The Psychology of Sustainability

Synopsis: As the world inches closer to a climate catastrophe, the role of sustainable development as a viable and necessary action for a tenable future has been accentuated through popular and political discourse. The largest contributor to the climate disaster is human production and consumption; both of which have their roots in human behaviour. The only feasible way to battle human overconsumption – which by nature is unsustainable – is by studying such patterns of consumption using the lens of psychology. Psychology lends us an understanding of the concepts of consumerism and materialism and the insatiable human desire to accumulate wealth and material. This further helps us learn about social conflict that stems from, and in turn affects the limited resources generated by the planet. In a social and political environment where potable water and oil are scarce, ownership of such resources becomes equivalent to the possession of power and therefore becomes a source of conflict.

Sustainable development teaches us to reprioritise the planet and the abundance that produces so that we may procure and consume more responsibly. The movement has gained considerable momentum in the 21st century and offers solutions to the social, political and economic challenges posed by the human patterns of consumption.

The science of psychology has continually allowed us to understand the superstructure governing our society; race, gender, sexuality, religion and nationality have long been sources of identity and also the roots of social conflict. Today, we are faced with a new threat that is fast-approaching and supersedes our existing conflicts; that is the threat of climate change. As a result, the psychology of sustainability has been gaining deserved attention within the discipline of psychology. We may understand the concept as a science that seeks to highlight the relationship between the Self and the planet. As products of nature, human beings are intricately bonded with the Earth and therefore the psychology of sustainability studies how human behaviour influences the environment.

Climate change is a global phenomenon that results in alterations of weather patterns in particular regions or across continents and can primarily be attributed to increased greenhouse gas emissions resulting from human activities. Climate change is widely understood as perilous to the planet and humankind because it will result in heat waves, droughts, rising sea levels, and ocean acidification, consequently destroying ecosystems and livelihoods.

As a phenomenon, climate change began to gain significant scientific attention in the mid-20th century when globalisation began to grow at an accelerating pace. Giddens (1990) defined globalisation as “the intensification of worldwide social relations which link distant localities in such a way that local happenings are shaped by events occurring many miles away and vice versa”.  Globalisation’s role in our progression towards a climate catastrophe can only be understood when we look at how it is interconnected with capitalism. Capitalism and capitalist organisations need to produce for the masses and require mass consumption to be a necessary condition so that they may reap higher profits and grow their organisations. In order to do so, they must divide their labour and expertise among sectors that are not self-sufficient and cannot fulfil their own needs. Organisations need to advertise and publicise and create a space and demand for themselves in various markets so that they can achieve profitability. These inherent characteristics of capitalism are what establishes the system’s tendency towards globalisation.

The Psychology of Consumerism and Materialism

Consumerism is a theory, rooted in economics and society, that propagates the idea that increased production and consumption of goods and services is not only desirable for the population, but also beneficial for the economy. In order to counter consumerism and the dangerous ideas that it preaches, we need to first understand the basis of human consumption.

In a capitalist society, individuals are coerced into believing that the more material they possess, the happier they will be. Consumer culture took off in the 20th century after the popularisation of media such as radios, tabloids and magazines that advertised luxury items as necessities. The same effect is seen today through television and social media marketing. Products are advertised and sold as commodities that bring us some form of emotional gratification. For example, deodorants are marketed as products that have positive effects on perceived attractiveness and sex appeal. Fast fashion also prides itself in its ability to dish out new styles at a rapid pace. The fast-food industry began advertising through children’s channels where they used popular celebrities, animated characters and cartoons (think McDonald’s Happy Meals) to grab children’s attention, thus creating demand amongst an impressionable and vulnerable population for products that are not a necessity. Not only is the consumption of fast food detrimental to our health,  but the processes involved in its production and sale, and the waste generated by the industry also have serious environmental ramifications.

