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Reading Psychological Roots of the Climate Crisis

In my current research I am looking at the role of human behavior within the energy transition. If you look at my blog about self-experimentation you can see that I do think that human behavior is crucial. At the same time, I am wary of pushing the responsibility solely onto the individual. The individualization of sustainability issues can be counterproductive. This is as 1) most people (including myself) are overwhelmed by the changes we have to do and the struggle that is related to these changes, 2) it may increase the tendency to reduce the responsibility of governments and businesses to contribute to the transition.

I am currently working on a research paper where I point out that some transition pathways suggested are rather describing an adaptation process. This perspective fits very well with Weintrobe’s view, as she is also calling for a fundamental transition. Weintrobe connects the individual with the larger picture. Humans influence their environment, our actions and habits create conventions, culture and institutions. At the same time the circumstances we are in, influence our behavior, how we perceive and understand the world. This is why it is difficult to push the burden onto the consumer.

I try to have a more sustainable lifestyle, but I am confronted with many hurdles! These are hurdles created by the environment I live in. My food is packaged in plastic, I do not get a sustainable cover for my phone, I cannot separate my organic waste, the sustainable organic cotton underwear costs a fortune, etc. I would do certain things, but I cannot or at least not that easily. There was a blog post on the webpage of the Behavioral scientist which was about the relevance of psychology and behavioral science to make people act the right way. Amongst others, the post discussed default choices. This means that sustainable options should be the default one. This reduces the burden carried by the consumer to think about making the right choice. The example was putting ceramic coffee cups instead of some single use cups next to the coffee machine. Yes, making the sustainable option default is necessary and good. Though, who put the unsustainable choice there in first place? Ceramic cups are older than single use cups, thus at some point someone must have introduced the unsustainable option. Why did this person do it? It might have been sold as the more convenient option, as the dishes end up in the waste and no one needs to care about cleaning cups. Though, now we are figuring that this is a shortsighted view. The waste is a problem and someone needs to handle it. The business model also seems to be in favor of single use cups. Instead of selling one cup, a company can sell say 1-3 cups per person per day. I suppose if all single-use cups are taken together the costs of these single-use cups are much higher than of the ceramic cups. I suppose this also applies to the environmental costs if a lifecycle cradle to cradle perspective is taken.

Human societies have ever since been struggling with resource overuse. Though, the current culture is for sure excelling in this discipline. Weintrobe describes how neoliberalism created a specific culture that influences our behavior. But not only that, it also influences our world view and our psyche. From an outside perspective (if it is even possible to apply such a perspective) our behavior and world view is quite strange. Weinrobe draws the picture of a culture based on narcissism, which is supporting people’s belief in their godlike ingenuity that overcomes the restrictive shackles of nature. It supports people who think they can overcome thermodynamics and create an ever-growing economy on a finite planet. She connects the individual with the company level, posing the questions whether businesses led by narcissists become narcist entities themselves. This has effects on the interactions among companies, but also for the climate within companies. Thus, narcissistic behavior is supported through the company climate. Those who are more narcissistic climb the leather. The softies who care too much about others are left behind. The homage of big egos is not limited to the business sector, indeed. It is seen in, I suppose many can observe, how important the public appearance of politicians has become. It is no longer about the program, but about your social media appearance. No wonder a reality show star becomes president and Twitter the new communication channel. The support of narcissistic tendencies is, I would argue also, part of our private life. This can best be seen through platforms such as Instagram. Sure, who likes to post a bad image. Everyone wants to be seen in a good light. But it is one thing to stick a nice image of yours in your private photo album or to share it with the whole world. It is then another step to constantly post about your perfection and to get quantifiable support of your (fake?) perfection. If this is not a recipe to support narcissistic tendencies (and other psychological problems), I do not know what is.

Weintrobe’s main argument is that the current economic system is supporting our rather masculine and uncaring side, while downgrading our feminine and caring side. I do agree on both. Females in leading positions embody masculine qualities. Female qualities are understood to be a weakness. Being a softy is understood to be bad. A softy is not tough enough to survive on this planet. I do not think that people who portray themselves as strong or tough are really strong or tough. They are ignorant, they are uncaring. And you have to be to survive in a culture that is coined by other uncaring people. This toughness is of a very special kind. It is toughness, I would argue, that is useless outside the neoliberal culture. In another book that I am reading now, there is a passage about the work of Max-Neef. It is explained that he found that individualism does not matter in regions where market-based interactions are less relevant. There, cooperation is the key to survive.

If tough people would be placed in a tent for one week, they would most probably realize that they are everything but tough. If they would be placed one week in a slum, they would realize that they are not tough. If they were placed one week in a home for elderly people and care for them, they would realize that they are everything but tough. To be caring requires a lot of strength and toughness. As stated, I think that the toughness that our current economic system requires is a very specific toughness, which is indeed related to not caring about other people.

There was a period in my life when I had to stop watching the news, because it was breaking me. How should a softy like me succeed in this world? You have to become dull to survive. You have to be dull to not start crying when you see war, environmental destruction and human exploitation. This is the toughness that is required. You have to be tough enough to not be touched by the havoc we are creating. You have to be tough enough to not care. The devaluation of care is also expressed in monetary terms through the wage difference between jobs involving care work and those that don’t. Although, we have been applauding people working in the health and the care sector we have still not provided them with the salary they would deserve.

