Psychological paradox of sustainability

Why people want to live sustainably but feel inner resistance

Stephan Grünewald in interview

Climate change threatens our livelihoods. Why do people still find it so difficult to live in an environmentally conscious and sustainable way?

At the moment, we are seeing that the social climate is also changing as a result of numerous crises. Take the heating ordinance, people feel it encroaches on their autonomy, they feel powerless. Debates about heating tie in with the worries of last summer, with the almost archaic fear of blackout, of cold and darkness.

That should motivate people even more to behave sustainably. 

We have a fundamental psychological problem with sustainability. In our studies, it becomes clear time and again that the desire for sustainability is a conservative longing: the world should remain as we have known it since childhood. It's about conserving, preserving, preserving a world that is associated with security. But we can only preserve the world if we transform it. That's what I call the paradox of sustainability.

But if people have such fears of a blackout, why aren't they afraid of the momentous consequences of climate change?

As crazy as it sounds, the slow rise in temperatures has almost a calming effect psychologically, at least if we compare it to the shock effect that the escalation logic of the Ukraine war holds. Also, an exponential logic as in the Corona numbers excites us more, polarizes us more. With climate change, we have a linear logic: temperature increases by 1.5, degrees in so and so many years. This linearity seems predictable.

With linearity, people are like the frog in the myth: If you throw it into boiling water, it jumps out in panic and thus saves itself. However, if you put it in lukewarm water and then boil it linearly, it remains squat and lets itself be boiled away little by little. This drastically describes the psychological trap we are currently falling into. Many are even rejoicing right now about the mild and heating-cost-saving climate.

So do we need to appeal even more strongly to common sense?

The question is whether these appeals can bring about the desired change in behavior at all. Particularly when it comes to global climate targets, this touches people only with difficulty. According to our findings, sustainability has a very self-referential side. The speeches work best when they relate to people's own lives and surroundings. For many, sustainability means above all more regionality.

So your own life is a lever in communication. What about shaking things up?

It also takes escalating moments to motivate people to change their behavior. Moments in which climate change becomes visible and tangible. The Ahr Valley floods definitely had an alarming effect. But a singular event is still not enough.

The Last Generation is trying to do just that with its actions: to shake people out of their relaxed state.

From a psychological point of view, Last Generation is a necessary metarmophosis of Fridays for Future - we studied this movement a few years ago and put young activists and parents on the couch. Conclusion: The young said, we want to start a wake-up call for the older ones, because they have the power and the competence to change something. And the adults said: We are glad that a young generation is taking to the streets and pointing out the problems. If they have power and competence later, they will change it. They were united in their concern, but shifted the responsibility from one to the other and thus into the future.

Thus a kind of consensual symbiosis of concern developed, which also manifested itself in the fact that the young people preferred to demonstrate holding hands with parents or teachers. The Last Generation is therefore a logical version of protest. It risks the conflict and dares to make itself unpopular.

The generational conflict, which has been dormant for a long time, is ultimately an engine of development: new visions only emerge through the dialectic of dispute. Of course, this generates reactance, but without this reactance there is no visionary renewal.

But is the Last Generation achieving the desired effect with its actions?

Sticking to the road also has an interesting symbolic power. Society sticks to its old images and ideas, and now sticking leads to getting stuck, to traffic coming to a standstill. The problem is indeed demonstrated so clearly. But this demonstration also leads to a problem shift. The protesters are branded as a problem that can literally be unstuck, while the climate crisis appears as a distant, perhaps unsolvable crisis. The danger is that the demonstrators become more and more the scapegoat, as they allegedly poison the social climate in the fight against climate change.

Are there other psychological factors in the perception of climate change?

Climate is something that people have almost a religious relationship with. Climate is what surrounds us, climate envelops us. From this perspective, it is an expression of creation or the divine. It is not for nothing that the first reflex of social interaction is to talk about the weather, for which, in popular belief, St. Peter is responsible. Climate is something like an atmospheric primordial ground that connects us all. Based on this religiosity, there are two possible ways of dealing with climate change. One is the call for climate justice, which comes from the logic of guilt and punishment. The floods and droughts are the vengeance of an Old Testament God who punishes us for sins against creation. This is frightening.

And the second way of dealing? Striving for climate fairness is more of a New Testament approach. The climate god is reconciling and balancing: after rain, sunshine follows, after cold comes warmth again. Here the climate follows a constant benevolent change. In order to maintain this benevolence, people must also be willing to make corrections, sacrifices and efforts. Relying on self-efficacy and co-creation in solving climate problems seems to me more promising than the logic of guilt and atonement. Changing dietary behaviors, such as not eating meat, also taps into magical forms of self-efficacy that are often taught to children. When all the food on the plate is eaten, the weather will be nice. People will only believe they can stop climate change if they can do something about it themselves, for example by changing their mobility behavior, changing their food preferences, or adopting new self-determined heating or showering rituals


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