Lindsay McCunn
Source: Lindsay McCunn

Do you know someone who is convinced that nothing he or she can do about a situation will change the outcome? Maybe it's about diet, a relationship, or a job. My friend Mark is this type of person. Certain there is nothing he can do about environmental decline, Mark does not recycle unless it is convenient. He doesn't carry a reusable travel mug. He doesn't drive a hybrid vehicle or buy local, organic veggies. You might assume Mark is the kind of guy who denies climate change altogether, but he's not. He simply believes that society can't have its cake and eat it too. To Mark, attempting to achieve environmental sustainability is futile because individuals need natural resources to thrive. We can't have it both ways.

If you've recently discussed climate change, or the extent to which humans impact the global pool of natural resources, then it's likely the terms "commons dilemma" and "social dilemma" were used. Coined by Robyn Dawes, the modern term "commons dilemma" occurs when natural resources, such as energy or land, are overused. This typically results in conflict between individual interests and the interests of larger groups. Also used by Robyn Dawes, the phrase "social dilemma" is the overarching term that encompasses commons dilemmas and other public goods issues. A problem becomes a social dilemma when an individual receives more (or is penalized less) for making a self-interested choice instead of a choice that benefits the public interest. Another necessary element to a social dilemma is that a small group must benefit more when it acts in the public interest as opposed to acting in self-interest.

What's so tragic about this? We know that important aspects of climate change can be linked to human behavior. So, sustainability is an environment-behavior issue and environmental psychology has a role in understanding it. Here's where the tragic-choice theory comes in. Consider the possibility that there is not enough food or energy worldwide to sustain human growth if it remains on its current trajectory. Or, that sufficient resources exist but they will not be allocated equally among individuals. A tragic-choice theorist would validate Mark's assertion that society "can't have it both ways." In essence, inequality, suffering and scarcity are natural to the human experience. Attempts to change them are irrational.

Feeling sad yet? I am.

Of course it is not surprising that tragic-choice theory doesn't get much press. Depressing and controversial at best, it asserts that an individual's freedom to make self-interested choices about resources is fundamentally at odds with an equitable distribution of those resources to the public at large. Therefore, one must make the tragic choice between freedom and equality. In these circumstances, Mark's got the right attitude.

Yes, tragic-choice theory is a tough sell but, on a macro level, there are hints that point to its relevance. Although the social norms, customs, and circumstances in every society are dynamic, resource allocation policies in many countries do not equally value each individual. In his book on environmental psychology, Robert Gifford  explains that to mask unequal distribution of goods and services, small groups of needy individuals sometimes receive a resource while the majority of the needy do not. Gifford uses the example of homeless and disadvantaged individuals receiving a turkey dinner during the holiday season but at no other time of year. An action like this-where public funds are spent on those who are disadvantaged-is usually highly publicized. It can give the impression of fair resource allocation but, on a daily basis, this is not the case.

Sustainability is irrational: sad but true? If individual interests win over public interests, how can the issue of depleting resources be addressed in a positive way? Aligned with the tragic-choice theory once again, Mark would say the answer is personal. If everyone considers carefully their relationship to others, perhaps enough individual choices will be made to preserve the commons and, eventually, society will have its cake and eat it too. 

About the Author

Lindsay J. McCunn

Lindsay J. McCunn, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in environmental psychology at the University of Washington Tacoma.

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