Human Behavior

Climate change and environmental decline are largely the result of human behavior. These problems have accelerated in recent decades as we’ve consumed ever more scarce resources, including oil, coal, metals, and water, to create ever more products to live in our homes, work in our business, and accumulate things.

This behavior is often called “unsustainable” because we are depleting some of those resources ever faster, we are needing to provide for ever more people as worldwide population growth continues unabated, and we are degrading many parts of our environment—land, seas, and air—as we try to “sustain” our current way of life.

Most people aren’t even aware of how their daily choices are affecting the climate or the larger environment. Moreover, their sense of connection to the planet—and their understanding of climate change and environmental processes in general—tend to be quite limited, easily biased, or even readily avoided.

We have many reasons for not being in touch with our larger world, and most of these reasons help us make it through our day-to-day lives. Denial, for instance, helps us to avoid confronting problems that might ruin our days. We also tend to discount the future and focus on having it all in the here and now. And we want to remain positive and avoid being afraid, have difficulty challenging our long-standing belief systems, and think we’re doing great if we do just one thing to be helpful toward the environment, such as recycling while we still consume as much as ever.

People are much more complicated than that, to be sure, and some feel powerless to do anything about climate change or the environment because those problems seem so big. Others worry about their incomes—a given during these challenging economic times—and don’t want to spend more to “save” the planet. Many believe scientists will come up with technological fixes to our environmental problems or want to leave it to government or corporations to solve them. And there are still quite a few people who simply argue there’s nothing wrong with the climate or our unsustainable ways and that capitalistic consumption actually will make things better for humanity.

We also have many institutions that share similar ways of addressing climate change and unsustainability. Governments may or may not recognize these are problems and also may lack the leaders—the political will—to address them. Corporations are generally about making money and economic systems tend to be growth-oriented, prohibiting significant changes to monetary policy that would strictly limit carbon emissions and change the way we live our lives to be more sustainable toward Earth’s scarce resources. And then there are communities, organizations, educational systems, religious groups, and other “systems” that, because of how they historically have conducted themselves or because of a lack of change agents within them, continue to function as they always have despite the growing risks for their individual members and the planet.

While we can also point the finger at cheap oil—which certainly has “fueled” our seeming addiction to more “stuff,” made food production (and also population) soar, and given us access to all sorts of resources and services that are making our lifestyles increasingly unsustainable and contributing to climate change—it really all boils down to how much we care, think about, and then choose to behave toward the planet. We can choose to reduce our consumption as individuals, communities, organizations, corporations, and nations and thereby deter climate change. We can choose to husband our scarce resources and distribute them more justly so people will harm the planet less and care for others more. We can choose to creatively develop a new society based on living within Nature’s ability to meet our needs rather than within our abilities to overtax its declining bounty.

All of this involves how individuals and groups feel, think, and act, and that’s what psychology is all about. Clearly, the time is now for mental health professionals to be at the center of what humanity intends to do to save the planet—and us—from ourselves.