Are We Hardwired To Self-Destruct Our Planet?

Why aren’t we doing more about climate change? One issue is that our brains are wired to respond to short-term problems and not to long-term risks.

The heatwave produced by the recent Amazon forest fires or the decision of the BMC to cut 2,702 trees of the Aarey forest saw social media engulf itself in its blaze. People were seemingly outraged at the negligence of mankind towards our planet and at the effects of climate change it resulted to on our lives. They did not shy away from releasing their outrage which was mostly directed towards negligent and lackadaisical governments to actively pursue effective counter-action plans, and at profit-fueled MNCs. Although this is true, we as consumers tend to forget that we, too, have a role to play in this global crisis of climate change – in fact a major one! 

What stops us as consumers from making economic choices and decisions that are beneficial to us, humanity, and to the planet that we make up? After all, there has to be some explanation for our paralyzing resistance to climate change action where the risks approach existential peaks unseen in historical human experience.

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Research shows that we as human beings possess innate traits that have been hardwired into our psyche. These traits could possibly set us on a path of self-destruction of the entire human race and the planet we make up by neglecting our role as a conscious consumer. A Conscious Consumer, here, is a person who is aware of the footprint they leave behind. They are more conscious of the impact the production of certain commodities leaves on the environment and on the masses. This could prevent them from purchasing or consuming certain products. Anything from substituting one-time use plastic bottles for a Tupperware or steel bottle, to refraining from buying products of FMCGs (Fast-Moving Consumer Goods) and businesses that may resort to malpractice in order to produce more of a product quicker.

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“A key factor in reversing dangerous climate change is altering our behavior, our habits, and our individual and organizational decisions,” said APA Chief Executive Officer Norman B. Anderson, PhD. As consumers, the majority of our standpoint regarding our consumer choices helm from a need for the product as well as from products being low-cost and more accessible. This is precisely why FMCGs thrive. It is because we as consumers would rather spend our money on cheaper and more accessible products – as a matter of convenience – that satisfy our immediate needs. Contrarily, ethically manufactured consumer goods following the axiom of “time is money” are relatively pricier and invariably less feasible for the common consumer, often at the risk of being deemed an avoidable extravagance.  

According to an article by the American Psychology Association, human beings as consumers act on certain inherent character traits that have been ingrained into our very nature. These vices stated include the following:

(1) We value personal interest over collective interest.

Human beings are by nature, selfish. As consumers, we pass on the responsibility of being a conscious consumer to another person. By using a plastic bag at the grocery store and hence saving 10 on a reusable cloth bag, we convince ourselves that we have made the more economical choice over the ecological choice which is seemingly the more beneficial one of the two in the short-run.

(2) We value the present over the future.

Would you rather have 1 lakh now or 1.5 lakhs a year from now? When consumers are met with these dilemmas, most of them prefer the immediate reward, albeit smaller. Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman, in his 2011 book, Thinking Fast And Slow, explains this mentality as a Loss Aversion Bias. We are a lot more afraid to lose what we already have than we are keen to get more. Our minds are designed to weigh immediate outcomes more heavily than distant ones. Additionally, investments into sustainable and ecological consumer goods are often long-term. In a sartorial context, it is due to this bias of loss aversion that we purchase cheaper products of fast-fashion rather than durable and reusable products of ethical fashion.

(3) We do not realize the power of our purchasing power.

We are not aware of the power of every consumption decision we make and its impact on the planet. As consumers, we create the demand for products in the market which ultimately decides its price as well. Therefore, unless we produce the demand for green goods by consuming more of it, they will remain at heightened prices in the market, making them increasingly out of reach for the common consumer. Subsequently, the supply of FMCGs produce damaging impacts on the planet increases exponentially.

(4) We copy unconsciously the behaviors of people around us.

Imitation of consumption behaviour patterns is an underappreciated factor that prevents conscious consumption. Humans instinctively copy and mimic the behavior of those around them. Hence, as long as consuming ecologically is not the norm or the trend, and a shared sentiment of all consumers, it will be impossible to encourage sustainable consumption behaviours.

(5) We do not want to digress from traditional consumption patterns.

Digressing from traditional consumption behaviour patterns is often a daunting task, as it was relevant and beneficial for previous consumers. Consumption patterns, however,  must be centered around the need, relevance, and requirement of the times; so should our choices. Amidst the brink of a global climate crisis, we must alter our consumption choices to reflect this urgency. This is the dilemma faced by numerous consumers in the US from switching  to a plant-based diet, as they are ‘’traditionally” used to being meat-eaters, in spite of the health and environment benefits of cutting greenhouse emissions by half (51%) and by conserving water by 1/14th times that is required for livestock and cattle production.

(6) We tend to disassociate our choices from their effects on the planet.

We are often aware of the consumer choices we make and of their immediate impact on the environment. An average 10 packet of LAYS potato chips that we consume is mass produced using palmolein oil. This product is used by large corporations such as PepsiCo for global mass production due to its affordability and availability over its less harmful alternatives. However, it is also one of the biggest contributors to huge swaths of tropical forests and carbon-rich peatlands cleared to make way for palm plantations in the Indonesian and Amazonian Rainforests. Thus, in our small way, as consumers, we have contributed to the Amazonian forest fires and we had no idea about it!

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Despite this, as more and more consumers are being bitten by the green bug, the pertinence of what it means to become a conscious consumer has become apparent. By becoming more aware of where we get our money’s worth and looking beyond the label of consumer goods, as conscious consumers we wield our purchasing power for the good.  We put ourselves in the driver’s seat as we channel our consumer choices to supporting businesses that source their raw materials ethically and practice fair labour laws. In this way, we offer our encouragement to authentic companies with an agenda to offer the most ethically produced products instead of profit-driven corporates who have just gone under a case of greenwashing. Ultimately, this is the most sustainable way we can help avert the climate crisis when faced with the hard truth that there is no Planet B.

Risha George (Editor, Declassified).

References and Further Reading:

https://www.economist.com/business/2019/09/19/climate-capitalists-have-serious-money-in-climate-friendly-investments

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/naturally-selected/201206/are-we-hardwired-damage-the-environment

https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2014/nov/10/brain-climate-change-science-psychology-environment-elections

http://sysengr.engr.arizona.edu/OLLI/lousyDecisionMaking/KahnemanThinkingFast&Slow.pdf

https://medium.com/naturehub/what-is-a-conscious-consumer-and-why-does-it-matter-4b7a14ca08fc

 

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