I agree with the overwhelming majority who think that climate change is undeniable, and that excessive consumption has played a key role in that. Most of us (despite a few mavericks like Donald Trump) recognise the importance of the issue. The question is not whether we need to do something about it, but how to change our pattern of over-consumption.
That is the issue addressed by Rachel Tobin in a recent piece in Science and Tech.
She particularly asks how social psychology can help us to bring about real changes in people’s patterns of consumption.
She recognizes that the effects of education on behaviour are often disappointing and draws attention to two things that may help with that. People change their behaviour better if they have learned through experience rather than formal education. However, such learning is not easy to arrange. More promisingly she points out that change is more likely to occur if the desired changes are clear and doable.
She also considered incentives (like taxing forms of consumption that have especially adverse effects on the environment), and that seems to be helpful too. The advantage of that is that it produces concerted change from many people.
She also touches on the gap between our cognitive and affective systems, between ‘head’ and ‘heart’. People understand that environmental issues are very serious yet, strangely, they are not moved by them enough to change their behaviour.
That seems to me to be her most promising point. If consumption is to change we need to find ways in which people can start to care about the environment on an emotional level. For that we need to understand people’s core values better, and to find links between the environment and people’s core values.
It is more a matter of what people really care about than of an intellectual grasp of environmental threats. For example, if religious people saw the way we are treating the environment as being disrespectful to God, they might quickly change their behaviour. Care of the environment seems as much a spiritual matter as anything else.
I think another issue is about timescale. People find it hard to work for long-term goals, or to avoid long-term problems. It is easier to work for more immediate goals. We seem to need quick feedback to keep us motivated. So, I think it might really help to find ways of giving people immediate feedback on how well changes in behaviour were improving the environmental prospects.
Finally, there is the problem of helplessness. We all feel that our own efforts, by themselves, will not have much effect. That is realistic. But if we all pulled together, things could really change. So, I suggest we need concerted campaigns to all change a series of doable things together.