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Psychologists Tackle Climate Change

Psychologists Tackle Climate Change

The American Psychological Association published a “Special Issue: Psychology and Global Climate Change” for distribution at its 119th Annual Convention last August. The book has eight scholarly articles with titles like “The Dragons of Inaction – Psychological Barriers that Limit Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation.” Each piece has multiple psychologist-authors and references to about 100 other articles and books. The APA’s book is a treasury of insights into understanding our reluctance to acknowledge the effects of excessive human consumption, the psychological underpinnings of resistance to mitigation actions, and how we can move forward.

The authors share a conclusion that human activities have caused and are causing climate changes that pose risks for a “broad range of human and natural systems.” They see climate change as “a quintessential commons problem: it involves collective action driven by individuals’ short-term benefits that degrades a long-term common good.” Several articles explore psychological obstacles to aggressive “adaptation.” There are useful insights concerning psychological motors for the material consumption that has put us where we are, and to cultural turns that could mitigate future damages. Janet K. Swim, PhD, the introductory article’s lead author, asserts that:

Psychology is essential to understanding the human causes and consequences of climate change. Moreover, psychology can play a significant role to help limit or mitigate climate change.

Dr. Swim and her colleagues seek to move us towards a culture that that will respect “people’s attitudes,” meet their psychological needs, and at the same encourage actions which are less damaging to the environment. As a target, the psychologists emphasize our “cultural foundation” for “consumerism,” defined as “a belief and value system in which consumption and acquisition rituals (e.g. shopping) are naturalized as sources of self-identity and meaning in life, goods are avidly desired for non-utilitarian reasons such as envy provocation and status seeking….”

One way I see to alter “consumerism” is to restrict the advertising industry, whose purpose is to create wants through sophisticated psychology, and then to explicitly – and implicitly – promise that specific purchases will satisfy those wants. Americans halted some cigarette advertising after we, through our elected representatives, decided that the health effects of smoking justified warnings and high taxes. Advertisements featuring public icons such as John Wayne pushing cigarettes stopped. Psychologists call that a “targeted intervention,” and it worked: less advertising linking cigarettes with glamour, masculinity and other psychic wants, along with higher taxes on cigarette sales, helped lower consumption as smoking became less “cool” in our culture.

Our country is experimenting with other “targeted interventions” such as those against junk food for school children. The technology is transferrable to a broad range of consumption, once we make the decision that overall consumption must slow to protect higher values.

Climate change calls for a public discussion about moving away from a material-consumption-oriented culture. The psychologists give us no easy path into that future, but their insights are a start. Others can help; I would love to see creative people in communications, including those who do popular television sitcoms, poking fun at consumerism and having us laugh at ourselves. Other popular culture is moving: the April 22, 2012 “Parade” magazine’s cover story asks “Is Your Stuff Weighing You Down?” and has author Anna Quindlen’s statement that “Now that I’m nearing 60, I understand the truth about possessions, that they mean or prove or solve nothing. Stuff is not salvation.”

Image by Ropable (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


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