Kenneth Worthy Ph.D.

The Green Mind

Earth to Humans: Why Have You Forsaken Me? Sunk Costs

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

Posted Jul 25, 2015

"Sao Paulo Stock Exchange" by Rafael Matsunaga - Flickr. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Source: "Sao Paulo Stock Exchange" by Rafael Matsunaga - Flickr. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Why do we 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 for us to transition to a healthier, more sustainable world. Here’s the fourth group of dragons.


As we live our lives, we “invest” in various ways in routines that we keep on repeating. We buy mostly the same brands and types of products; we mostly add to stock, mutual fund, and savings accounts that we already have and don’t open up new ones every day; and we eat the same kinds of foods, with small variations, even when we know they may not be healthy. Changing things up all the time would make life more complicated and might take time and resources away from goals we deem more important. This phenomenon can be called “sunk costs”: we keep following the same behaviors rather than continually re-deciding everything, even when we know that it costs us (and perhaps the planet and other people) to do so. The following are some of the ways that sunk costs prevent us from responding to bad environmental news—and how to turn the corner with them.

Financial investments. People don’t like to lose things. If you own a car, the chances of you selling it off, so that you can instead bike, walk, and take public transit, are slim. It’s hard for us to “throw away” things we’ve invested in, even when we see that the investment is costing us and divesting ourselves of it would benefit us, others, and the planet if the costs outweigh the benefits. The “rational choice” would be to get rid of the sunk cost and then go on to the next stage of life with our burdened lightened, but that’s often psychologically difficult. The cognitive dissonance of continuing to invest in something that’s draining our fortunes or damaging the environment that we’ll pass on to our progeny is often easier to avoid by just changing our minds—mentally escaping from the problem—than by changing our behaviors and readjusting our living patterns. We often hold onto our sunk costs until they just become too painful.

Action: Try not to overwhelm yourself by thinking you have to immediately change everything that you’ve come to learn is environmentally harmful. Sweeping changes carried out on a personal scale would be a heavy burden. Instead, whenever you might have a little energy or time, choose an area of your life to shift. This month, get a set of re-usable shopping bags to put in your car so they’re ready to use whenever you go to the grocery store. Later this year, invest in a reliable bicycle that you can use to get to the grocery store, weather permitting, and perhaps outfit it with saddle bags for bringing the groceries home. Just today, I learned that one of my neighbors can fit all of the week’s shopping for his family of four into his bicycle’s saddle bags. Begin to look into car rental or a car-share service for times when other modes of transit just won’t work, to assure yourself that losing your car won’t cause your life to fall apart and may save you money in the long run while lowering your environmental impact.

Behavioral momentum. Habits can be extremely difficult to break, and that’s probably a good thing. They keep society and our lives on course and prevent them from dissolving into chaos. But in a world in which our economies and technologies give us enormous individual and collective power, the resistance to changing habits—behavioral momentum—can be destructive and deadly. Sedimented habits can be extremely resistant to our desires and efforts to change them. A key example is climate change, about which the news and predictions only get worse every month (just this week, a new report[ii] by the most famous climate scientist warns that sea levels may rise by as much as 10 feet—3 meters—by the end of this century, faster than formerly predicted, with grave consequences for coastal towns and cities). Flying, driving, and eating meat all cause the seas to rise by emitting carbon dioxide, which insulates and warms the atmosphere, causing glaciers to melt and sea water to expand. Behavioral momentum makes these routines hard to change.

Action: Changing deep-seated habits may be hard, but it’s not impossible. People break even the most biologically and psychologically addictive habits such as smoking. Experiments (and unusual events) that have temporarily forced people out of their cars and into other modes of transport sometimes lead to long-term reductions in car use. Make your own experiment. See what it would be like to do one of your regular trips by another mode of transit—but do it before committing to permanent change. Then the psychological hurdle will be lower to try it. When you do it the first time, keep in mind that it will only get easier. You’ll get used to the rhythm of the transit system, looking up the time tables on your smart device, and bringing your umbrella. Many carnivores have opted for “meatless Mondays,” a good start.

Conflicting values, goals, and aspirations. As much as we like to think of ourselves as rational and consistent thinkers, we all hold multiple goals and values that are not always mutually compatible. Perfectly sensible people who are concerned about climate change may change some of their behaviors to mitigate the problem while retaining others that will lead to a flooded, stormy, and chaotic planet—the harms of which will be borne most heavily by our children, grandchildren, and the next few generations, as well as poor people worldwide.

The aspiration to “get ahead” and live a good life conflicts with the goal of lowering one’s climate change impact. The desire to continue to enjoy the fruits of modern living, as we currently recognize it, is deep. People often prioritize climate change below such goals. Most want to reduce climate change, but it’s not extremely important to everyone: 75–80% of U.S. residents polled said climate change is an important issue, but they prioritized it lower than other issues and goals.

Action: Visualizing just what climate change means for younger people living today, the poor, and the next few generations and beyond should convince most people to assign more priority to it. Life will be harder and less pleasant. Economic systems upon which people depend, that put food on grocery store shelves, for instance, could become destabilized and unreliable. Many coastal cities will be flooded, creating climate refugees even within wealthier societies.  

Instead of “stopping climate change,” think of goals such as the following: leaving a healthier and more prosperous planet for my grandchildren; joining with others to help reduce the intensity of droughts hitting the plains states (by, for example, eating less beef) so that my food supply is more secure in the future; living more gently on this precious, beautiful planet. I’ve long been an avid traveler and have learned an enormous amount traveling and living abroad. But air travel isn’t consistent with my concern about the climate change and the environment. I haven’t (yet) given it up completely, but I feel good about flying much less than I used to.

(Lack of) place attachment. Place attachment, feelings of affection and connection to the places where we live and work, can be a powerful influence on “pro-environmental behaviors”: choices that are friendly toward the environment. Feeling place attachment doesn’t guarantee that a person will choose the most environmentally friendly behaviors (other factors are at play, such as lacking knowledge and all the other blockages I’m discussing in this series). But it makes people more likely to do so. Nature-based place attachment (versus civic-based place attachment) of course has more influence on our caring for local nature.

Action: Learn to love your local place and your planet. This one’s easy and enjoyable to do. Go out in nature. Learn about it by taking tours of local natural features if available. Feel the soil in your hands by learning to garden. These actions are hardly a sacrifice. By connecting to local nature, there’s a good chance you’ll make other environmentally positive changes 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.

[ii] Eric Holthaus, “Earth’s Most Famous Climate Scientist Issues Bombshell Sea Level Warning,” Slate Magazine, July 20, 2015.