The Psychology of Environmentalism: How the Mind Can Save the Planet

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There aren’t a whole lot of scientific disciplines that haven’t had something to say about climate change over the years — and with good reason. When a problem is global in scale there’s a universe of specialists and subspecialists who have to pitch in to to fix it — meteorologists, chemists, geologists, physicists, zoologists, biologists, astronomers and more. But one field — psychology — has never had much skin in the game. It’s less important to consider how humans feel about the mess we’ve made of our planet, after all, than how we clean it up.

That, at least, has always been the thinking. Increasingly, however, psychologists are making the case that the best way to resolve any crisis and prevent it from happening again is to understand the minds of the people who caused it. And that means all six billion of us.

The newest issue of the American Psychologist is devoted largely to making that case, with a series of articles by a team of psychologists from around the country exploring the thinking, feelings and other cognitive processes that have allowed us to be so heedless with our world — and could be harnessed to help us take better care of it. The papers are by illuminating, surprising and, well, occasionally risible — which is what often happens when scientists are feeling their way in a relatively new field and fall back on jargon and other linguistic gobbledygook to try to make it make sense. Still, with climate change only growing worse and the U.S. in particular seeming unable or unwilling to do much about it, new perspectives are always welcome and badly needed.

“Psychologists should help, first of all because we can,” writes lead author Janet Swim of Penn State University in one of the new papers. “Further efforts to improve understanding of the psychological processes related to climate change … can help humanity effectively mitigate and adapt.”

One of the first thing scientists do in trying to wrestle a big problem to the ground is simplify and clarify it, with a nice, clear equation if possible — and the climate psychologists are no exception. If you want to devise policies to make people more climate conscious, they argue, all you have to remember is I=tpn.  Less obtusely put, that means the impact of any behavioral change will be equal its  technical potential to fix the problem, times the behavioral plasticity required to comply with it, times the number of people who actually do comply.

Take recycling of plastic bottles. It is a technically powerful step since it gets millions of tons of plastics out of the waste stream. It requires little behavioral plasticity since people are going to throw their trash out every day anyway; all they have to do is remember to put their bottles in the blue bin instead of the garbage can. And with 300 million Americans consuming billions of gallons of beverages every year, even partial compliance adds up to very big numbers.

Of course, recycling plastic bottles makes little contribution to addressing global warming — and those behavioral changes that do are rarely so straightforward and easy. Insulating your attic is technically simple and very effective, but it takes a lot of behavioral plasticity before anyone will actually get up and do it. Buying a hybrid car can do a lot of good too — but until the prices come way down and the selection goes way up not a lot of people are going to do it. “Behavioral science understandably focuses on the p,” writes psychologist Paul Stern of the National Research Council. “However, in setting policy priorities, t and n are critical to take into account.”

There’s  a certain intellectual seductiveness that goes with this kind of writing — but it doesn’t always bear close examination. Who doesn’t already know that hybrid cars are too bloody expensive? Who doesn’t know that insulating you attic is a colossal chore? Labeling one of these basic truths n and the other t does not change their value a whit. Stern slides further down the slippery slope of academic obviousness in the same paper when he writes about how to motivate people to practice ESB (environmentally significant behavior) and PEB (pro-environmental behavior.) Are these actions that really require new acronyms?

Still, there’s more merit to this kind of formalizing and quantifying than there seems — running even the most self-evident ideas through a sort of empricizing machine, the better to make sure that the more substantive conclusions that come later are provable and repeatable. The other papers in the American Psychologist package provide evidence of how that works.

Denial, for example, is a powerful driver of human behavior, and the investigators do a good job of explaining how it’s at play in the environmental sphere.  Norway, which consistently tops global lists for enlightened policies concerning education, health care, social welfare and more is incongruously near the bottom in accepting the role humans play in causing climate change. Why? Because oil production and sales are central to Norway’s prosperity. The better you understand how denial plays out — and the more deeply you study the minds of the deniers themselves — the better you can design messages and policies that penetrate that fog.

Americans are all over the map in their reactions to climate change — with emotions ranging from concern to caution to disengagement (33%, 19%, 12% of respondents respectively). Guilt, despair, doubt, grief and anger also come into play, depending on which groups are polled and how questions are framed. Politicians have long known that until you understand what motivates your constituency you can’t persuade them to take any action at all — which is why naturally intuitive leaders like Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan have always done better than less attuned ones like Jimmy Carter or Richard Nixon. But even Al Gore — no one’s idea of a naturally empathic or emotive man — learned to tap into the primal feelings people have in response to climate change and made a huge difference in waking people up to the problem. Imagine if a Clinton or Reagan had done the same.

Other studies cited in the papers show the value of looking behind what seems unsurprising, since some unexpected variables may be lurking there. When carpool lanes were made available in cities, people who chose to continue to drive alone scored very high when they were asked how much they valued flexibility and independence in getting to and from work and very low when asked how important it was to cut their commuting costs. No surprise there — except that further questioning revealed  that the same people scored much closer to the middle in both categories before the carpool lanes were made available. In effect, they made their commuting decisions first, then adjusted their value scale to justify the choice. Such ex post facto reasoning plays out in even the most disciplined thinkers.

There’s also a lot to be learned from our habits of consumption, particularly the way carbon-intensive products we merely want quickly become ones we believe we need. When microwave ovens were first introduced in the 1970s they were a curiosity that few people bothered to own. Even by 1996, only 32% of Americans described microwaves as a necessity — though more than 32% actually owned them. By 2006, that necessity figure had leapt to 68%. A lot more people could have been persuaded to go microwave-free in the 1990s than today — something that would have been good to know at the time.

The papers sound some cautionary notes as well — ones that may do less to illuminate human behavior than to scare us into action before it’s too late. Despair, the authors explain, is one of the most pervasive reactions to the enormity of the climate change crisis — and one of the most dangerous ones too. People who have truly given up believing that there’s any solution to a problem also quit doing anything about it. If you’re in the market for a new car, why not just buy a Hummer since the planet is going to hell anyway? That’s the kind of thinking it pays to prevent early. And for all the perils of climate change — droughts, floods, hurricanes — it’s the simple rise in temperature that could pose the ugliest problem. The causal link between heat and violence has long been established — which is why murder rates tend to rise in the summer, especially in crowded cities. According to one study cited in the journal, every 2 degree Fahrenheit (1.1 C) increase in global temperature will lead to 24,000 more murders or assualts in the U.S. per year.

There’s still time, of course, to reverse — or at least slow — our environmental decline before we start turning on one another this way. Psychologists may always play more of a supporting than leading role in making that happen, but it’s a critical role nonetheless. It’s time we began listening to what they have to say.