Human activities are negatively impacting the environment, and the evidence supporting this claim is undeniable, overwhelming and urgent. Even so, being aware of these issues and the need to act does not necessarily mean we change our behaviour.
Studies have shown that while awareness of environmental problems has increased dramatically, behavioural and political change to address environmental issues, particularly carbon reduction, has remained stagnant. Knowledge doesn’t always lead to action, at institutional or individual level.
As a researcher at Changeworks, I’m curious about why people (myself included) who fully recognise the importance of lowering carbon emissions, still struggle to reduce their own carbon footprint as much as they’d like.
So, why does this happen?
This phenomenon has been studied within social and environmental psychology. It has many names, including the value-action gap, the attitude-behaviour gap, and enlightened inaction.
The gap exists mainly because we believe (especially in Western thought) that knowledge and awareness bring about action and change. Yet, this assumption is contradicted by the number of people continuing to engage in high carbon-emitting behaviours such as travelling by air and eating high quantities of industrial meat, despite the strong scientific consensuses.
What can we do about this?
There is no magic formula for bridging our value-action gap. Decision-making processes are complex and depend on many variables. The institutions around us also have a critical role to play.
Here are three practices that can help bring one’s way of life in line with one’s low-carbon values: self-accounting, deliberate living and simplicity. These work at all levels, from within large institutions to your own living room:
Choosing to live more ethically begins with daring to look at what we have already chosen, and spotting the gap between our own intentions and actions. Let’s ask ourselves: at what expense do I live? What do I endorse and deny in how I work and what I consume? What values am I enacting in my conscious choices and my habits?
- Deliberate living
Once you have found the space to honestly examine your choices, resolve to live according to your knowledge and ideals. Rise to the challenge, aim high and commit. Being pragmatic whilst taking small but progressive steps is a great starting point. For example, could you choose a different way to travel, or participate in a non-violent protest? What small steps could you take to actively reduce your impact?
Our ‘wants’ have grown, and the costs of our consumption have become an existential threat to the environment. ‘Saving the Earth’ will not happen through better consumption, but reduced consumption first. The answers to the environmental crisis lie within us, in what we are willing to give up or do less to close the gap between our values and behaviour. The first step towards reducing our consumption is to recognise whether it stems from habit, desire or need, and then consider and accept some personal sacrifices.
Simple or not, this isn’t easy. Every time we do manage to take a step closer to bridging our values and actions, we should celebrate those small wins with those around us, then aim to repeat them, eventually at scale so more of us are taking even bigger actions.
Individual actions to reduce carbon emissions can make a difference, but time is running out. Those of us with the knowledge, and especially those who promote low carbon living, have a responsibility to strive for an environmentally sound lifestyle (within the limits of our personal circumstances) – not least because influencing the system is far easier from the inside.
Isabella Impesi, Researcher at Changeworks