Why does our understanding of the environmental crisis often fail to convert into meaningful individual action? This series explores nine cognitive barriers to sustainability and shows how grasping these is key to escape the “action-intention gap”.
Cognitive dissonance is an umbrella term to describe any situation where a person simultaneously holds contradictory beliefs or participates in an action that goes against one held belief. As the understanding of the systemic issues that underlie environmental and social ills grows, cognitive dissonance becomes inevitable, as we as individuals are elements that constitute this very system. For instance, an overwhelming majority of people are critical (and rightly so) of fossil fuels and aware of the existential threats posed by their extraction and combustion. Yet at the same time, the thermo-industrial complex powered by fossil fuels remains the very condition of our material lives. From the gasoline that powers our cars, buses and planes to plastics, to asphalt, to fertilisers, to clothes, to makeup, to electronics and the electricity that powers them, our daily lives are shaped by fossil fuels we extract from the earth.
“Men deplore the effects of which causes they cherish”. The words of Cardinal Bossuet, who preached to the king of France in the 17th century, resonate particularly strongly today to help us think critically about individual beliefs and choices. In all logic, it is difficult to reconcile an acute concern for the climate crisis with a sustained appetite for air travel, as it is a denunciation of deforestation with one for daily meat consumption. To bear the cognitive load of such dissonance, which can be mentally taxing, some may unconsciously compartmentalise between cause and effect, such that individual acts become separated from their environmental and social impacts.
Cognitive dissonance is an umbrella term to describe any situation where a person simultaneously holds contradictory beliefs or participates in an action that goes against one held belief.
However, this often proves unsustainable. Social media, which closely mirrors our interests and concerns, has a unique ability to point out and place us in front of dissonance. This was especially obvious to me last December as I measured the irony that an Instagram post by Greenpeace on the fires that devastated Australia was directly preceded by an advertisement for cheap flights to Sydney.
In accepting that daily individual consumption choices shape productive forces, we come to see ourselves not as passive consumers but as active individuals wielding an economic weight that modifies the market.
Thinking holistically and critically about our actions and choices certainly can induce unpleasant and unproductive feelings of guilt but it can also be truly empowering. In accepting that daily individual consumption choices shape productive forces, we come to see ourselves not as passive consumers but as active individuals wielding an economic weight that modifies the market (a privilege that is obviously restricted to those with economic leverage).
As with all other cognitive barriers in this series, reflecting on a personal level on how we may unconsciously deplore effects of causes we cherish (i.e. “I hate social injustice but I love fast-fashion”) is an uncomfortable but rewarding task that can be greatly facilitated by information and education. Accepting without judgement that we are riddled with incoherence is a first but necessary step towards closing the “action-intention” gap.
Cognitive non-intersection between individual profit and collective loss
The “tragedy of the commons” is often put forward as an explanation for why reducing CO2 emissions is so difficult from a policy perspective. Theorised by Garrett Hardin in 1968, this is the idea that common resources (resources which are owned by no-one but used by all, such as the atmosphere and the ocean), are inherently unsustainable because each individual benefiting from a common resource will look to maximise his/her own gains at the expense of the community of users. This will eventually lead to overexploitation and the destruction of the common resource.
In more recent years, economists such as Elinor Ostrom, recipient of the 2009 Nobel prize, have attacked the “tragedy of the commons” narrative, in particular the way in which it assumes the pursuit of personal gain to be an inevitable trait of human character. Such cognitive determinism is disproved by numerous anthropological studies that show that in many resource-reliant communities, there are underlying management strategies in place to ensure that common resources are equally accessible to all users and allowed to replenish so that future generations can enjoy them.
The more importance a society confers to consumerism, the more the social agreements that ensure sustainable common resource management are eroded. One significant cause for this is the inherently individual nature of the act of consumption. As a greatly enthusiastic consumer of technical gear and innovation myself, it is impossible to deny the thrill that accompanies a purchase for the self. The excitement that comes from the feeling of possession (strengthened further by attractive marketing and integrated social norms) tends to suppress any analytical thought on the material forces and social relationships that played out in the production chain and enabled the object to come into being. When enjoying a new phone or computer for the first time, we are obviously likely to focus more on the pleasing aesthetics of the object and the ingenuity of its design than on the extractivist process and on the conditions of the labour than enabled its construction.
Once again, holistic and systemic thinking prove precious to reveal how our individual choices have direct material impacts on communities and livelihoods in other parts of the world. It pushes us to think relationally about the self and the collective and helps us to reflect on how we might want to modify our behaviours to modify the impacts they have. As we will see in the fourth part, such systemic thinking is difficult from a cognitive perspective as it requires accepting causality between spaces far away from one another and different time periods. Thinking relationally, my consumption of south american avocados and the intense hydric stress experienced by populations in northern Chile become two sides of the same coin.
Read Part I of the series here
Read Part III of the series here
Read Part IV of the series here
Read Part V of the series here
Written by Guest Writer Octave Masson