We all know the issue — climate change is one of humanity’s most pressing challenges. Unpredictable and dangerous shifts in weather patterns and rising sea levels are a growing threat to life, prosperity and peace around the globe. Prosperous nations like the US are responsible for outsized carbon footprints, both in total and per capita. China and India, the world’s manufacturing hubs, emit huge amounts of CO2 annually. We’re constantly hearing that we need drastic action to prevent the kind of unpredictable, widespread damage that rapid climate change will cause. But debate rages and disagreement is rife, in living rooms and conference rooms alike.
It’s an obvious fact that many of our resources are finite and rampant consumption must have consequences for resource availability and the state of the environment. Reliable scientific consensus supports that and ever more frequent extreme weather events are already destroying lives and economies. But many struggle to accept the problem. The arguments that come back are either that it doesn’t really matter, we’ll find a way around it with technology, it won’t be nearly as bad as the ‘doomsday crowd’ suggest, or that it’s all a hoax and made-made climate change doesn’t exist at all.
What’s creating the friction?
Ask an angry climate activist and they might quickly jump to the suggestion that people are just stupid, ignorant, evil or selfish and that’s all there is to it. It’s a conveniently narrow and dismissive view of the ‘enemy’. It’s a typically tribal human response and mostly unhelpful. Political partisanship only intensifies the problem and creates an impasse that undermines any chance of swift progress. The reality and impact of human-made climate change is a hard truth to come to terms with because it demands an acceptance of responsibility on an individual level. And when we accept responsibility we’re faced with a choice of either making a change, often making sacrifices, or making our peace with knowing the impact and doing nothing. Knowing and caring but doing nothing creates a cognitive dissonance that’s hard to sustain. As much as comic book movies might have us believe, no one wants to be evil and so the mind relieves the pressure by crafting denials. If the issue doesn’t actually exist, we aren’t on the hook for anything.
It’s an unfortunate but understandable human response to a concept that threatens to undermine your lifestyle and livelihood, the things you enjoy and the things you aspire towards. When a tangible threat is on our doorstep, we’re forced to accept it’s reality and make changes (The coronavirus/Covid19 pandemic is evidence of that on a grand scale) but when the threat is a far off concept that we can’t see or feel, it’s much harder to voluntarily upset our status quo, just as it’s hard to quit bad habits in favour of long term health. The power of herd mentality can’t be overstated here — if you have the drive of staying in step with your political identity group, you have a huge unconscious driver encouraging you to jump those hurdles. But if you don’t, you have much less impetus to make changes to your status quo.
It isn’t a question of the good guys vs the bad guys. Fundamentally it’s easy for some, on an instinctive level, to accept the issue and embrace the solution as part of their identity, and it’s really difficult for others. Then it becomes a red and blue issue, conversation gives way to conflict, walls go up, echo chambers form and we get nowhere.
The Material Myth
We live in a culture that priorities and celebrates material wealth. We want nicer things, more gadgets, bigger houses. We want convenience and comfort, which in many cases means more stuff, more machinery and more disposable material. Even those that don’t necessarily consider themselves materialist likely find themselves indulging in the winning lottery ticket fantasy every now and again, mapping out shopping lists of all the thingsthey’d buy if they came into a fortune. Centuries of proverbs and literature have told us that wealth doesn’t guarantee happiness. Many of us are familiar with that idea and might believe it in our most conscious moments but for the most part we don’t live by it on a day-to-day basis. In fact, we appear to be getting more obsessed with wealth and materialism. 82% percent of US college freshman in 2015 suggested that being very well-off financially is very important in life whilst only 47% valued developing a meaningful philosophy on life. The same survey in 1967 had the opposite result, with only 42% valuing being very well-off financially and a whopping 86% percent valuing a meaningful philosophy on life. A survey of graduates in 2014 found that pay was the most valued factor when considering a job, outweighing culture, challenge, security and colleagues among other things.
But despite our expectations about money and material wealth, they don’t deliver. Even with all the incredible tech, the gadgets, comforts and modern luxuries we have today, we are generally no happier than people were in the 1940’s, when not even the wealthiest person had access to the most common tech toys we have now. Research suggest that higher earnings only improve happiness to the point of removing us from financial hardship and instability. Once we reach an income that provides a level of stability and freedom, wellbeing tops out. Having the ability to buy more luxury items doesn’t deliver more lasting happiness. In fact, we get a bigger boost from the act of buying luxury goods than from having and experiencing them. We quickly adjust to our new reality and fall back to our baseline levels of happiness, only now we’re surrounded by more stuff.
Material wealth does not equal happiness but we’re conditioned to prioritise it and celebrate it, not least because our economic system demands constant growth. We’re bombarded with advertising, encouraging us to buy more stuff. It’s ingrained within our culture and it’s very difficult to escape, particularly when material excess is so directly tied to social status. Our most innate, human desires are being manipulated, drawing us all into a game that isn’t worth playing. We’re being hoodwinked and it’s costing us the most important thing we have.
When it comes to accepting climate change and upsetting our own status quo in the name of progress, many are faced with an immense feeling of sacrifice. Progress means cutting back, buying less, consuming less, changing our habits and shifting to often more expensive, less convenient options. Do we have to give up the very things that make life worth living? And if so, what’s the point?
But many of those lifestyle choices we feel so aggrieved to give up don’t actually provide the value we expect. We’re falling in to a trap of protecting something that isn’t worth protecting, at the expense of something that is. We need to do ourselves a favour and shift away from the materialist culture, towards a more widespread understanding of what truly improves wellbeing in a meaningful and lasting way. It doesn’t matter where you sit on the political spectrum, as a human, no amount of stuff will provide meaning and lasting happiness.
Instead, we should look to exercise and good health, which reduce mental health issues and increase reported happiness. Take that exercise outside, in nature, and add even more beneficial effects for mind and body. Try new things, master new skills and face up to new challenges. The small victories along the way to a goal boost happiness and satisfaction, regardless of whether we reach the ultimate goal or not. When we face great challenge with great skill, we can experience flow, or being ‘in the zone’ — an endlessly rewarding and meaningful experience everyone should prioritise in the search for happiness. Form strong bonds with other people — spending time with friends and family doesn’t cost anything and far outweighs the short lived boost from shopping for stuff and things. That new thing you buy to wear or hang on your wall will give a momentary boost and then disappear into the background with little lasting impact. A strong relationship will keep giving.
We need a universal understanding that we’re all caught up in the same system and we’re all manipulated by the same forces, both internal and external. Regardless of our different group identities, we are all fundamentally human and we’re all seeking lasting wellbeing for ourselves and those around us. It’s time to step back from the front-line bickering and recognise that we have a deeper problem that is not only undermining environmental efforts but leading us down a path that isn’t delivering what we need. Shouting at one another won’t get the job done, we need to honestly and positively promote the truth about what really makes us happy.
If we find a way to shift to a better understanding of what truly improves wellbeing and reshape our culture around it, we can bypass the feeling of sacrifice that holds back positive change. Every solution requires compromise and nuance and this one is no different, but it needn’t be binary — wellbeing does not demand excessive consumption, and positive change for our environment doesn’t have to undermine happiness.
Spread the word. Be nice. Be happy.