May 24, 2019

Article by
Cameron Brick
Postdoctoral research associate, University of Cambridge


Environmentalism can feel like a drag. People trying to reduce their environmental impact often feel stressed and inadequate, and those who aren’t can feel judged and resentful.

There are thousands of articles explaining why we need to act. This one is different. As a psychologist who studies motivation and decision making in climate change, I will explain how our negative feelings prevent us from making effective changes, and suggest how a change in perspective could improve the planet and our well-being at the same time.

Suffering and regret

When we learn about damage to the environment, we suddenly have two issues to deal with: the damage itself, and our own feelings about it. When negative, these feelings can have surprisingly large consequences, both for ourselves and the environment. Faced with the scale of environmental challenges, we can often get trapped in two key negative emotions: suffering and regret.

One way to adapt to climate change.openalex_/flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

When we reflect on climate injustices, and the suffering that will be felt by millions in the coming decades, we often take on suffering ourselves. Stories we tell ourselves about how none of this should be happening, or of how wrong the world is, can yield a sense of powerlessness that is harmful and difficult to avoid. And when we learn that the mechanisms of global warming were well understood in the 1890sand apparent from atmospheric measurements by the 1960s, it’s also natural to feel tremendous regret.

It’s vital to understand that these feelings are okay. There is often relief in the mere acknowledgement and acceptance of pain and regret. Give yourself permission to grieve about sinking islands, dying coral reefs, disappearing rainforests, and the fact that all of these were avoidable.

The pitfall is staying with these emotions. Lingering suffering and regret can get us stuck in misery, despair, judgement, outrage, or righteousness, all of which can foster inaction. When attempting to cope with our personal suffering and regret, we may forget that engaging in pro-social behaviours focused on others can provide relief.

The fix is pleasantly simple. Imagine classifying all events in your life as “over” and “next”. What happened is over. We can accept tragedies and injustices without approving of them. We must look to what comes next, and fight current battles instead of reliving old ones. If you pay attention, it’s amazing how much effort people give to fighting events that have already occurred.

What if you’re concerned about the environment, but it seems too hard to make a life change? First, ask yourself whether that change is objectively too hard, or whether it is merely a perception that helps you to manage your suffering and regret. If there’s a conflict between what we think is right and what we see ourselves doing, the easiest solution is to adjust our attitudes and feel like a good person again. But if we can be brave enough to try to change our behaviour, accepting what we failed to do before and what we haven’t done yet, each small step we take can bring ecological and personal benefits.

While actions that serve the climate and our communities may seem difficult before we try them, much of that perceived effort lies in the conservative inertiaof our current habits, and how much we believe that we can change.

Cycling: making you happier and the planet healthier. G Torres/Shutterstock

For example, I used to drive to most places. I imagined a change to cycling as an inconvenience, as just more work. But once I began cycling to work, it changed my life in unexpected and lovely ways. I’m fitter, more alert, happier, and work more effectively —- as is the case for millions of other cyclists. If cycling were a new drug with the same benefits, it would make the front page of every newspaper. I’m not the best environmentalist, but what I once saw as a difficult sacrifice now seems like an easy change that’s only improved my quality of life.

From consumerism to community

At a societal level, consumerism is depleting nature’s resources and producing unimaginable amounts of waste, too much of which ends up in oceans and landfill. However, consumerist behaviour doesn’t just cause significant harm to the environment — it’s also strongly associated with multiple negative emotions and mental health problems, including anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and problems with intimacy. These can manifest regardless of age, income, or culture.

Freeing ourselves from consumerism is part of the solution to resolving the climate apathy and disillusionment brought by these emotions. Once we recognise that tying our well-being to possessions is harming both our health and our planet, this liberates us to find solutions. Reaching a new consensus on societal priorities could enable us to create new communities that fulfil and nourish us, and free us to implement the urgent changes needed to transform our relationship with nature.

It’s painful to watch our societies pollute land, water, and air. But we have power to combat climate breakdown through politics, diet, transportation, and perhaps most importantly of all: communication. Talk about your struggles with others, and share your victories. Transforming pain into action can be infectious, and together we can still tip the balance.

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