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Analyses of Inaction Toward the Ecological Crisis

... and the steps to take based on empirical science.

The bad news on global warming keeps piling up (e.g., this report on Greenland’s ice loss). Why isn’t everyone taking action?

In their book The Psychology of Environmental Problems, Koger and Winter (2010) start answering this question by noting that the (dominant) Western worldview “emphasizes individual human beings’ pursuit of private wealth and happiness, and encourages the unrestricted use of natural resources to achieve material gain,” and that it has operated for centuries in the West, contributing substantially to the ecological crises we face today (pp. 323-324). (See prior post for a more thorough discussion.)

Integral to the dominant Western worldview are beliefs that nature is robust, humans are the only important species, and we have the ingenuity to solve any problem that arises. Koger and Winter suggest that these assumptions must be changed if sustainable lifestyles are to take root. They delve into the barriers to worldview and behavior change.

Koger and Winter review the literature of different psychological theories to unpack the lack of action toward mitigating ecological catastrophe. Here are some of their conclusions based on psychological theory and research.

Psychoanalytical traditions note the defense mechanisms that keep people locked into status quo behaviors. But the authors observe that when deep feelings are experienced instead of denied, individuals typically have more energy and creativity for solving problems

Psychoanalysis pointed to the power of the unconscious, and cognitive psychology has more thoroughly examined the unconscious mechanisms that shape perception and attitudes. For example:

  • A dependence on vision for information, which does not indicate to us the invisible, slow-moving, and dynamic interaction effects that comprise many factors influencing global warming. For example, methane is invisible but can be made visible with the right kind of photography, which was done recently, showing emissions escaping from multiple fossil fuel sites.
  • Shortcut thinking (jumping to conclusions based on limited information)
  • Koger and Winter suggest that these propensities are evolved pressures. But many scholars have noted the greater perceptual and holistic awareness skills among cultures that live more closely to the Earth—they are more developed in ways we find unimaginable (e.g., Diamond, 2013; Ingold, 2011; Turnbull, 1984; Wolff, 2001).
  • Behaviorism emphasizes conditioning and reinforcement. In a culture dependent on consumption, we are conditioned and reinforced to maintain a system of consumption without concern for adverse consequences.
  • Social psychology identifies how norms and other forms of social pressure (e.g., roles, reference groups) influence our behavior. However, when implications of actions are known to participants in social dilemmas, they tend to be more cooperative.
  • Health issues are intertwined with behavior. “Anthropocentric values that emphasize consumption and convenience have led to industrial, agricultural, and social practices that pollute environments and stress human physiological systems to the point of malfunction and disease.” (p. 327)

In the end, Koger and Winter do not advocate for any particular theory, because human behavior is so complex. Instead, they focus on the methods that work to change individual and collective behavior. They identify six principles of action.

1. Visualize healthy ecosystems.

Based on therapeutic and positive psychology’s findings, it is important to attend to one’s imagination. Imagining a positive future motivates us toward helpful action. The website Drawdown lists dozens of actions being taken around the world.

Paul Hawken identified the “Biggest Movement in the World That No One Saw Coming,” the environment and social justice movement taking over the world.

2. Work with small steps and big ideas.

Weick (1984) noted that people cannot solve problems if they are emotionally overwhelmed by them. Moderate arousal or stress can propel the action, but if it is too high or too low, not much action takes place (Yerkes-Dodson law).

For a mix of big and small ideas, check your country's rating on sustainability.

3. Think circle instead of line.

In all human activity, various principles should be applied, paying attention to the closed cycles of natural systems (e.g., water), employing principles of the “cradle to grave” view of manufactured products—with zero waste, eco-efficiency, community vitality, and living wages. The story of stuff shows the cyclical nature of consumerism.

4. Consider ways in which less is more.

Many people in the USA (nearly 1 in 10) have so much stuff they rent storage units to house it.

Voluntary simplicity is practiced among environmentally conscious individuals and groups. Their approach can be summed up in a New England maxim: “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.” See here.

5. Practice conscious consumption.

Instead of buying on impulse, make reasoned decisions with a sense of a product’s environmental cost, from its beginning to where it ends up. There are multiple sites to help you:

6. Act on personal and political levels, especially local community participation.

In almost any line of work, there are ways to take ethical, environmental action. British citizens started Extinction Rebellion, a growing movement. Greta Thunberg started small, sitting outside the Swedish parliament building with a sign every day during the summer of 2018, at age 15. She has been named Time’s Person of the Year (2019). Thunberg has garnered so much attention that she inspired Fridays for Future, a youth-led climate strike movement.

Everyday behavior includes:

  • Using "green" products instead of polluting ones (e.g., vinegar and soda for household cleaning; home filtered water instead of bottled water).
  • Composting food waste (and generating little of it).
  • Shopping at local cooperatives that source their goods from local farmers.
  • Asking local vendors about where their products come from and choosing those that purchase goods more locally rather than from across the continent or sea.
  • Finding and purchasing "green" products using tools like those listed in #5.

Most of the suggestions in Koger's and Winter's book focus on reasonable, rational behaviors, many of which activists and scholars have been advocating for decades. Wendell Berry (2013) noted that reasoning about the ecological crisis has not worked. What is needed instead is affection for nature. One must deeply care for it in order for one’s behavior to respect it.

The next post will address how to increase affection for nature.


Berry, W. (2013). It all turns on affection. 2012 Jefferson Lecture. Washington, D.C.: National Endowment for the Humanities.

Diamond, J. (2013). The world until yesterday: What can we learn from traditional societies? New York: Viking Press.

Ingold, T. (2011). The perception of the environment: Essay on livelihood, dwelling and skill. London: Routledge.

Koger, S.M., & Winter. D.D.N. (2010). The psychology of environmental problems, 3rd ed. New York: Psychology Press.

Turnbull, C.M. (1984). The human cycle. New York: Simon and Schuster

Wolff, R. (2001). Original wisdom. Inner Traditions, Rochester Vermont.

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