Why do we care, but not act? Cognitive Barriers to Sustainability (Part IV)

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”.

Graphic by Aimée Lister

5) “Define urgency”: the cognitive difficulty to conceive future threat

A lot has been written about the difference in the scale and intensity of the response to COVID-19 compared to global warming, species extinction and pollution. An overwhelming majority of analyses concur on the fact that it is the immediacy of the threat posed by the COVID-19 virus that has spurred governments into taking unprecedented drastic measures. Likewise, it is this same immediacy, in both spatial and temporal terms (the here and the now), that has led citizens to widely accept and respect these stringent rules to protect themselves and those around them.

Graphic by Aimée Lister

By contrast, the threats posed by climate change, air and water pollution, species extinction, soil degradation etc. are much more difficult to conceive from a cognitive perspective because these are removed from us both in both temporal and spatial terms. Or at least we think they are. In truth, 7 million people die prematurely each year as a result of human-induced pollution and many parts of the world are victim to extreme weather events that grow stronger each year.

To be more nuanced, it is the present absence of a level of threat which might be considered as both “global” and “existential”, which is still some decades away, which explains the absence of a regulatory apparatus as systemic and as far reaching for the climate crisis as the one we have put in place for the COVID-19 pandemic.

Information and education prove to be the most efficient answers to the cognitive barrier of immediacy. Indeed, an understanding of the immense inertias at play in earth systems and the action windows available to “flatten” and “reverse” the curves of global warming, ocean acidification or species extinction clearly pushes us to conceive environmental threats as immediate and requiring urgent action. Although the environmental crisis we are going through is not a rapid event to our cognition since it spreads over several generations, this only represents the blink of an eye in geologic time scales.

6) The extinction of experience

This was a phrase introduced in 1975 by Robert Pyle, a lepidopterist (someone specialising in the study of butterflies), to describe a sense of environmental amnesia. As urban centres continue to grow and attract more residents, a mainstream “urban culture” expands in influence, within which the importance of nature recedes greatly. As citizens embracing urban lifestyles lose touch with nature in a literal, physical sense, they consequently lose their emotional attachment to ecosystems, which means they are more likely to remain insensitive to environmental degradation and habitat destruction. “What is the extinction of the condor to a child who has never known a wren?”, Pyle writes.

From a cognitive standpoint, it is very difficult to mobilise willpower for change to protect ecosystems and entities which most of us have never experienced in a physical sense.

Thinking back to the action-intention gap, the extinction of experience is an important part of the puzzle when trying to explain why concern for environmental issues does not automatically translate into individual action. From a cognitive standpoint, it is very difficult to mobilise willpower for change to protect ecosystems and entities which most of us have never experienced in a physical sense. This points to the necessity to rethink urban landscapes and lifestyles so as to promote daily interaction with non-human lifeforms. Urban agriculture for instance is an excellent way to bring nature to those that do not have the means or time to seek it. In constructing a new urban narrative that embraces the importance of the natural world, we lay the groundworks for a renewed sense of enthusiasm for its preservation.

7) Shifting baseline

The concept of shifting baselines is one that refers to the failure to notice change in the world by accepting a new state of affairs as the norm (baseline). In politics, the “overton window” illustrates the way in which the range of policies acceptable to the mainstream population at a given time can shift to one extreme or another. This is an instance of shifting baseline, in that we come to consider an idea that once seemed radical as actually rather sensible. Applied to the environment, a shifting baseline refers to a constantly lowered expectation of what a healthy, thriving ecosystem looks like.

The evolution of the state of fish stocks in the world is a particularly strong example to illustrate our cognitive readiness to accept a degraded reality as the new normal. According to the World Food Organisation, there has been since the 1950s a decrease in the proportion of marine fish stocks with potential for expanded production, coupled with a steady increase in stocks classified as overexploited or depleted. In 2005, 52% of the world’s fish stocks were fully exploited, meaning that they were being fished at their maximum biological productivity (capacity of fish populations to renew themselves at a steady rate). Another 24% of the world’s fish stocks were either over-exploited or depleted. In 2018, 61% of fish stocks were fully fished, and 29% were over-exploited or depleted. The Atlantic cod, long considered one of the world’s largest and most reliable fishery, has nearly been fished to extinction.

As time goes on, it seems that we collectively accept degraded ecosystems as a normal state of affairs. This observation points to the fact that our cognition struggles to register and react to slow, gradual change. The boiling frog fable, used by Al Gore in 2009 in his film “An Inconvenient Truth”, is a poignant metaphor for our inability to react to threats that arise gradually rather than suddenly. Bathing in warm water on a stove, the frog will acclimatise to increasingly hot water temperatures until it dies from the heat.

The risk with gradual change as far as earth systems are concerned is that it cannot go on forever. Be it for the atmosphere, the ocean or the nitrogen cycle of the soil, once the gradual disruption to these systems reaches a certain threshold, their evolution becomes non-linear and their collapse is precipitated (for more information on this I would recommend the excellent work of Johan Rockström on planetary boundaries). Understanding that the gradual deterioration of earth systems takes us ever closer to their collapse is key to reverse the ongoing trend of accepting deterioration as the norm.

Shifting baselines deter action in that they constantly push back environmental threat to even more degraded states of affair. To combat and instrumentalise this bias, we should focus on the daily actions which immediately yield strong positive environmental impact and encourage each other to implement them.

Read part I of the series here

Read part II of the series here

Read part III of the series here

Read part V of the series here

Written by Octave Masson


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