Why don’t we just… get honest about the environment?

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Geoff Beattie 

Climate change is the greatest threat we as a species have faced. The scientific evidence for climate change is overwhelming; indeed, it’s rare to see such a scientific consensus on anything. We also know that our patterns of consumption and energy use are major parts of this problem. But, despite numerous campaigns, we have been slow to change our behaviour. Why?

There are many possible reasons. The effects of climate change are less personal than other looming disasters, and will primarily affect future generations. It cannot be reversed immediately and we know that this is highly problematic for behaviour change. Climate change also requires a global response, but because it is global we can leave it to others. Uncertainty about the time course of climate change also plays an important role, with powerful lobbies behind this uncertainty (according to the BBC, the US fossil fuel giants the Koch Brothers spend $900 million a year on advertising promoting their counter-arguments about climate change). This is all similar to the “uncertainty” generated about the relationship between smoking and lung cancer by the tobacco industry between the 1950s and 1980s.

But there might be another important reason. Those who say that we just have to read the mind of the consumer better to design more effective campaigns may not be correct, because consumers don’t have a mind; they have two. They have two distinct cognitive systems, with one system not open to introspection. Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Laureate, calls these System 1 (a fast, automatic and largely unconscious system) and System 2 (a slower, more deliberate, reflective and conscious system).

Social psychologist Anthony Greenwald then developed the Implicit Association Test (IAT). In many domains, including race and the environment, the IAT gives us a measure of implicit attitudes that do not connect to what people consciously report in surveys (their explicit attitudes).

Most of us know that high carbon lifestyles are unsustainable but we have been socialised through years of relentless advertising to unconsciously associate high carbon lifestyles (big cars, foreign holidays) with success. We explicitly report in surveys that low carbon is good but the IAT tells us that for many people the concepts of “high carbon” and “good” often fit together better in our unconscious mind.

The concept of implicit attitude gives us a new way of thinking about the motivational basis for human action and could be a critical element in the fight against climate change. Implicit rather than explicit attitudes may well underpin our everyday consumer behaviours. Such behaviours may have been resistant to change because campaigns to date have just focused on the conscious mind, ignoring the associative networks of the implicit system. It’s the unconscious mind that we need to target. We need to make low carbon lifestyles sexy, desirable and aspirational if any of us are to have a future.

Geoff Beattie is professor of psychology at Edge Hill University. He discusses these themes in his books Why Aren’t We Saving the Planet? A Psychologist’s Perspective and Our Racist Heart? An Exploration of Unconscious Prejudice in Everyday Life

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