Why do we care, but not act? Cognitive Barriers to Sustainability (part III)

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”.

The power of habit

This was the title of a book featured on the New York Times best seller list in 2012. In it, the author discusses the neurological basis of habit. While it may seem obvious, the comfort of habit (both material and cognitive) is undoubtedly one of the greatest barriers to a transition towards more sustainable and resilient lifestyles.

The “habit loop”, as referred to in the book, is a circuit consisting of three elements: a cue, a routine and a reward. To most, reducing personal carbon emissions through a change of diet, modifying consumption, rethinking our mobility etc. is very difficult because we are not able to inscribe novel practices within a routine, which means that we cannot reap the reward. For this reason, the changes necessary to transition towards sustainable lifestyles continue to be perceived as constraining and uncomfortable rather than desirable and gratifying.

While it may seem obvious, the comfort of habit (both material and cognitive) is undoubtedly one of the greatest barriers to a transition towards more sustainable and resilient lifestyles.

Old habits die hard and reprogramming the habit loop is an arduous task for our cognition that requires significant willpower. As long as change is conceived as a chore and the emotional response to it remains predominantly negative, there is little chance for success. However, echoing some of the elements presented above, it may be that transitioning to new routines that enable greater coherence with our beliefs can trigger positive emotional response by solving cognitive dissonances and offering greater alignment. For instance, making the choice to invest in glass or plastic containers and shop for groceries in bulk to avoid waste and packaging can require a certain amount of effort at first. However, once the logistics associated with such a practice become dialed into a routine, it becomes possible to access the reward of both a pleasant meal and of positive environmental impact.

The freedom of choice

The acceptance that meeting the targets set by the international community to safeguard future life on earth will require profound, systemic change is gaining ground in society. Those opposed to “radical” change often place the defence of individual freedoms at the heart of their reasoning, as individual liberties are considered by many to be the bedrock of a democratic society. To an extent, their arguments make sense. Consider some “extreme” examples of environmental regulation discussed in various policy spheres such as implementing quotas to restrict air travel or meat consumption. There is no denying that such policies are contrary to individual freedom as they do away with the consumer’s liberty to engage with the market as he or she pleases.

On this issue, the French astrophysicist and philosopher Aurélien Barreau provides an interesting take on how our societal conception of freedom might be flawed. The paradox is as follows: in defending and exercising our individual freedoms to engage in whichever acts of consumption we desire as long as we have the material means to do so, we precipitate the emergence of a world in which individual freedoms will be disproportionately curtailed.

If a man on a desert island with only a dozen fruit trees to ensure his subsistence decides to cut these down, he puts into action a freedom of choice that satisfies his immediate desire for a shelter. However, in doing so, he also destroys his only means of subsistence and with it the very possibility to enjoy future freedoms.

The desert island metaphor is interesting to bear in mind when thinking about what we expect out of political action and governance. The COVID-19 crisis has revealed that as a society, a majority of us are prepared to give up individual freedoms and accept strict regulations to protect both ourselves and those most vulnerable in our community. In light of this, it is strange that we are so reluctant to accept and vote for environmental regulations that are vastly less restrictive, and yet possibly critical to prevent much greater future loss of liberty.

Spinoza argued that it was the ignorance of the causes that determine us that leads us to think that we are free to do as we please. From a cognitive standpoint, it is very difficult to conceive that the daily life choices we make and the individual freedoms we enjoy are predicated on the health and wellbeing of ecosystems because our cognition is fixated to the here and the now. However, if we take a macroscopic approach, it is difficult to argue against the fact that individual freedoms would be scarce in a world too hot to live in, in which air is toxic and food cannot be grown.

Read Part I of the series here

Read Part II of the series here

Read Part IV of the series here

Read Part V of the series here

Written by Guest Writer Octave Masson


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