Want to save the planet? Stop trying to be its friend

Frontiers in Psychology: People tend to judge their environmental impact using moral intuition that evolved to handle social exchange -- but these tree huggers may be doing more harm than good, say researchers
In reality, ‘green’ options are at best less harmful rather than restorative. Image: Shutterstock.

People tend to judge their environmental impact using moral intuition that evolved to handle social exchange — but these tree huggers may be doing more harm than good, say researchers

— by Matthew Prior, Frontiers Science writer

A new theory suggests that we think of our relationship with the environment like a social exchange, leading to the belief that ‘environmentally friendly’ behavior can compensate for ‘harmful’ behavior.

But unlike a social misstep, our environmental footprint cannot be smoothed over.

Published in Frontiers in Psychology, the research reveals how advertisers, politicians and economic systems play on the psychology of ‘climate compensation’ – and encourages a more responsible, rational approach.

Why People Harm the Environment Although They Try to Treat It Well: An Evolutionary-Cognitive Perspective on Climate Compensation
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“You can’t kiss and make up with the environment”

Swedish psychologists have come up with a theory to explain why we harm the environment, even when we try to treat it well.

According to the researchers, it is virtually impossible to keep track of the environmental impact of every one of our actions, so we resort instead to mental ‘rules of thumb’ to assess our green footprint. The problem, they say, is that these innate, intuitive judgements evolved to deal with social interaction, where morally righteous and unrighteous decisions can cancel each other out.

“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, Sweden. “But when applied to climate change, this social give-and-take thinking leads to the misconception that ‘green’ choices can compensate for unsustainable ones.”

In reality, all consumption causes permanent environmental harm, and green options are at best less harmful rather than restorative.

“You can’t kiss and make up with the environment. Jetting to the Caribbean will make you a huge environmental burden, no matter how many meat free Mondays you have,” Sörqvist quips.

Related: Virtual reality field trips to inspire climate action

Even eco-friendly behavior can be harmful

The belief in ‘climate compensation’ is nevertheless pervasive. Studies show that when so-called ‘eco-friendly’ items are added to a set of ‘conventional’ items, people believe the environmental impact of the whole set is unchanged, or even reduced.

“For instance, some groups have found that people intuitively think the environmental burden of a hamburger and an organic apple in combination is lower than the environmental burden of the hamburger alone – or that the total emissions of a car pool remain the same when hybrid cars are added to the pool,” highlights Sörqvist.

This leads us to pursue all sorts of misguided quick fixes to assuage our eco-guilt.

“People might purchase some extra groceries because they are ‘eco-labeled’; think that they can justify jetting abroad for vacation because they have been cycling to work; or take longer showers because they’ve reduced the water temperature.

“And companies – nations, even – claim to balance greenhouse gas emissions by planting trees or by paying for carbon offsets through the European Union Emission Trading Scheme.

“Meanwhile, the best thing for the environment would of course be for us to consume less overall,” stresses Sörqvist.

Meaner is greener

According to the researchers, stricter legislation of marketing devices and an obligatory carbon footprint estimate of products could be a way to better guide people’s behavior, companies and nations away from environmentally harmful actions taken in name of climate compensation.

“Terms like ‘eco-friendly’ or ‘green’ encourage the view that objects, behaviors 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.

“Calling a hamburger restaurant ‘100 % climate compensated’, for example, may deceive people into believing that eating dinner at that restaurant has no environmental burden.

“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. For example, self-scanning systems in supermarkets could provide customers with an accumulated carbon footprint estimate of their shopping basket,” suggests Langeborg.

Original article: Why People Harm the Environment Although They Try to Treat It Well: An Evolutionary-Cognitive Perspective on Climate Compensation

REPUBLISHING GUIDELINES: Open access and sharing research is part of Frontiers’ mission. Unless otherwise noted, you can republish articles posted in the Frontiers news blog — as long as you include a link back to the original research. Selling the articles is not allowed.

7 Comments on Want to save the planet? Stop trying to be its friend

  1. Oh, OK, so what´s the alternative? Commit suicide as the ideal solution?
    Frankly, academics love to enhance their CVs by making these foolish criticisms of – well, about everything that people do to try and ease their environmental footprint. It might as well be that (for instance) planting trees, cycling to work and eating less meat do not solve the world´s environmental problems, but it sure helps ease them – in a great degree, if practised by millions of people or become incorporated practices of large businesses. So stop ranting and help come up with better solutions than ranting from the (environmentally and socially) costly ivory towers pf academia.


    • Hi there, I interpreted this article differently and feel that it had a good message. I didn’t get the sense that the author was saying that cycling,planting trees, and eating less meat aren’t impactful. I feel the message was that we need to be careful about how we use these “good environmental deeds” as a rationale for making less sustainable choices elsewhere in our lives. They were also saying that we need to be mindful of how we consume “green” products. I think it’s important to understand that “green” consumerism still has environmental impacts, and that it is beneficial to reduce all of our consumerism.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Thanks for your comment! I still see it differently but I get what you´re saying. In the end, however, it seems to me that we all have to make choices, and to me. living the urgency of reducing impacts in less than ideal conditions in the developing world, this utopian search for the perfect fix is more hindrance than help.


    • jtruda, plenty of non-suicide alternatives exist. You could choose to not eat the hamburger and opt to consume lower trophic level foods, for example. Talk of enhancing CVs, calling interesting findings “foolish criticisms”, and griping about ivory towers are a distraction. The article’s point is that feel good measures may be less helpful than widely believed. It is useful to understand the psychological underpinnings of the choices we make so we can make better choices. This article did not suggest that cycling instead of driving, eating plants instead of meat, or planting trees would have no impact. But greenwashing is a thing. We should be honest about it rather than defeatist. We possess the power to make informed choices, but only if we’re honest about these complex issues.


  2. As individuals we can continue to play an active part to minimise damage but not rest on our laurels as the realistic steps to reduce damage has to come from pressure at government level.


  3. I am wondering what the phrase “According to the researchers, stricter legislation of marketing devices” is referring to?


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