The environmentally-minded often think of their relationship with nature as akin to a social exchange, but this may do more harm to the environment than good, a new theory suggests.
Research by psychologists at the University of Gävle in Sweden suggests that ‘climate compensation’ – a psychological trait often exhibited by shoppers, advertisers, and politicians – can damage the environment even when we try to treat it well.
The study, published in the journal Frontiers of Psychology, stresses that we can’t simply ‘kiss and make up’ with the environment.
Instead, it concludes, we should view ‘green’ lifestyle choices as less harmful overall rather than making up for other environmentally harmful actions.
‘Reciprocity and balance in social relations have been fundamental to social cooperation, and thus to survival, so the human brain has become specialized through natural selection to compute and seek this balance,’ says lead author Patrik Sörqvist, professor of Environmental Psychology at the University of Gävle.
‘But when applied to climate change, this social give-and-take thinking leads to the misconception that ‘green’ choices can compensate for unsustainable ones.’
The research suggests that our morally intuitive approach to social interactions leads us to struggle to truly comprehend our environmental footprint, believing that environmentally ‘ethical’ and ‘unethical’ behaviours can cancel each other out.
Examples of this misguided ‘quick-fix’ behaviour include buying extra groceries because they are ‘eco-friendly’, flying abroad for a holiday as a reward for regularly cycling to work, or taking long showers at a lower temperature.
The study also highlights how this can apply in political thinking, such as governments looking to balance their greenhouse gas emissions by planting a greater number of trees.
The researchers stress that the best thing for the environment is to consume less overall, and we should, therefore, encourage people to make more responsible, rational decisions surrounding their environmental impact.
‘Terms like “eco-friendly” or “green” encourage the view that objects, behaviours and decisions with these labels are “good” rather than “less bad” for the environment,’ says co-author Dr Linda Langeborg, also of the University of Gävle.
‘Instead, we should give consumers immediate feedback on how much ‘eco-labeled’ and other products add to the environmental impact of what they are buying.’
Ways in which this could be applied include making laws surrounding marketing stricter, like making it obligatory to publish products’ estimated carbon footprints, the researchers said.
This could in turn stop individuals, companies and nations from causing more environmental harm as they engage in climate compensation.