A team of Sweedish researchers says we treat our relationship with the planet like a social exchange — and that undermines our efforts to protect the environment.

Eco-Friendly.

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We often blunder in our personal lives, but we can usually make amends. The planet doesn’t work like that, a new study says, but our brains are so deeply wired to navigate social relationships that it treats it the same way. This leads to the belief that ‘environmentally friendly’ or ‘green’ behavior can make-up for our carbon footprint — which is down-right not the case, the authors explain.

They propose that advertisers, government officials, and economic systems currently play on our innate ‘climate compensation’ psychology leading us to harm the environment even as we try to protect it. If we truly want to safeguard the environment and our place in it, they add, we need a paradigm shift.

“You can’t kiss and make up with the environment”

The team says that it’s practically impossible to measure how each of our actions impacts the environment. So we shorthand it to certain rules of thumb that, when followed, we perceive as reducing our environmental footprint. But, while the motivation behind them is definitely commendable, this rule of thumb approach simply doesn’t work.

Such innate, intuitive judgments are borne of the way our brains handle social interactions, they write, where a good decision can cancel out a faux pas. The environment, however, doesn’t work like that. In this arena, a ‘bad’ decision (i.e. consumption) causes permanent damage to the environment, but ‘good’ decisions (i.e. green options) are at best less harmful — not restorative.

“Reciprocity and balance in social relations have been fundamental to social cooperation, and thus to survival, so the human brain has become specialized through natural selection to compute and seek this balance. But when applied to climate change, this social give-and-take thinking leads to the misconception that ‘green’ choices can compensate for unsustainable ones,” says lead author Patrik Sörqvist, Professor of Environmental Psychology at the University of Gävle, Sweden.

“You can’t kiss and make up with the environment. Jetting to the Caribbean will make you a huge environmental burden, no matter how many meat free Mondays you have.”

The study cites past research which showed that climate compensation is wide-spread and pervasive. Sörqvist cites studies which found that people perceive the environmental impact of a shopping cart as staying the same — or even dropping — when items labeled as ‘eco-friendly’ are added to next to their conventional items. For example, people “intuitively” feel that the combination of a hamburger and an organic apple is less environmentally-taxing that the hamburger alone, or that the total emissions of a carpool stay constant when hybrid cars are added — note that it’s ‘added’, meaning the same number of conventional cars remain in use.

When spelled out like this, the inconsistencies are hard to miss. But in our day-to-day, Sörqvist explains, our brains pursue a wide range of these misguided quick fixes to address our eco-guilt.

“People might purchase some extra groceries because they are ‘eco-labeled’; think that they can justify jetting abroad for vacation because they have been cycling to work; or take longer showers because they’ve reduced the water temperature. And companies — nations, even — claim to balance greenhouse gas emissions by planting trees or by paying for carbon offsets through the European Union Emission Trading Scheme.

“Meanwhile, the best thing for the environment would of course be for us to consume less overall,” he stresses.

The team says that stricter legislation regarding marketing ploys and obligatory carbon footprint estimates on products could help people avoid the environmental compensation pitfall. Consumers would benefit from immediate feedback on each product’s environmental impact — even something as simple as the accumulated carbon footprint of your shopping basket at check-out would help.

“Terms like ‘eco-friendly’ or ‘green’ encourage the view that objects, behaviors and decisions with these labels are ‘good’ rather than ‘less bad’ for the environment,” says co-author Dr Linda Langeborg, also of the University of Gävle.

“Calling a hamburger restaurant ‘100 % climate compensated’, for example, may deceive people into believing that eating dinner at that restaurant has no environmental burden.”

I actually quite like this study. It’s a fresh take on how each of goes about our own little climate-protection efforts, and how our inherent nature may shoot them in the foot. Hopefully, now that we know ourselves a little bit better, we’ll be more aware of these pitfalls — and avoid them.

The paper “Why People Harm the Environment Although They Try to Treat It Well: An Evolutionary-Cognitive Perspective on Climate Compensation” has been published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

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