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”.
8) How much is enough? The bias of more.
Over the last decades, scepticism regarding the viability and desirability of ongoing economic growth has crept from the margins to centre stage in policy debate. Sustained economic growth, insofar as it is predicated on the extraction of physical resources, is unsustainable since the total amount of resources available on the planet is finite. While some economists argue that a decoupling between economic growth and material throughput is theoretically possible (“green growth”), there is extensive evidence to suggest otherwise, and more importantly, a pressing necessity to move beyond the question of wealth creation to that of its distribution.
Sustained economic growth, insofar as it is predicated on the extraction of physical resources, is unsustainable since the total amount of resources available on the planet is finite.
The majority of readers will undoubtedly agree that our current consumption levels overshoot by some amount beyond the carrying capacity of the planet. According to the Global Footprint Network, 1,5 earths would be required at present to meet the demands of global consumption in a way that is safe and sustainable for ecosystems. Following on from this, all would agree that reducing our material footprint at a global scale is necessary to protect and preserve future productive capacities. After all, this is the mantra of sustainable development: to pursue economic activity that meets current needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs.
However, the acknowledgement that current consumption levels are excessive problematically fails to convert efficiently into individual reduction of material consumption. In fact, paradoxically, as shown by a 2016 survey carried out by the German Environment Agency, those who voice a concern for the state of the environment have on average a greater carbon footprint than those that do not, and are most often wealthier. Here lies the crux of the issue. Environmental impact at an individual scale closely correlates to the following variables: financial assets owned, per capita living space, energy used for household appliances, meat consumption and vacation travel. Environmental concern fails to make the list.
After all, this is the mantra of sustainable development: to pursue economic activity that meets current needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs.
The cognitive barrier that is at play here is the difficulty that we have to conceive our norm as an excess (in ecological terms). The global 1% might consider that the lifestyle and consumption habits of the 0,1% are excessive but will be hard pressed to reflect that same analysis on themselves by downward comparison. What’s more, those that have been fortunate enough to reap the benefits of economic growth are conditioned to expect a similar path in their lives, from “less” to “more” material consumption (more appliances, more living space, more travel etc.). On such a vague gradient, “enough” is easy to push back. At the peak of his wealth, John D. Rockefeller made up by himself 1% of the entire US economy and was asked by a journalist this exact question, “how much is enough?”, to which he replied, “just a little bit more”.
The global 1% might consider that the lifestyle and consumption habits of the 0,1% are excessive but will be hard pressed to reflect that same analysis on themselves by downward comparison.
To make sure that those who still fall short on the most basic human needs can satisfy them, those who have plenty must accept to relinquish some of their material consumption and hand it over to those who need it. Sustainability is, given the physical limits of the planet, an inherently distributive issue. To go beyond the bias of “more”, it seems imperative to reflect on the notion of need, and to divert our desire for growth towards non-material things (a greater understanding of the world, greater social connections, greater creativity…).
9) The power of symbols and the pressure of the norm
The fact that wealth and status are the variables that most accurately predict emissions is far from surprising. Purchasing power, and the material and carbon footprints associated with consumption are relative to the means of consumption available. In truth, even “unspent wealth”, purchasing power that is not spent on material consumption but invested in a financial product (anything from a hedge fund to a life insurance) has a consequential material footprint. This is because mainstream finance remains intimately tied to and dependent on carbon assets.
However, the fact that people from similar socioeconomic backgrounds tend to have similar material footprints is not only the effect of a similar purchasing power. We are social beings, and the choices we make are also largely influenced by those of the people around us. Many research papers on group psychology show that diverging from a behaviour that is considered as “normal” by the group to which we belong comes at significant cognitive, emotional and social costs. For this reason, we tend to consume in a similar way to those we socialise with, eat in a similar way, travel in a similar way and to similar places etc.
We are social beings, and the choices we make are also largely influenced by those of the people around us.
The sense of conformity that binds us to those around us applies not only to material consumption but also to shared symbolic representations of the world. Friendships for instance tend to rest on similar values and shared assumptions about what is desirable and what is not. More broadly, values and symbols are central to the cohesion of a society as they enable the individual to feel a part of and project into the collective.
The environmental crisis we are in is profoundly linked to the symbolic framework that derives from the dominant capitalist order. In accepting capital accumulation as a metric of individual and collective success and in admiring predatory practices as a token of strength, we tragically aspire to lifestyles that threaten life itself. Rationality alone struggles to explain why many feel elated at the wheel of an over-powered supercar when speed is limited on the road. One element to explain this is the fact that the predominant collective imaginary associate success, power and self-fulfilment to such a possession.
The environmental crisis we are in is profoundly linked to the symbolic framework that derives from the dominant capitalist order.
Cognitively, it is a difficult task to challenge the symbols that structure our lives and shape personal and professional relationships because these are deeply embedded in our experience of the world. Socially, it is awkward to do so because it produces ontological disturbance which drives antagonism between individuals. For example, challenging the narrative that the current food system is satisfactory irritates those who find comfort in the food they eat. Challenging the narrative that frequent flying is both ecologically viable and desirable displeases our enthusiasm for travel. Challenging the narrative that consumption is a fitting reward for hard work frustrates our inclination for ownership.
The symbolic systems and values we adhere to shape the material world. It is in this sense that the philosopher Nelson Goodman spoke of our capacity to be “world makers”. By challenging and refusing to adhere to established societal standards and “mainstream” conducts, the individual has an immense power to shape an alternative normality that is more respectful of the environment and of others. When new symbolic frameworks and behaviours become more desirable than those already in place, those who find digression difficult will change to match the novel social norms nonetheless, to avoid the cognitive, emotional and social cost of not “fitting in”.
The systemic transformations required to prevent the collapse of earth systems and ensure that future generations meet their needs represents a monumental challenge. The stories of the entrepreneurs, politicians, consumers, thinkers and all actors who take concrete actions to point out the profound deficiencies of the established order and offer more sustainable alternatives are inspiring. However, their impact is undermined by immense economic and political forces whose immediate interests run contrary to the preservation of habitable earth systems. Their efforts to obstruct systemic change for as long as possible are as desperate as those of the most ardent climate activists, because they too fight for survival.
The elements discussed in this series show that the resistance to transforming productive mechanisms, energy systems and economic forces is not only material but also profoundly cognitive and emotional. The behaviours we exhibit and the choices we make on a daily basis are highly influenced by our propensity to separate effects from causes, accept a degraded reality as a new norm and conform to the symbolic frameworks that prevail in our communities.
Acknowledging cognitive bias and bringing the choices we make under greater scrutiny is not easy. However, it provides us with a unique opportunity to identify our contradictions and change to align our actions with our beliefs, which can be both liberating and empowering.
Read Part I of the series here
Read Part II of the series here
Read Part III of the series here
Read part IV of the series here
Written by Guest Writer Octave Masson