Kenneth Worthy Ph.D.

The Green Mind

Earth to Humans: Why Have You Forsaken Me? Poor Comparisons

Climate change will keep advancing unless we slay the dragons of inaction.

Posted Jun 26, 2015

By Clinton & Charles Robertson from RAF Lakenheath, UK & San Marcos, TX, USA & UK (Follow the Leader  Uploaded by Jacopo Werther) via Wikimedia Commons
Source: By Clinton & Charles Robertson from RAF Lakenheath, UK & San Marcos, TX, USA & UK (Follow the Leader Uploaded by Jacopo Werther) via Wikimedia Commons

Why do we as a society fail to respond to severe and growing climate change and other environmental problems? In previous post, here, I set out to discuss all seven categories of psychological causes of inertia assembled by the environmental psychologist Robert Gifford in his article, “The Dragons of Inaction: Psychological Barriers That Limit Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation.”[i]

These dragons must be SLAIN if we are to transition to a healthier, more sustainable world. Here’s the third group of dragons.


As social animals, we have an innate compulsion to compare ourselves with other people. Doing so helps us navigate the world by enabling us to judge how we fit in and whether we’re doing well and behaving appropriately. It helps us to know our status and power relative to others. But it can have some serious drawbacks when it comes to deciding whether and how to change our behavior for a better environment.

Social comparison. People compare themselves with others to learn norms of behavior: what’s right and proper to do in various situations. But sometimes following others’ lead may result in everyone causing harm. What if the entire flock is flying in the wrong direction?  

Action: Don’t be afraid to stick out and go against the grain, to do what you know is right based on knowledge you’ve gained. Sometimes, it takes a little friction to start a fire. As I wrote previously, sometimes people who go against the grain are needed to do the right thing, when people who are more compliant and agreeable might end up causing more harm by perpetuating damaging practices for fear of standing out. Be a hero. Lead your community and friends to a healthier planet.

Social norms and networks. Norms can lead toward progress in environmental issues, or they can mire us in more harmful practices, such as driving whenever it’s more convenient rather than walking, riding a bike, or taking public transit. Gifford cites a study (p. 294) that found that when people are told how much energy households used on average in their community, they shifted their energy use, either lower or (!) higher, to more closely match the usage of their neighbors. Fortunately, low energy users could also be encouraged to keep their energy use low by giving them positive feedback.

Action: Since norms travel efficiently through social networks to promote climate-related choices—either pro-climate ones or anti-climate ones—social networking techniques that cross network boundaries may be vital to true change. That may entail techniques to open up lines of communication between normally separate communities, such as people from different ends of the political spectrum. Or it may be as simple as opening up to your community about your own climate concerns (and pro-climate actions!) even (no, especially) if you feel that other members of your community are not responding to climate change.

Perceived inequity. People can feel resentful if asked by their government, company, or friends to change their behaviors even though public figures, celebrities, entire industries, or other nations are apparently doing nothing to respond to climate change. They may ask, Why should I take on the burden of changing my life to be less impactful when others might not? There’s a genuine, valid fear of being victimized by free-riders: people who will continue to benefit by not changing their damaging behavior. Experiments show that when people notice any kind of inequity or perceived unfairness, cooperation declines.

This phenomenon reminds me of the influential “tragedy of the commons” trope introduced in the 1960’s by the ecologist Garret Hardin. According to the theory, when there’s any type of “commons”—a set of resources shared by a community like a field for grazing cattle or all the fish in a lake—members of the community will attempt to take more from the commons (more grass for grazing their livestock, more deer in a hunting round) than their fair share because they gain all of the benefits of taking more resources, but they share the costs of doing so (degradation of the commons) with the entire community.

One of the many failures of Hardin’s theory is that it assumes that every commons is unmanaged and “open access,” meaning there are no rules and no cooperation takes place. In truth, cultures across human history give us myriad examples of communities successfully managing their commons for long term sustainability. More commons have probably been actively managed than left as a free-for-all. Communities have together created rules and enforced them, often with fairness and sustainability in mind. Hardin apparently preferred to see people as rationalistic machines who do not communicate and cooperate.

Action: Although I strongly support individual action, the key to major change will be communities deciding together that our greatest commons—the atmosphere, the oceans, Earth itself—are worth taking care of. As community members at all scales—from neighborhoods, to towns and cities, to nations and the world community—choose to act in union, action will become not only easier but more fulfilling and enriching as well.

My book: Invisible Nature

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My environmental blog: Finding the Human Place in Nature

Read more of my posts: The Green Mind

[i] Robert Gifford, “The Dragons of Inaction: Psychological Barriers That Limit Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation,” American Psychologist, May – June 2011, pp. 290–302.