It’s not easy being green

  • 2016-06-28
  • Aeon

Changing individual behaviour to be more ecologically responsible is remarkably difficult. Yet such behaviour change is ultimately in our own interest, so why should it be so elusive? In 2009, the American Psychological Association (APA) published a major report on just this question. Compiled by an international group of senior researchers, it attempts to explain the inexplicable: ‘that people, particularly in industrialised countries, continued until well into the 21st century to engage in behaviour that seriously compromised the habitability of their own countries and the planet’.

Drawing on a wide range of studies, the report outlines the psychological impediments to green behaviour. In all, it lists 13 factors, ranging from denial to future discounting. For the purposes of our ritual experiment we grouped these into three broad categories. The first is an increasing disconnection from place, which we see as part of a broader disconnection from nature. Second, there are emotional obstacles to taking environmental action. These include repression, feelings of anxiety, and a sense of powerlessness in the face of such a large and complex challenge. The third is perhaps most difficult of all: many of our behaviours are based on habits, and habits are notoriously hard to break. We are all accomplished at ignoring evidence that shows how harmful our habits are, and we are even better at grounding them in narrow self-interest – we drive the kids to school, for example, because it is quicker and we are too busy, or because it seems safer.

The question is which of these factors could be addressed through rituals. Certainly not all: ignorance, for example needs to be overcome with more information, better communicated. Or where people have little option to be green, say, because of their social-economic situation, then other kinds of intervention will be needed first.

Nonetheless, most of us do have options to be greener – especially those in wealthy countries with large ecological footprints. Here we are failing. Until recently, the idea that rites and ceremonies could help address this would have struck us both as eccentric at best, a dangerous distraction at worst – fiddling while Rome burns. But as the APA’s report makes clear, successful strategies must reach out not only to our rational selves, but also to our emotional and social selves — and this is exactly what rituals are good for.