Burying our heads in the sand

12 February 2019

With Rose Lewenstein's new play Cougar about what - and who - we comsume playing until 2 March, journalist Emily Bobrow writes exclusively about human behaviour towards the ever-growing evidence of climate change.

Every week brings more signs of our impending ecological apocalypse. Glaciers are melting. Homes are flooding or burning. Rising temperatures are desiccating our food supply. Extreme weather events are killing people and destroying property. The grim consequences of climate change used to feel remote and abstract. These days they feel near and certain. More troubling still, we brought these problems on ourselves. To mitigate the damage, we must act quickly. We should change what we make and how we consume; fix what we reward and what we punish. If we work together, we can emit less carbon and correct our course. But we are not doing any of this. Our intransigence is catastrophic. It is also predictably human. 

Environmentalists long assumed that if they offered enough evidence of what we are doing wrong, and supplied enough gory details of what will result, we would be shocked into changing our ways. But it seems no amount of fear or logic has persuaded us to fly less, carpool more or trade our burgers for bulger. This is not because we are unconvinced of the crisis at hand. A significant majority of people in Britain, America and elsewhere believe that climate change is real and that it is caused by human behaviour. The hitch is that changing human behaviour is hard. Although climate change may seem like an environmental problem, it is also, in many ways, a psychological one. 

In recent years, behavioural scientists have been revising our understanding of how we make decisions. We used to assume that humans are rational actors who are capable of coolly weighing the costs and benefits of every choice. It turns out we were flattering ourselves. We are not, in fact, all that good at behaving in our own best interests. Instead, we tend to be emotional and short-sighted, impulsive and easily duped. We pursue doomed love affairs, and spend what we should be saving for retirement. We have a tough time prioritizing future needs over current desires, and we aren’t very good at cooperating with each other for the common good. Essentially, our methods for making decisions are far messier and more complicated than anyone ever presumed. They are also very poorly suited to the problem of climate change. 

This is why stories about struggling farmers, starving polar bears, and rising sea levels rarely move people to change to their habits. Instead, efforts to guilt or scare people into making more sustainable choices are often counterproductive, as the very scope of the problem tends to leave us feeling daunted and overwhelmed. If countries are heedlessly pumping toxins in the air while making plastic whatnots that are destined for the oceans, what use is collecting our onion scraps in a compost bin? Does it really matter if we take showers that are just a bit longer and warmer than necessary? In the face of mounting evidence that our industrial economies require an escalating rate of environmental waste and destruction, and that our political leaders are incapable of making the kinds of unpopular choices that are necessary to prevent a cataclysm, it is easy to despair. When we feel hopeless, we are rarely inclined to make meaningful sacrifices for the common good. Instead, we get anxious and defensive. We ignore what we cannot control and we soothe ourselves with the very material pleasures we have been warned against. We fly somewhere warm and treat ourselves to a good steak. We make excuses.

“When we feel powerless to absolve the source of our anxiety, our natural tendency is to bury our head in the sand,” explains Toby Park of Britain’s Behavioural Insights Team, a company that has pioneered the use of psychology to help policymakers change behavior through “nudges” rather than laws. “If a truth is inconvenient, then we’re very good at ignoring information that threatens our way of life.”

It is fairly easy to discount the importance of personal decisions in the face of a collective calamity like climate change. Recycling a few cans or exchanging plastic bags for canvas totes can feel about as effectual as spitting into a well. Yet there is evidence that our choices about everything from what we eat to how we get around do indeed significantly influence greenhouse-gas emissions. A recent study from Rare, a conservation organisation, found that scaling up certain behavioural changes could reduce about one-third of the projected global emissions between 2020 to 2050. Environmentalists are now working closely with psychologists and behavioural scientists to figure out the best ways to encourage people to behave more sustainably. In general, they have found that the most effective nudges involve making the best choice also the easiest one to make, such as by making “green” energy the default option for home-owners. Although we tend to be lazy and impulsive, most of us would like to do the right thing, particularly if doing so doesn’t require all that much effort.

Climate change may be the central drama of our time, but the issue doesn’t lend itself easily to the stage. Most efforts to dramatize this big and abstract issue end up feeling preachy and grim. Audiences are regularly made to feel shamed or doomed – or worse, unmoved. This is not a way to sell tickets. Nor does it make good theatre. The value of Rose Lewenstein’s play Cougar is that it recognizes that our environmental conundrum is also a terribly human one. Leila, the environmental expert at the centre of this play, regularly pitches to business CEOs around the country the value of “thinking long term and acting short term,” but her snappy slogan goes against our instincts. We are far better at indulging ourselves in the moment and paying for it later. We are far more likely to imprison ourselves with our choices. We are also quite capable of deceiving ourselves into believing we are far more virtuous or blameless than we tend to be. Our muddled approach to decision-making may discourage environmentalists, but it is inspiring fodder for dramatists. This is what turns a modest play about two lovers into a much larger and more pointed story about our very human inability to properly reckon with what we are doing to our planet. 

Emily Bobrow is a journalist based in New York. She writes for The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Magazine and Newsweek@EmilyBobrow