“They” is the Problem – The Psychology of Climate Change

While climate change is often presented as a scientific, political or even economic issue, there are some elements of it that are mostly about people.  Indeed the middle “P” of Px3 (Planet, People & Productivity) is there for precisely this reason.  If we want to make positive changes we need to consider the factors that drive change or cause inertia.

In this post I want to consider three aspects of human “cognitive” and sociological behaviour that go some way to explain how we got ourselves into this situation and what we need to change to resolve it.  I’ve presented these as simple statements, all open to challenge and debate, which I believe underlie our current threat to the environment.

Out / In Grouping – We tend to feel less positively about people when we assign them groups to which we don’t belong and vice versa (also known as “othering”)

Dissonance / Consonance – We are able to hold two or more contradictory ideas at the same time, but suffer some mental discomfort as a result and may make choices that seem illogical to ease this feeling

External / Internal Attribution – We vary in our perception of how much each of us is actually in control and therefore able to achieve or affect particular outcomes

The Issue

The Venn diagram below shows the interactions of the negative aspects of the three behaviours.  At this end of the spectrum we hold an expectation that someone else (politicians or scientists) will be responsible for resolving all the problems, that someone else (other nations or cultures) is causing them and that despite our concerns we have no actual role to play or potential to change the situation.

James Lovelock in his excellent 2019 work Novacene describes humans as “fissiparous”, meaning prone to dividing, fracturing and splitting apart.  For me this is the corner stone of the problem.  If I perceive that They are not changing, then neither will I.  If They have the authority and power when I do not, then clearly They have the responsibility for change.  And why should I be inconvenienced or go without when They are not and do not.  

It doesn’t take much to bring out this aspect of our natures.  We naturally identify as a group by identifying another group who are not like us or we imagine oppose or threaten us.  We see this demonstrated in distrust of scientists and politicians, often aggravated by social media that thrives on instant gratification and closed, self-reinforcing feedback loops.

This “othering” is particularly damaging as it allows us to think and behave in ways which otherwise we and our society would consider totally unacceptable.  From a climate change perspective this is highly concerning.  If we cannot have a truly common cause because THEY are part of it, or are actively working against it, we will not succeed.  Like the pandemic, the problem is global and unless the cure is global, it will not go away.

At best this promotes inertia and inactivity.  As climate related stress increases, however, we are likely to see this “othering” and dissociation leading to negative, even aggressive behaviours.  At the same time the increasing dissonance between our concern for the environment and our unwillingness to change key aspects of our own behaviour has serious impacts on mental health and wellbeing.

Like many psychological and societal issues we find source of the problems lie in learned behaviour, reinforcement and short-term gratification.  Our immediate pleasure from buying exceeds our guilt at both the cost and the environmental impacts of manufacture, distribution, use and disposal, mostly because they are never quantified.

The Resolution

If we were continually advised of these facts, updated on options and their impact and guided to make better choices, our position on these key metrics is more likely to change.  There are moves to do this around ethical shopping sites and initiatives to develop lower-impact and more circular economies which provide us with not just more information and feedback but also with practical ways to “green” our behaviours.

So if we are going to follow a more sustainable path then we need regular information and positive responses, either from others or ourselves, in order to persevere.  We need sufficient stimulus to overcome the inertia, followed by continual reinforcement to maintain the behaviours.

There are possibilities to expose some of the hidden environmental costs of our purchasing and activities through new technology such as blockchain that is able to track the impact of every element of a product or service through its digital footprint, but this has yet to become established in mainstream transactions.

While this article is largely about the individual, this is exactly the approach we at Px3 take to driving change at a corporate level.  Only by measuring and visualising the actual carbon footprint of various areas and activities can we inform and make positive adjustments. While this is relatively easy to do at a building or site level, it’s much harder to analyse at a granular level, particularly when staff are mobile and the workforce is dispersed.

Critical to this is Agency, where the individual feels empowered to drive change not just at in their own behaviour but in a wider context through challenge, advocacy, social and political engagement.

The second Venn diagram presents the situation where the individual accepts responsibility for their own actions and for participation in the wider change process.  Removing the “THEY” element allows not only for the individual to become an agent of their own changes, it encourages active participation in the wider “WE”.

This is perhaps best illustrated by a typical customer engagement in which we measure the Scope 2 and 3 emissions associated with an IT service.  This involves looking at the clients embodied carbon of their existing devices, the power consumed in their day to day operation, their eventual disposal and the operation of their cloud or on-premises data centres.

After making recommendations around emissions reduction we are left with a “balance” that needs to be offset.  It’s no surprise that the most effective offsetting is in protecting and replanting in the most environmentally sensitive areas like the Amazon, but equally clients want to see action and impacts closer to home.  We share a planet, and we also share a country, a region and even a neighbourhood. Change is best delivered and accelerated by building resonance (making things matter) and developing consonance (common voice and purpose).

Balancing global and local is critical to motivating change and encouraging positive activities.  The more we can reduce the concept of THEY and encourage the positivity of WE, the better.   The more we can use science-based measurements to inform and encourage, the better able we are to encourage agency and common purpose, and thereby achieve positive outcomes.

Conclusion

 One thing that the study of psychology tells us is that when we change our thoughts and attitudes we change our relationship with ourselves and the world around us.  While we are certainly capable of being divisive and destructive we are also equally capable of being inclusive and creative.

We need to recognise and reject our temptations to identify THEY and encourage the I and WE.  Through the current pandemic we have the greatest shock to the system and opportunity to reset things for the better in the last half century. Arming ourselves with real data and encouraging positive change in every aspect of our work and personal lives has to be the answer.

How we respond to the challenge of defining our post-Covid-19 world in a more sustainable and inclusive manner will literally define our place in history and how WE are judged by future generations.

About the Author: Ewen Anderson BSc, MMS (Dip), CIO @ Px3

Ewen is CIO of Px3, a company on a self-assigned mission to help organisations balance people, planet and productivity by promoting sustainable IT strategies.  Px3 has set itself the goal of removing the CO2 emissions equivalent of 100,000 cars from our atmosphere by 2050. With a background in psychology, management services, consultancy and enterprise IT, Ewen is a passionate believer that the right technology used in the right way can significantly reduce environmental impacts, engage users and improve productivity.

Ewen (LinkedIn Profile) can be contacted at ewen@px3.org.uk

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