Probably, if you care about climate change and ecologically responsible consumer behavior, you’ve encountered articles that explain why this or that purchase or action is really not all that helpful. Possibly, you’ve encountered that very sentiment in writing by, um, me [Rob Walker]. Which might make you wonder what the point of Unconsumption really is — it would be easy to characterize this project as a “feel good” effort.
Well, I was listening today to an episode of a radio show with a focus on psychology and sociology, titled “Climate change and behavioral change: What Will It Take?” And while it included a number of rather discouraging moments explaining the problems of reconciling human nature with the sort of changes that need to happen, it also included a passage I want to share with you that will I hope explain the underpinnings of Unconsumption.
The host brings up the subject of carbon emissions, and one of her guests, Joseph Reser, who teaches psychology at Griffith University, muses on the tendency of research to discount the worth of any consumer behavior that doesn’t definitively impact carbon emissions:
To me as a psychologist that just seems a bit crazy. I think we should be talking about psychologically significant responses, psychologically significant behaviours. And the reality is they work together, if a person engages in a particular behaviour they not only feel good about it but it has other benefits. For example people think that the really meaningful behaviour is recycling but actually recycling doesn’t have that much of a consequence in terms of CO2 emissions. And so a person who thinks about environmentally significant behaviour would say, “Well look that’s just kind of self therapy, it doesn’t really help very much.” I’m of the view that any behaviours that are pro-environmental behaviours but that are psychologically meaningful are really important and all of those actions have real benefits.
One of the ways in which people cope with what they could well believe is an apocalyptic threat, and maybe that will be the reality, is that they want to do something about it, they need to do something about it. And I think it’s terribly important that they take some kind of action. And that action might not have a direct spin-off in terms of reducing carbon emissions, but it’s psychologically very important. It’s motivating, validating and they can feel they are part of the solution as well as part of the problem, so it’s a very important way of coping with climate change.
It’s crucial to be aware of the ways that human nature — rational or no — gets in the way of solving the problem.
It’s also crucial to be aware of the ways that human nature — rational or no — can help us be part of the solution.