Circle 6: The Weakness of the Will and Cognitive Dissonance: Why Climate Action is Not Taking Place
Why is it that we want to act in favour of the environment but end up compromising our believes and use e.g. one-way cups for our daily coffee to go? Why is effective climate action somehow not happening effectively for each of us, even if we have strong moral instances that tell us how to act environmentally friendly?
My colleague Woochang Choi and myself started a discussion about these questions, as we wanted to better understand the root-causes of climate action failure. In the course of the discussion we found that Philosophy has a big potential to offer concepts that have theoretically some explanatory value for this dilemma mentioned above. Starting point was the psychological effect of cognitive dissonance, meaning that we have two cognitions (for example in the sense of actions and values) that are competing with each other and consequently creating a dissonance: one knows that flying is bad for the environment but is still taking the plane, therefore unconsciously solving this dilemma with different defence mechanisms or rationalisation (“I take the plane, but at least I don’t drive a big car”). A lot of different examples could be given here, showing that we mainly solve the climate crisis for ourselves not by physical action but psychologically with different defence mechanisms, denial or rationalisation. Related to this, we found our second starting point for our discussion, the ancient Greek concept of Akrasia, the weakness of the will. In short it describes the effect that someone acts against his/her believes and is choosing some action that he/she values as less favourable compared to other actions. This seemed to be a very useful idea when observing that in some cases we know that alternative actions would be better for the climate, but they remain unchosen. But there had to be more waiting to be found in the realm of Philosophy and we wanted to dig deeper.
So we decided to do a spontaneous session together in the circle and use the pool of knowledge of our colleagues. The goal was to find and combine philosophical concepts that would allow us to better understand and explain climate action failure and climate action difficulties for the individuum. Since NSU offers great flexibility and room for our passions and burning questions, our proposal was accepted with pleasure. Our colleagues offered us some excellent views on the topic and new dimensions were added. Firstly, the dimension that our behaviour is guided by routines, like going always the same route through the supermarket and choosing environmentally unfriendly products. But what if there is no possibility to even act acratic and sufficient nudging to act in a good way for the environment? Why must there be a heart attack before people really understand their actions instead of just knowing their consequences? So one big topic is helping people really understand their actions, preventing the heart attack of the environment. Secondly, the concept of Aesthetics was added. Why is climate action so often regarded as unappealing? And how can we develop the social image that climate action is indeed something sexy and not unerotic? Thirdly we spoke about our perspective: are we consumers or can we be more like supporters, voting our money and supporting things and companies we value as morally acceptable? In short, we need to rethink and reshape the image of climate action and paint a new positive and “sexy” image of climate action, thus pushing the transition to environmentally friendly behaviour. And this begins by really understanding the processes of self-compromising behavioural patterns of ourselves to be able to overcome them and help shaping new power relations: where the environmental friendly is also regarded as the coolest kid on the block.
The whole process of this spontaneous session really represents the heart of NSU: casually discussing a topic during lunch, discovering new ideas and find different perspectives, getting to meet great people and share thoughts together. For Woochang and me this was a unique experience and we will be looking forward to the next Summer Symposium.
Noah Mihatsch, participant of Circle 6 “Nordic Environmental Ethics”