Weintrobe does relate the narcissistic uncaring characteristics to the trust in humans’ ingenuity to develop technologies that will solve our environmental problems. I do agree on this argument as well. The narrative of weak sustainability is one of technology myopia. We are trusting that green technologies provide solutions, without the need to fundamentally change our economic system. It is a convenient narrative. Not only for policy makers but for all of us. I do not have to consume less, I just have to consume differently. The other day I saw an advert on YouTube. It was from Levis exactly with this slogan. I find it very interesting to observe how companies are now more and more tapping into the green branding. Another instance was a discussion in a Facebook group about an electric toothbrush made out of bamboo. I was arguing that this is still not very sustainable, since it needs electricity. I was then told that there are people who have to use an electric toothbrush for medical reasons. Well, I cannot say anything about that then. Another comment was that I do not need to worry if the energy comes from renewable energy. This is exactly the problem. There is little awareness of the need to reduce our consumption in absolute terms. It is not only about consuming differently. Interestingly (though I often observe this), Weintrobe does fall for this argument herself. She tells how disillusioned and hopeless she was until she went to a conference where she learned that we could shift our energy consumption to renewable with already existing technologies. I am not saying that renewables are irrelevant, but they are only one part of the story. We have to reduce our energy consumption in absolute terms. The best would be not to read this blog and do something that does not consume energy (if that is possible?).

I am working on this right now in the paper I mentioned above. Technological change that leads to a transformation in this technology sector does not equate to transformations in other sectors. To achieve sustainability, we need to transform other sectors (or systems) as well. This is what Weintrobe is pointing out too. I am stressing that we have to distinguish between transformations in the e.g. energy sector and subsequent transformations in the socio-economic system. Usually, the transformations in the energy system only lead to adaptions in the socio-economic system. However, the socio-economic system needs to transform as well to support sustainability to the extent needed.

The technology myopia is part of the narrative that keeps us in the delusion that we can have it all. Weintrobe explains that a main task is to keep humans (consumers) in this delusion. Though, one cannot only blame the system for this. Everyone who buys into the delusion has responsibility too. It is understandable why we do want to buy into this narrative. Who would not like to hear that one can have everything and that there are no negative consequences of one having everything? Sounds alluring. She calls individuals who think they can have everything they want, Exceptions. These individuals think they can have everything, because they are entitled to have everything (because obviously they are God). Weintrobe explains that these individuals have to live in a bubble that maintains this thinking. Obviously, the current economic system supports the creation and maintenance of this bubble. She writes: “The aim is primary to protect themselves from having their ‘entitlements’ diminished.” My note to this sentence was: “Oh my God, we are all living in this denial!” Think about it. I find this revealing. How does it make you feel, if I tell you that you cannot have everything? You cannot have a car, you cannot buy new cloths every month, you cannot have imported strawberries, you cannot have a steak, you cannot fly on vacation. Sure, you may think, I cannot have all of this, because I do not have the money. But this is not the point. You cannot have it irrespective of how much money you have.

Weintrobe spends some time writing about the effect of this revelation; the need to mourn. She relates the development humanity needs to go through with the development of a child, that realizes that Mommy (Mother Earth) is not perfect (damaged) and that she cannot provide us with everything we want. I like the analogy to the developing child. Though, I am not that much convinced by the argument of us realizing that mommy is damaged and that this calls us to mourn. What calls us to mourn is that we realize we cannot have everything we want. I see it more like this: For a long period of time humanity was in its infancy and we were save with Mother Earth. She provided us with everything we needed. But then we grow up, we do not like the limitations that Mother Erath is putting on us. We realize that our Mother is limiting and we think we can do more if we were only allowed to (pre-enlightenment phase). Then we found ways to get more (technology) and we proudly could say that we won. We showed our Mother that nothing can limit us that we can do and have whatever we want. She is a good Mother and does not argue, as she knows we have to make our own experiences and learn. She knows that reality will kick in at some point. This is the point we are at right know. We have to realize that Mother was right and that we were wrong. That is quite a bummer for our egos, and we have to mourn. Though, before we get to that stage, we will keep on fighting to show that Mother was wrong. Sure, enough the longer we fight the worse the consequences. From a child development perspective, I see this as the stage where the child has to learn to adopt healthy self-limiting behavior. The small child alone in the candy store will eat until the belly hurts. The healthy grown up won’t. That is as the grown up has learnt to set limits. Or think about teenagers and alcohol. You may have to get waisted often until you learn that the hangover you have the next day is not worth it. But that brings me to the tragedy. Not all kids learn to adopt a health self-limiting behavior. For some this means that they have to live with sever damages for the rest of their live or that they even die too early (e.g., drug overdose). For change to happen it is often said that people have to hit rock bottom. But rock bottom is at a different level for everyone. Sadly, for some rock bottom is at the graveyard. If this analogy is applied to humanities fate, we have to ask, when are we reaching rock bottom? When are we starting to realize that it is not healthy to get everything we want and that it is better to adopt a self-limiting behavior? Are we as a race ever going to leave puberty and grow up?

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