Consumerism cultivates the notion that “more is better”, essentially telling us that the more we buy, the happier we will be. It emphasises materialism and the idea that material possessions are the key to a better life. Our progress and success as individuals and communities are judged using metrics that primarily calculate our power to buy material goods. National GDP (Gross Domestic Product) which is used to ascertain the growth of economies is the monetary value of the market value of the goods and services produced within a specified period. Countries tend to aim for increasing GDPs because it is seen as an indicator of economic prosperity, thus making money a powerful source of extrinsic motivation. This in turn causes people to prioritise money over not only their own mental and physical well-being but also ecological preservation as is evident from the rapid loss of forest habitat that occurs to create space for multinational corporations to increase production.

When ownership and increased buying power are directly linked to emotional gratification and social status, it convinces individuals that money and material will make us happy. It is this notion that has led to the global challenge of overconsumption which is now the single largest threat to global ecosystems.

War and the Environment

When studying sustainability through the lens of psychology, it is imperative to understand the role of social conflict and war in environmental degradation. War has not only played a role in the deterioration of the environment but wars have also been fought over limited environmental resources. Throughout the course of history, innumerable wars have been fought over social identity and resources such as oil, water, etc. It has been said that when two enemies fight, the most affected party is the battlefield. Popularly referred to as “the oil wars”, nearly 180 battles fought over the last century have been fought over territories that contained natural gas reserves. Although the roots of such battles had more to do with domestic politics or economic motivations, the desire to control oil-rich territories always existed. These include events during the Second World War such as the Pacific War and Stalingrad, the Iran-Iraq Tanker War (1980-1988), Iran’s Invasion of Kuwait (1991), and even the American Invasion of Iraq is debated to be a result of their vested interest in controlling oil-rich regions. Consequently, wars and battles fought over resources do irreparable damage to the environment because of the use of weapons of mass destruction. For example, nuclear warfare has obliterated cities and natural ecosystems that continue to face painful consequences even decades later.

Oil is not the only environmental resource that has been a cause of conflict. Water and its distribution across borders have been the central aspect of several disputes. Turkey, Syria and Iraq share the Tigris-Euphrates Basin and the equitable distribution of water has become an element of their political conflict. Similarly, Afghanistan and Iran have seen rising political tensions that stem from their desire to harness maximum water supply.

Also Read: Environmental Psychology

As we inch closer to a world where our reserves of non-renewable resources deplete, potable water is scarce due to increased pollution and the air is contaminated, such disputes will only increase in number and intensity. The learning from such conflicts is that the Earth provides us with abundant, but limited resources that are sufficient for survival but insufficient for our capitalist desire for power, control and ownership. The fight for limited resources also gives rise to consequences proposed by the realistic conflict theory of social psychology. The theory states that when there is a real or perceived scarcity of resources, it gives rise to intergroup conflict because the groups involved in the conflict are fighting for control over these scarce resources. Stereotyping, prejudicial beliefs and discriminatory acts become commonplace as a result of such intergroup disharmony. There is a division between in-group and out-group members and conflicts arising from the desire to control limited resources begins to take a political and cultural shape. 

Although a vast majority of the damage done to the planet cannot be undone, a viable solution presents itself; sustainable living and development. It is the idea that our societies continue to produce the commodities that we require for survival, without compromising the availability of resources for future generations. The movement strives to utilise production processes that do little to no harm to the planet, thus preserving ecosystems. Working towards sustainable development allows us to reprioritise nature and health and at the same time provides us with growth opportunities. Seeing as human behaviour is the root of all environmental problems, effective change can only be brought about when we are able to understand and alter human belief systems, attitudes, choices and motivations. Therefore, a knowledge of such social, psychological and cognitive processes is pertinent to finding solutions to the climate crisis.


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Pragati is an undergraduate student currently pursuing her BA/BSc in Psychology at Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts, Pune. She displays a keen interest in the social sciences and is passionate about writing. She wishes to apply her education in the domain of social work in the future. Reading, swimming and travelling are some activities that keep her going.