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

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

Anthropogenic climate changes stress the importance of understanding why people harm the environment despite their attempts to behave in climate friendly ways. This paper argues that one reason behind why people do this is that people apply heuristics, originally shaped to handle social exchange, on the issues of environmental impact. Reciprocity and balance in social relations have been fundamental to social cooperation, and thus to survival, and therefore the human brain has become specialized by natural selection to compute and seek this balance. When the same reasoning is applied to environment-related behaviors, people tend to think in terms of a balance between “environmentally friendly” and “harmful” behaviors, and to morally account for the average of these components rather than the sum. This balancing heuristic leads to compensatory green beliefs and negative footprint illusions—the misconceptions that “green” choices can compensate for unsustainable ones. “Eco-guilt” from imbalance in the moral environmental account may promote pro-environmental acts, but also acts that are seemingly pro-environmental but in reality more harmful than doing nothing at all. Strategies for handling problems caused by this cognitive insufficiency are discussed.

Introduction

The environmental impact of one’s own behavior is difficult to grasp, partly because issues related to climate change are perceived as psychologically distant (cf. Spence et al., 2012). When people try to act in environmentally friendly ways, they often in fact do further harm to the environment. They might purchase some extra groceries because the groceries are “eco-labeled”; think that they can justify taking the airplane abroad for vacation because they have been taking the bicycle to work; and think that they can skip recycling their waste because they started having meat-free Mondays. Entire economic systems have been built on the same principle.

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