Scientists claim that the root cause of climate change is a crisis in human behavior.
The planet is experiencing unprecedented levels of heat, emissions, and fossil fuel usage. As we approach Cop28, it becomes increasingly clear that the world is falling behind in meeting its environmental targets. Recent studies suggest that the root cause of these issues is the “behavioural crisis”, a term created by a team of scientists from various fields.
According to Joseph Merz, the main author of a recent study, we have intentionally manipulated human behavior to the same extent that we have manipulated the environment, resulting in climate change as a consequence of ecological overconsumption.
Merz, the co-founder of the Merz Institute, which focuses on studying the underlying factors of the climate crisis and finding solutions, urges us to be aware of how we are being influenced and controlled.
According to Merz and his team, current proposals for addressing climate change only address the surface issues rather than the underlying cause of the problem. As a result, they argue that this approach contributes to rising levels of three key factors that exacerbate the crisis: excessive consumption, waste, and population growth.
According to Merz, simply implementing new technologies will not be enough to address climate change and resource depletion. The material footprint of renewable energy is a critical issue that is often overlooked, as these energy sources require frequent rebuilding. To truly address the problem, we must also address our overall demand for resources.
“Overshoot” indicates the number of Earths that are being utilized by human society to sustain or expand itself. At present, humanity requires 1.7 Earths in order to sustain consumption of resources within the planet’s capacity to replenish.
When talking about climate, the focus is usually on carbon emissions. However, an emphasis on overshoot draws attention to the consumption of materials, the production of waste, and the expansion of human society, all of which have an impact on the Earth’s biosphere.
According to Merz, overshoot is fundamentally a result of human behavior. For many years, we have been urging individuals to modify their actions without directly stating it. We have been advising people to be more environmentally friendly or to reduce their air travel, but at the same time, the underlying factors that influence behavior have been encouraging the opposite. These subtle and not-so-subtle cues have been actively promoting a different direction, leaving us perplexed as to why there has been little progress.
The article investigates the use of neuropsychology, social signals, and norms to influence human actions that contribute to economic growth, such as consuming goods and having large families. The authors propose that innate desires to fit in with a group, display social status, and attract a partner have been manipulated by marketing experts to encourage behaviors that are not sustainable for the environment.
Phoebe Barnard, a co-author of the study and an evolutionary behavioral ecologist, believes that people have been taken advantage of and are now facing a crisis. She argues that these tools, instead of driving us to extinction, should be utilized to create a truly sustainable world.
About 25% of the global population is responsible for almost 75% of emissions. The writers propose that the most effective approach to addressing this issue would be to utilize the tactics of marketing, media, and entertainment industries to redefine our socially accepted norms that promote material consumption.
We are discussing the idea of substituting the messages and self-expression that individuals convey. Currently, our expressions have a significant impact on the environment – our clothing is associated with social status and wealth, made from materials sourced globally, transported to Southeast Asia, and then shipped back here. This pattern continues as new trends emerge each season. The objects that humans use to signify status are constantly changing, so we have the opportunity to replace them with items that have little to no environmental impact – or even better, have a positive ecological impact.
The Merz Institute operates a lab focused on overshoot behavior, seeking to develop interventions to combat it. One approach involves identifying “behavioral influencers” such as screenwriters, web developers, and algorithm engineers, who have the potential to rapidly and safely change societal norms by promoting new behaviors.
The article explores the great achievements of the Population Media Center’s efforts to use popular media to promote positive changes in population growth and gender-based violence. The airing of the center’s telenovelas and radionovelas has led to a decrease in fertility rates in the countries where they are broadcasted.
The subject of population growth can be challenging to address due to past instances of eugenics and ethnic cleansing in various countries. Despite this, Merz and his team argue that it is crucial to confront this issue, as population growth has negated many of the environmental benefits from renewable energy and efficiency improvements in the last thirty years.
Barnard states that it pertains to the freedom of women, specifically. Obtaining a higher education ultimately results in a decrease in birth rates. It is difficult to understand why anyone would oppose the idea of educating girls, and if they do, what would be their reasoning?
The team is advocating for further interdisciplinary investigation into what they refer to as the “human behavioral crisis.” They also urge for collective action to redefine our societal expectations and wants, which are fueling excessive consumption. When questioned about the morality of this effort, Merz and Barnard highlight the constant battle between corporations for consumers’ attention.
Barnard poses the question of whether it is morally acceptable to use our understanding of psychology to support an economic system that is contributing to the destruction of the planet. He notes that excessive consumption is fueled by creativity and innovation, and this system is pushing us towards our own demise. He describes it as a toxic combination of aggression, entitlement, sexism, and arrogance, leading us towards a dark fate.
The team strongly believes that failing to address the root causes of our economy’s focus on growth will only worsen the problem of overshooting.
Barnard emphasizes the high stakes involved in our current state. The existence of a livable planet and a harmonious society are both valuable, and we must consider the ethical and just use of our resources. This extends beyond just humans; it affects all other species and future generations as well.
I often feel frustrated when people become stuck in indecision, wondering what actions to take or what is necessary. There are many ethical challenges present, but we must make decisions on how to act in order to continue moving forward as a society. Currently, everything seems to be designed to dehumanize us.