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Why We’re Happy To Watch Our Planet Suffer

Here at 1 Million Women we advocate changing our everyday actions in order to reduce our environmental impact.

This isn't just a way to support our community members, who sometimes don't know where to start making changes in their lives (I know I didn't!), but it also helps people to translate their values (ie. conserving our planet's resources) into actions.

At the same time, around the world we see thousands of people who are well-educated and aware of the drastic impacts that global warming and climate change are having on our planet, but who still drive their petrol cars everyday, eat meat-heavy diets and ignore recycling instructions.

How is it that this contradiction is able to exist in so many people's lives?
“There is a chunk of people who believe in climate change and want something done about it, but in a similar way that they want something done about third world poverty...It’s something that ‘the world’ should deal with, but not necessarily in a way that requires personal sacrifice.”
- -Matthew Hornsey

Caroline Spence is an academic at Queen Mary University, London. She recently wrote a piece for The Conversation exploring the link between knowledge and psychological response. Using the example of meat-eating, Spence identifies the way in which humans "arm ourselves with a variety of psychological techniques to overcome the moral dilemma of being responsible for the suffering and death of another living creature."

In the same way, she writes, "We can see it in people's desire to smoke despite the significant dangers to their health or in the continuing use of petrol-fuelled cars despite accepting the threat of climate change."

This is indeed an interesting thing to consider when examining action on the destruction of our environment that occurs every day. Most informed adults (and many children) know that the final destination for all of the plastic bags, single-use coffee cups and other junk that we throw away is landfill. We've seen photos of huge piles of rotting waste and seabirds choking on plastics that have washing into the oceans. We know this intellectually, but does that stop the vast majority of people from accepting plastic bags at the supermarket, or continuing to buy take-away food that comes in disposable packaging? No, it doesn't.

This dilemma is a paradox central to the environmental debate. Most of us can agree that it is morally wrong to pollute our planet, and to inflict suffering on other humans and animals through polluting water, air and the earth. But we also want to enjoy our takeaway coffees in plastic cups without feeling guilty.

According to Spence, "this kind of psychological brain squabble is referred to as 'cognitive dissonance'", which put simply is "the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes."

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It's deeper than being hypocritical in the sense that we not only fool others, but also ourselves. We allow our minds to justify the actions that we know to be against our values. Why? Because it is convenient and comfortable.

So, what can we do about it?

As Spence explains, when it comes to an issue like eating meat, "While this might seem like a straightforward change, arguing that it is a simple move vastly underestimates how deeply ingrained eating meat is in most cultures. Eating meat forms a key part of many traditions and ceremonies as well as everyday cooking, but can also convey status."

By the same token, we have so many social and cultural influences and habits that play out in our everyday lives that make much behaviour difficult to change.

For example, taking a Keep Cup to your local café draws attention from others. We might feel like we are somehow inconveniencing the barista, or that others are judging us. We decide, therefore, to supress the voice in our head that reminds us that our disposable coffee cup is unsustainable.

We also provide our minds with excuses to make reality easier to deal with. We use language such as "throw it away" to distance ourselves from the fact that "away" is a putrid rubbish pile that leeches toxic goo into our oceans and waterways. We avoid talking about global warming. We give $5 to the local conservation group and pat ourselves on the pack for doing a good thing.

"I'm more interested in footy than seeing the Solomons rebuilt, But I'll give you fifty bucks to take away my guilt"
- "The Guilt Song", Comedian Tim Minchin

To paraphrase Spence, those of us more aware of environmental issues methods might buy "eco" products to affirm our delusions of a cleaner, greener planet. This "perceived behavioural change" reduces our guilt, allowing us to take the moral high ground and still drive our cars, use plastic bags and skip out on separating our recyclables.

We all do this. I like to think of myself as a pretty on-the-ball environmentalist, but I still ignore the impact of many of my routine activities. I often buy cheap clothes made overseas in sweatshops. I regularly fly overseas, despite the massive carbon footprint of air travel. I forget to research whether my makeup has been tested on animals.

So, what can be done?

Once we're aware of this self-deception at play, we can begin addressing it in a productive way. It could be as easy as making a list of our current actions and proposing how we could change them in order to better reflect our values. Swap disposable for reusable, switch from car to bike. It doesn't matter how small the action is, as long as we're moving in the right direction.


WATCH THIS NEXT: Below is a video that delves deeper into this phenomenon, using meat consumption as a case study:

READ THIS NEXT: The Science of Climate Change Denial

Images: Shutterstock

1 Million Women is more than our name, it's our goal! We're building a movement of strong, inspirational women acting on climate change by leading low-carbon lives. To make sure that our message has an impact, we need more women adding their voice. We need to be louder. Joining us online means your voice and actions can be counted. We need you.


Steph Newman Former Social Media Assistant Suggest an article Send us an email

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