Why Climate Change Won’t Be Solved by Better Decisions at the Supermarket

Mads Nordmo Arnestad

Did you know that if we all recycled one plastic bag, we could use those materials to make 28,906 park benches? Did you also know that if we’re ever going to solve the climate crisis, we need to stop thinking like this?

If everybody just did x, we could save y is the basic structure of the utopian memes often used to motivate sustainable consumption. The basic logic is that, if every consumer avoids goods and services that jeopardize the needs of future generations, we can save the world. Think globally, act locally. The list of behaviours each consumer should undertake is ever growing. They range from the prosaic—recycling and using climate-friendly transport—to the curious, such as using your own faeces to fertilize the garden and honouring your meat. Some suggestions sound pleasant—buy a Tesla—while others sound almost evil—stop keeping dogs as pets. While all these suggestions may be well intentioned, their inefficiency has been decried by several climatologists. Having each individual tinker around in the margins of her own total consumption is not going to solve the problem.

In the western hemisphere, there has never been more talk of sustainability. Yet global emissions continue to rise and the planet keeps getting warmer. The time has come to completely reject the idea of sustainable consumption. We need to realize that individual human beings are poorly equipped to handle the climate crisis, and that the make-believe idea of responsible consumers is dangerously distracting. If we continue to frame political and regulatory responsibility as a question of individual choice at the supermarket, an effective climate solution will become practically impossible. To understand why, we need to consider psychology.

Diffusion of Responsibility

The first reason why sustainable consumption will inevitably fail is that it encourages diffusion of responsibility: responsibility to solve problems is divided among the bystanders. If the number of responsible parties increases, the relative responsibility felt by each individual party decreases. This pervasive social phenomenon has been observed in countless experiments, in several branches of social science. By placing the responsibility for solving the climate crisis on the shoulders of individual consumers, we effectively divide the 100% responsibility by approximately 5 billion adult individuals, leaving each consumer with just a tiny sliver.

By contrast, each individual is 100% responsible for making sure that her consumption fits with her needs and desires. So, when faced with the trade-off between our individual needs and desires and a tiny share of responsibility for a public good like clean water or fresh air, our individual needs and desires will tend to overpower the collective responsibility to care for the common good. This situation inevitably leads to what economists call the tragedy of the commons—the disastrous outcome of each individual acting according to his own self interest, instead of pursuing a limited, common good.

Moreover, if we allocate a large chunk of responsibility to the individual consumer, less responsibility will be assigned to politicians and corporations. In a global marketplace, in which 100 companies are responsible for 71% of all emissions, and politicians are faced with the dilemma of whether to choose short-sighted populism over countering the long-term effects of emissions, it makes very little sense to place the responsibility on the almost powerless individual consumers.

Scope Neglect

Another important reason why sustainable consumption is doomed to fail involves the way in which humans tend to perceive problems. Our everyday cognitive machinery has a tendency to be innumerate, and thus unable to provide different responses to problems of different magnitudes.

In a classic psychological study by Desvousges and colleagues, participants were asked how much they were willing to donate to help save 2,000, 20,000 or 200,000 migratory birds from drowning in oil ponds. The responses were $80, $78 and $88, respectively. If people were rational problem solvers, they would be willing to increase the input tenfold in order to improve the outcome tenfold, at least in a hypothetical setting. Instead, human beings respond to such cases intuitively, by conjuring up the image of one oil-drenched bird, and paying the amount that feels appropriate given the emotional strength and valence of said image.

The Empathy Trap

Our desire to make a difference can also lead to negative outcomes. In studies in which people are asked to donate money, the results show that, as the number of starving children grows, the willingness to give money to save them decreases. Indeed, research suggests that the bigger the scope of a problem, the less motivated we are to help. Effective altruism requires that we use our resources to help as many individuals as possible. But when the problems we are trying to solve seem large, we can experience a demotivating sensation of pseudo-inefficiency. Our empathy is ignited by individuals, not statistics.

Human beings are also sensitive to many features of a problem that have very little to do with its total impact. We are reliably motivated to help cute animals. Our nurturing instincts spring into action when we see pandas, dolphins and baby orang-utans. While it is morally praiseworthy to do whatever we can to reduce the suffering of baby orang-utans, this might distract us from the much more pressing issue of climate change.

Dying coral reefs, dwindling bird and fish populations, plummeting insect biomass and ocean deoxygenation are problems of much greater consequence, which unfortunately fail to spark our empathic motivations. Our intuitive-empathic hardware is perfectly designed to elicit heroic efforts to save cute individuals who are similar to us. It is much less adapted to solving global, slow-moving, impersonal and abstract problems, such as climate change. The death of a polar bear is a tragedy—the melting of millions of tons of ice is just a statistic.

