On a cold February day in Washington D.C. in 2015, United States Senator Jim Inhofe pulled an infamous political stunt on the senate floor. He unraveled a snowball that he had gathered earlier that day, using it as a prop to “disprove” the reality of climate change. He ended his statement by playfully hurling the snowball across the floor, solidifying the spectacle of his statement in the minds of the U.S. media and public. While many observers dismissed the absurdity of Inhofe’s spectacle and his disregard for scientific evidence, others cheered the unusual showmanship that made Inhofe’s opponents appear as stuffy old men with too many charts and dizzying numbers. Inhofe’s stunt also appealed to the masses that are often quick to reject inconvenient truths in favor of more comfortable perceptions of reality, even if these perceptions are grossly abstracted.
This ability of the human mind to accept abstractions from purely material explanations of the universe serves to protect us from engaging with unfavorable realities that result in mental distress. While important for short-term self-preservation, the ability to deny facets of reality may be hindering long-term human well-being. Accordingly, the power of politicians to use this mechanism of the human mind to force widespread complacency on issues such as anthropogenic climate change and biodiversity collapse has been immensely effective in diverting environmental policy and action.
The ability for humans to accept erroneous understandings of reality can be explained by the concept of cognitive dissonance, and the resolution thereof. First presented by psychologist Leon Festinger in 1957, the theory of cognitive dissonance suggests that a person presented with a set of ideas, values, or beliefs that are simultaneously valid yet contradictory to that person’s desires will undergo great psychological distress unless the contradiction is resolved. This often causes people to accept irrational beliefs to reduce mental suffering. A classic example is that of the smoker who is confronted with the idea that smoking is bad for one’s health. The smoker may choose to quit smoking (a relatively rational decision), or they may choose to justify their smoking behavior by adopting relatively irrational beliefs (e.g. the science related to the health effects of smoking is inconclusive). Either way, the dissonance must be resolved to avoid great mental distress.
Contemporary environmental crises are presenting human societies with similar cognitive struggles. For example, humans are now confronted with the conflicting realities that 1) climate change is occurring and harmful to life on earth as we know it, and 2) human consumptive behaviors are largely responsible. Confronted by the cognitive dissonance that this scenario creates, humans have chosen a variety of solutions to assuage mental discomfort. These solutions typically fall into one of four categories. A subject can change their belief, change their actions, create a new belief, or ignore the problem. Figure 1 presents a non-exhaustive sample of solutions following each of these pathways in regards to the aforementioned environmental crisis. While each of these solutions may prove beneficial to individual mental well-being, they do little to confront the underlying problem, and thus continue to jeopardize the well-being of future societies and the environment.
The solutions presented fall into two broad categories. Solutions 1 and 4 which cause the subject to take no action because they justify denial of the issue, and solutions 2 and 3 which allow the subject to manage mental discomfort without changing their patterns of consumption. The second scenario is particularly troublesome as these ideas are widely presented as solutions to the underlying problem, when in reality they do little more than manage cognitive dissonance on a personal level. While it may be true that replacing traditional products with purportedly ecofriendly versions and the various works of conservation organizations is a necessary step forward for environmental causes, these solutions will likely amount to little more than bandages if underlying patterns of consumption are not addressed simultaneously. Powerful interests who present these solutions to maintain status quo consumption patterns exacerbate the trouble. This can be blatantly salacious as when companies knowingly “greenwash” products that are not “ecofriendly” or more nuanced as when companies develop relatively “ecofriendly” products while continuing to promote high levels of consumption.
The mechanisms of capitalism are powerful in promoting these irrational solutions to settling cognitive dissonance for myriad reasons. One particularly strong mechanism inherent to the capitalist mode of production is the separation of the consumer from the manufacturing and distribution process. If a typical consumer purchases a bottle of shampoo in London, she has very little sense of the distant material and social processes that were necessary to put that bottle on the store’s shelf. She can read the label, bask in wonder at the endless list of exotic ingredients, dazzle herself with the artistic design of the packaging (perhaps some soothing earth tones), and take in the authoritative appearance of various official logos, but what can she really learn? Does she know which countries or ecosystems the ingredients came from, how were they harvested or synthesized, what was involved in refining them, what fuels were burned to transport the ingredients, how many workers were involved in the process and what were they paid, what is the exact wording of the legislation that supports the certification logos on the bottle, what multilateral trade agreements are involved and what are the political details of how they were negotiated… ? The list of potential questions would be dizzying to supply chain experts let alone the typical consumer, who may have two minutes to choose a shampoo before rushing to pick children up from school, prepare dinner, start a load of laundry and pass out from the exhaustions of modern life. Under this scenario, you would easily forgive an environmentally conscious consumer for purchasing the bottle with a splash of green on it to assuage any mental discomfort resulting from cognitive dissonance.
Nearly all products consumed in westernized societies as well as their clever marketing schemes create this same issue. They give the consumer a false sense that they can continue to consume in the face of environmental disaster, playing right into our mental need to settle cognitive dissonance in the most comfortable way possible. All of this hidden by an unfathomably complex globalized system of production and distribution. On the other hand, the option not to consume in unnecessary quantities is rarely promoted and adopted by subjects as a solution to confront the cognitive dissonance created by modern environmental crises, and for good reason, as it would undoubtedly lead to economic collapse. How then do we move forward?
It will not be easy, but our inability to live life under the shadow of cognitive dissonance may inevitably lead to a powerful solution. Settling the dissonance between environmental crises and consumerism will require humanity to seek solutions that limit consumption. As the crisis develops this will likely become a clear notion throughout societies. The predominant solutions, in-so-far as they are insufficient at addressing underlying issues of consumerism, will inevitably create new cognitive dissonances that can only be settled by restructuring our beliefs about consumption and the insidious facets of our economy that reject progressive change. It is the responsibility of decision makers throughout the world to begin pushing back mechanisms that reinforce faulty solutions and begin working towards degrowth economic strategies, which in their nascent stages require immense problem solving to address possible social dilemmas before they are widely implemented. If our common societally held value for life on earth prevails, cognitive dissonance surrounding the issue will only grow stronger as irrational solutions prove ineffective. This may finally push us in the direction of rational solutions to environmental crises, and ensure that Jim Inhofe will have many more snowballs to throw.
- Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance (Vol. 2). Stanford University Press.