction?
We could wait for eternity for governments and corporations to slap those warnings on their products. Or we can take responsibility for our own individual consumption patterns and vote for them to finally do something.
Start close to home, by realizing the effect our consumption is having on our kids’ future. The sorry of the climate apology can be the message going round in our heads before buying that next thing, reminding us that the young people in our lives are going to have to clean up after us.
Stop before I buy or consume. Take a moment to think about whether it’s really necessary to leave that CO2 footprint for my kids to deal with.
Reducing my consumption is an opportunity to address the current crisis, and to step into my role as an elder and role model by curtailing my excessive lifestyle in the interest of my young people’s future.
Think about how, why and what I consume. What difference will this particular act of consumption make to my life? Can that be achieved in another way? What would happen if I didn’t buy / use / do it?
Recognise that I am not freely choosing what I consume but have been and am constantly being manipulated to consume for profit margins. Recognise what it is that appeals to me when I consume unnecessarily. Can I meet this need in another way?
You and yours
Addressing my consumption patterns is important for the future of the young people in my life.
Not everyone will be able or willing to overcome their addiction. And it won’t be linear. But if enough of us are willing to make a start, then we can make a significant difference.
Addressing climate change projects us into the future; looking back at climate mitigation highlights our inaction. Focusing on the future buys us more time to consume while we deliberate on the best course of action; knowing the past goads us into finally taking the action that was deemed necessary 40 years.
The 27th meeting. They met for the first COP in 1995.
But 1995 was not the first time that governments had recognised the necessity to limit the impact of human growth on nature.
Back in 1992 governments met in Rio for the Earth Summit. This was the first post-cold-war effort to move forward together in a sustainable way, recognising the disastrous impact of unlimited growth on our environment. It was here that the UNFCCC was negotiated, with 154 governments committing themselves to “preventing dangerous anthropogenic interference with Earth’s climate system”.
Page 2 of the UNFCCC is easy reading, making explicitly clear the threat our economic activity has on the very environment we need to survive.
Acknowledging that change in the Earth’s climate and its adverse effects are a common concern of humankind.
Concerned that human activities have been substantially increasing the atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, that these increases enhance the natural greenhouse effect, and that this will result on average in an additional warming of the Earth’s surface and atmosphere and may adversely affect natural ecosystems and humankind.
But the Rio Earth summit was also not the first gathering of concerned leaders. Back in December 1988, the UN established the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) as an independent body to provide scientific evidence on climate change, its impact and possible responses. Since its inception, the IPCC has delivered six comprehensive scientific reports about climate change, in addition to a plethora of issue-based reports as requested. Despite three decades of attempts by the fossil fuel industry to discredit its findings, the findings of the IPCC have, very sadly, proved correct.
And before the IPCC in 1988?
Just a few months earlier, in June 1988, Dr. James Hansen, then director of NASA’s Institute for Space Studies, made international headlines by stating, “Global warming has reached a level such that we can ascribe with a high degree of confidence a cause-and-effect relationship between the greenhouse effect and observed warming…In my opinion, the greenhouse effect has been detected, and it is changing our climate now.”
And the precursor to this? In the previous year, 1987, the UN World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), published what became known as the Brundtland Report. The culmination of 4 years of research, the report documented “environmental trends that threaten to radically alter the planet, that threaten the lives of many species upon it, including the human species.” In the Chairman’s Comments introducing the report, Dr. Gro Brundtland, stated,
‘…. If we do not succeed in putting our message of urgency through to today’s parents and decision makers, we risk undermining our children’s fundamental right to a healthy, life-enhancing environment. Unless we are able to translate our words into a language that can reach the minds and hearts of people young and old, we shall not be able to undertake the extensive social changes needed to correct the course of development.
We call for a common endeavour and for new norms of behaviour at all levels and in the interests of all. The changes in attitudes, in social values, and in aspirations that the report urges will depend on vast campaigns of education, debate and public participation.
1972 was also a big year: there was the Stockholm Declaration and the landmark report, The Limits to Growth, both of which brought to public attention the reality of climate change due to human economic activity.
We can look back across 50 years of scientific knowledge and yet we find ourselves in a far more precarious situation than when concerns were first raised.
We are living the prediction.
Greta Thunberg has every right to dismiss the process as blah-blah. Here we are on the eve of the 27th COP, and emissions are keeping pace with our scientific understanding of the very threat they pose to our existence.
And where was I?
Somewhere between the release of the Brundtland report and the Rio Earth summit, I was taught about the importance of sustainability. Not some dry lecture in a stuffy, overcrowded hall. I was taken on a tour of a sustainable farm run by a professor who explained to us the need for sustainable living due to the impact that our economic growth was having on the environment.
I saw real climate action. But I turned away because it wasn’t very sexy. I was on the cusp of my adult life and was determined to gather as many memorable experiences as possible. I lived my life, as was the craze at the time, according to the death-bed theory – will I regret not having done this when I’m lying on my death bed?
