Why do we care, but not act? Exploring cognitive barriers to sustainability




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

The facts of the environmental crisis are commonly known. Annual CO2 emissions have increased from under 15 billion tons in 1970 to over 36 billion tons in 2019, while average warming projections have in that same period been consistently revised for the worst. Global mean sea-level is predicted to rise by at least 0.3 meters by the end of the century even if drastic measures are taken to reduce greenhouse gas emission, and a quarter of the world’s population will experience high to extreme water stress by 2030. By 2050, the UN estimates that between 200 and 400 million humans will be climate refugees. Air pollution stemming from industrial activity is already responsible for 7 million deaths each year according to the WHO while a continent of plastic waste three times the size of France floats around the Pacific Ocean. Human activities have precipitated the sixth mass extinction of species since the appearance of life on our planet. While intensive industrial agriculture continues to degrade soil fertility, forest cover is decreasing at an alarming rate. 70% of all birds on earth are now farmed poultry and 200 million animals are put to death each day for human consumption, the immense majority of which will not have once seen the light of day.


In this series of articles, I will explore nine cognitive barriers to sustainability. Each identified “barrier” corresponds to psychological trends or conceptual framings that appear to be shared by many when thinking or talking about climate change and environmental risk.

One lesser known, but increasingly well-documented aspect of the environmental crisis are the invisible, intangible impacts that it has on the collective, and even more so on the individual psyche. Eco-anxiety or “solastalgia” as it is sometimes referred to in the literature, is the acute sense of dread or, in extreme cases, depression, that stems from fears about the current and predicted future state of the environment and its potential to bring about unprecedented suffering. In an article published by The Guardian in February 2020, Dr Partick Kennedy-Williams, a clinical psychologist from Oxford University, discussed the worrying levels of environment-related stress and anxiety he was discovering in pre-teen children.

In more moderate forms however, an increasing sense of concern for the state of the environment and the acknowledgement of the precarious nature of our economic system has had major positive effects. In the face of existential threats, a growing number of individuals, companies, organisations, industry actors, politicians, activists and many more have taken profound, meaningful actions to disrupt the status quo and rebuild environmental and social resilience. These inspiring pioneers, who all-too-often struggle against great inertias with little political or economic assistance, send out a message of hope for a possible future. Behind them, there is an even greater number of individuals, among which I include myself, who praise and applaud these efforts as necessary but in doing so also measure the distance that persists between their beliefs and their own actions and behaviours. This is known as the “action-intention” gap. It captures the fact that many of us are worried but inactive, well-meaning but tragically complicit in a systemic crime against the future.

The transition towards environmentally sustainable and socially just societies is something that can be very difficult to grasp at an individual scale. Very often, the size of the challenge and the stakes of the issue can trigger counterproductive reactions, from the guilt of not doing enough to the skepticism that personal actions are at all relevant. Such negative emotions are self-reinforcing and are immense obstacles to positive change. Over the last few months, I had the opportunity to probe deeper into what factors, elements of language and emotions made people change their behaviour when it comes to sustainability. Without doubt, introspection, encouragement and desire are wildly more successful than obligation, shame and rationality.


In more moderate forms however, an increasing sense of concern for the state of the environment and the acknowledgement of the precarious nature of our economic system has had major positive effects.

In this series of articles, I will explore nine cognitive barriers to sustainability. Each identified “barrier” corresponds to psychological trends or conceptual framings that appear to be shared by many when thinking or talking about climate change and environmental risk. To meet the great challenges that lie ahead, it seems inevitable that we will be forced to challenge the mental representations we have of everyday choices and actions, to kindly place under scrutiny the way in which we think back on the past and project into the future, to identify our contradictions with empathy and resolve them with courage.


Read Part II 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


#OCTAVE_MASSON


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