Social Desirability and Ever-Changing Trends

The problem that most reliably evokes anxiety and sparks motivation in humans is that of our own social desirability, typically manifested in strong conformity to social norms and trends. We like being in the know and we often gossip about individuals who fail to keep up with trends. As a consequence, we tend to approach the problem of climate change in terms of ever-changing trends in desirable consumption and behaviour.

Those who are trendy can virtue signal through their behaviour, while those who lack the social connections and wherewithal to keep up with climate fashions suffer a loss in social standing. At first glance, it might seem like a good idea to let our social vanity prompt us towards more sustainable consumption. But the problem is that there are unpredictable changes in which behaviours are seen as good at any given time. This also means that we are exclusively concerned with socially visible behaviours.

The real cause of climate change is our use of fossil fuels to power industry, transportation and other energy-demanding activities. But this process is blurred, and our individual role in maintaining the practice is opaque. So, when we are keeping up with the sustainability of the Joneses, we find other behaviours to focus on. For instance, eating seafood was seen as laudable by many environmentalists, up until summer 2014. Then scampi completely fell out of favour, due to a sudden collective realization that shrimp-farming has a negative impact on mangrove forests. All of a sudden, anxious middle-class people hoping to impress dinner guests with sophisticated seafood were righteously scorned for not caring about Gaia. Since then, the trends have moved on, sometimes surprisingly, leaving many people feeling disconnected from the movement, and annoyed with the moral grandstanding of trendy activists. So, while social desirability can be a powerful motivator for change, this dynamic mostly distracts us from the consequential but unsexy issues that are relevant to solving the climate crisis.

Moral Licensing

Perhaps the most nefarious cognitive blind spot in our everyday dealings with climate change is the concept of moral licensing. Whenever human beings experience the moral boost of having undertaken a virtuous act, we feel better about ourselves, and are thus more likely to make immoral choices subsequently. This effect has been replicated in numerous studies. If people order Diet Cokes with their meal, they feel more comfortable ordering a desert. If people give money to charity, they feel more comfortable parking illegally later that day. People seem to have an intuitive tendency towards karma accounting. This is an obvious problem for sustainable consumption.

If recycling an aluminium can makes people feel more comfortable with leaving the light on in an empty room, the effect of the initial good deed will be cancelled out by the subsequent bad one. What’s more, as our moral intuition is innumerate and sensitive to motivated reasoning, we are likely to use small environmentalist acts to morally license big unsustainable purchases.

An afternoon of recycling can easily be used to morally license flying to a big city for a weekend of shopping, even though we will end up with a much larger carbon footprint overall as a result. In a recent experiment conducted by David Hagmann, Emily H. Ho and George Loewenstein, participants were significantly less inclined to support an effective, but unpopular, carbon tax if they were presented with a much less effective, but less painful, nudge that would benefit the climate. The authors correctly hypothesise that thinking about comfortable nudges “decreases support for substantive policies by providing false hope that problems can be tackled without imposing considerable costs.”

The Only Viable Solution

Of course, human beings are able to cognitively circumvent these biases. But overpowering our intuitions requires information and effort. Most of us tend to spend our limited energy for rational deliberation on work, and cruise on cognitive autopilot in our spare time. It is therefore crucial that whoever is tasked with solving the climate crisis use their professional, rational and deliberative mind-sets to come up with the solutions. There are three entities that have a say in the matter of climate change: politicians, corporations and consumers. Responsible politicians can make laws and regulations that limit or disallow production and consumption that is unsustainable. Corporations have to obey those laws, and they can also go above and beyond the legal requirements to help solve the problem. This might be partly motivated by marketing logic—it makes them look good in the face of their consumers and employees—and partly a strategic effort to comply with anticipated future regulations. But holding the individual consumer responsible is a dangerous fallacy.

The climate crisis will never be avoided by the voluntary efforts of five billion powerless, selfish, uninformed and self-centred individuals, who keep fanciful climate karma scorecards and who are not cognitively adapted to the sort of problem-solving required. The only people who gain from talk of sustainable consumption are irresponsible politicians and business leaders, who can thereby deflect unpleasant conversations. Many well-meaning environmentalists continue to talk in terms of sustainable consumption, saying that if we all chip in, if we all do our best, if we all sacrifice just a little, we can make it. These environmentalists now risk becoming useful idiots for the leaders of the fossil fuel industry, who love to see talk of total emissions drowned out by self-help trivialities about how growing our own mint herbs in the nearby community garden is good for the climate.

The only sustainable behaviour we should be talking about is voting for responsible politicians who promise to do whatever is needed to lower emissions, be they left of centre or right of centre. Everything else is a climate distraction.


This artivle was first published in Aero Magazine 01.10.19.

Published 10. October 2019

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