I have no doubt that I read about the COP gatherings each year, but I was caught up in the machine of our system. I travelled – I worked to travel and I travelled for work. I thought vegetarians were pretty fringe, and by the early 2000s when they were no longer fringe, I thought they were just hard to cook for. I don’t remember thinking too much about my consumption. If I did, I’m sure that any weak sentiment was conveniently quelched by doubts about the impact of my individual actions – although I voted in every election because I believed in the importance of my vote.
While I never got sucked into climate denial, heavily sponsored by the fossil-fuel industry, I also never voted green and I never demanded that the parties I voted for had a green platform. My government participated in the G7, G8, G20 and all the others without my mandate and explicit demand to decouple from the fossil fuel industry and do something about climate change.
Arrogantly assuming myself to be a free-thinker, I was gently lulled through the system by the culture of individualism, and economic and personal growth. Lulled and made dull by the comforts of being among the exclusive minority of the extremely fortunate who benefit from our global neo-liberal economic order.
Until recently, I didn’t play my part as demanded way back in the 1987 Brundtland report. I assumed and expected that it would be done by others – elsewhere – while I continued enjoying my growing list of privileges, which I had come to view as my right.
An explicit role for individuals
In February 2022, the IPCC released its 6th report on climate change mitigation and for the first time, a whole chapter was devoted to the role of human behaviour – specifically, how to get us in our roles as consumers, citizens, professionals, workers and business owners, role models, investors and policy makers to change to a low-carbon lifestyle. It stated categorically that changing individual action is an essential piece of the complex puzzle that is climate mitigation. We may find it convenient to believe that our individual actions don’t matter, but the very scientists who predicted the current environmental crisis are telling us they do.
We’re going to be forced to reduce our heating this year due to conflict in the Ukraine, just as we were forced to reduce our flying during Corona. But how do we get ourselves to do this, at the same time as shifting to a plant-based diet, for the long term? And permanently.
We can wait for nudges, but a nudge is a pretty mild, ineffectual action. They have been shown to work for smaller issues but not to make harder choices and sustain action in the long term. Anyone who grew up with Benny Hill and his ‘nudge, nudge, wink, wink’ humour will see nudges as a free pass to do whatever they want.
We can wait for government-imposed price incentives. Unfortunately, we often have to vote for them and most of us don’t vote against our own back pocket.
For me, the penny dropped when my young teenagers demanded to know why they were being taught about climate change at school but not doing anything about it at home – not us, not our family, nor most of our friends. Of course, I could explain the very complex puzzle of international actors, treaties, sovereignty, corporate interests, lobby groups and permanent consumption-based growth that underpins anthropogenic climate change.
Yes, they said, very interesting. But why are we eating meat again for dinner?
And in these conversations, I found that after all the justifications I could find for my inaction, all I could really say was sorry. In saying sorry, I was saying two things. Firstly, I was acknowledging and expressing sympathy for the fact that they will have to make choices that I avoided taking for 4 decades. They will not be able to enjoy the high-consumption lifestyle that I have enjoyed and taken for granted. Secondly, I was apologising for the mistakes I had made and the things I had done – and not done – in these decades.
Research has shown that feelings of empathy and a belief in the power of one’s individual action underpins climate-friendly behaviour: if I feel for the suffering that climate change will inflict on others and I believe that my actions can make a difference, then I am more likely to adopt and sustain climate-friendly behaviours like reducing meat, energy consumption and flying, and voting for green policies.
But how do we trigger these emotions in ourselves?
I believe the solution is right among us – it is found in our relationship to the young people in our lives, and the responsibility we have towards them as elders, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, godparents, colleagues and neighbours.
Perhaps our young people don’t want to talk about climate change or change their own consumption patterns – after all, we’ve raised them to be consumers as well. But we can’t use their reticence as an excuse to do nothing ourselves. In whatever role we hold as an elder, we have a responsibility to act in their best current and future interests: just as we send them to school when they don’t want to go, so we can reduce our family consumption when they don’t want to. This is essential to ensure their future environment is livable. But it is also essential in developing the resilience we are going to need to cope with the loss and damage that climate change is starting to unleash on our current way of life.
Why an apology?
Apologies are overused in our culture. However, they also carry significance and a weight that is appropriate to this crisis we face. I was told about the climate crisis 40 years ago and I did nothing. That is an incredible failure.
An apology acknowledges both the severity of this crisis and of my mistake.
It is a pause in my everyday habit of consumption.
It requires me to recognise the reality of the young people in my life – to empathise with them, as well as to acknowledge my role in the damage, thereby accepting the importance of my actions.
But most importantly, an apology is about changing the behaviour that has caused harm. And this is key. The apology is not about blaming ourselves or others. It does not seek to accuse and divide between who eat less meat and those who eat more, between those who flew this last summer and those who didn’t. The process is not linear and it is not the same for everyone. It is not competitive – it is not relevant what others are doing or not doing. Rather, it is a process that leads an individual towards making amends by changing their own behaviour because of their relationship with the younger people in their life.
So in the lead-up to this 27th COP, let’s commemorate our climate inaction by apologising to those we love. Individual action can be transformative. Together, we’ve got this.
Let’s talk through our concerns about our individual impact in order to find answers instead of using them as an excuse to do nothing.
It’s great to start talking with people about the idea of an intergenerational climate apology. Not being prescriptive, it is interesting to see how people interpret it differently and find varying degrees of relevance. Two concerns seem to arise pretty quickly: firstly, people are quick to point out that it is often young people who are still jet setting around for quick breaks; and secondly, reducing our consumption will lead to economic collapse.
Both are legitimate issues that need to be discussed – and this is key. What we cannot continue doing is using our questions and concerns as excuses to do nothing about our emissions. Let’s talk about them – extensively, with curiosity and a willingness to find a way forward.
And I believe this is the strength of an intergenerational apology – it is a process that requires us to talk and listen to each other and explore what would be a relevant, effective contribution to climate mitigation within our own particular family dynamic and constellation.
Changing our individual behaviour is not the solution to the climate crisis – that requires a multi-lateral, multi-faceted response from all actors in the public and private sectors. However, if we as individuals don’t change our behaviour, their actions and the potential benefits of technology will be limited. We are all pieces in this complex puzzle and without our contribution the puzzle cannot be solved.
If we listened to all their complaints we’d still be living in a cave
One of the more disconcerting aspects of Switzerland’s 2021 rejection of the proposed C02 laws, which would have aligned Swizterland with its Paris Agreement obligations, was that 58% of those under the age of 34 voted against it.
Us boomers express exasperation and disbelief that, after the whole Fridays for Future movement, young people still want to keep flying on cheap flights. And then we shrug our shoulders and wash our hands off the whole problem.
But we spend our lives as parents and elders encouraging, cajoling and often forcing our kids of all ages to do all kinds of things they don’t want to do – brushing their teeth, eating broccoli, going to school, studying, not smoking, not drinking, calling Grandma – I’m sure you can add a few more.
Why do we suddenly feel so powerless to address this one particular thing they don’t want to do? It may be a matter of strategically choosing the more important battle (according to the most immediate consequences – so tackle homework not climate change). But I think it’s also because it’s a very convenient excuse for us boomers to avoid the difficult task of reducing our own consumption.
And why are we surprised that they still vote for cheap flights? Why are we surprised that they want to do what we have done these last years? Why are we surprised that they behave as consumers when they have been raised in a consumer culture? Why do we expect them to do what we chose not to do for so many years? Why should it be one rule for us and one for them?
‘I’m sorry, but we can no longer fly to Spain for our summer holidays’ is the same ‘sorry’ as ‘I’m sorry, but you have to go to school’. The intergenerational climate apology becomes an expression of sympathy and understanding that what we are asking (telling?!) them to do is annoying, difficult, less convenient and involves depriving them of things that are almost considered a ‘right’ in the global North. It is an expression of sympathy that it’s not fair that they cannot do so freely what we have had the choice to do for decades.
‘Yep, it’s annoying and perhaps unfair – but, we’re going to do it.’ We can’t use our kids’ resistance as an excuse to avoid taking the action that is required of us by science.
Why do I suddenly have to be an economist?
I find the second concern about the economic impacts of changing our behaviour more insidious. It feels like there’s some invisible old guy in a grey suit and a top hat, waving his umbrella at me, admonishing me for being irresponsible and ignorant.
We have to challenge the default position of unlimited growth that is raised threateningly over our heads as if it were some law of nature. It’s the ultimate silencer at a time when we desperately need to explore other ways to exist and co-exist. Even more problematic, it prevents a conversation about the incredible economic risks of continuing with business-as-usual and an uncontrolled response to run-away global warming.
Those guys in their grey suits never expected me to be an economics expert when I fulfilled my role as a consumer these past decades. So why do I suddenly have to be an economics expert to stop consuming?
Let the experts deal with that. There’s enough of them. They’re incredibly clever and have come up with some fascinating models – degrowth, no growth, green growth, doughnut economics, foundational economics. And more.
Sadly, these fascinating and viable theories rarely get an airing in the mainstream because of that silencer guy, paid by the super-rich and powerful to make us nervous of talking about other possibilities to replace our very recent and, in its latest iteration, not very successful form of capitalism (unless you happen to be super-rich and powerful).
Google these models, read about them, explore them, talk about them. Shine some light on them so they can grow and allow both people and the environment to flourish. Add this to the list of steps we can take as individuals to enable our governments to seriously address the climate crisis. And in the meantime, let’s reduce our consumption.