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Ever feel like the couple above? Yeah. Tell us about it. Today’s post is by Scandinavian Maria. Read on!

I’d like to write a little bit about the role of cognitive dissonance when it comes to sustainability. Cognitive dissonance is a frequently used term within social psychology, and refers to a situation involving conflicting attitudes, beliefs or behaviors. This produces a feeling of discomfort leading to an alteration in one of the attitudes, beliefs or behaviors to reduce the discomfort and restore balance, or consonance. An example of such a situation would be a law-abiding person speeding on her way to work, knowing that it’s against the law, but justifying it by telling herself that it’s okay because she really has to be at work on time for an important meeting. By justifying her action she tries to minimize the dissonance. Her other options to minimize the dissonance would be to reduce her emphasis on obeying the law, or avoid speeding.

The information we have about the environment CONSTANTLY causes cognitive dissonance, since most of us by now actually know incredibly much about the problems the Earth is facing due to us humans, but still largely act in ways that conflict with this information and its corresponding beliefs. In some ways one could say that we have relatively few tools at an individual level to change our behavior for the good of the environment, and this can be frustrating for the brain. You might for instance want to travel by public transport or bike, but your whole city or community is literally BUILT for cars. Or you could be trying hard to avoid GMOs, but the government under corporate pressure refuses legislation to label such items. Or you’d like to see a complete ban on companies that are on its way of commodifying the entire food chain, such as Monsanto, but you can’t influence the system enough to make that happen.

But there are also examples of behaviors we CAN change at an individual level for the good of the environment, but still don’t do. Instead we choose to justify our actions or alter our beliefs to avoid cognitive dissonance, and that is what I’d like to focus on. I for instance know that flying is far from a sustainable practice, yet I came to San Diego from Europe, and I certainly didn’t swim here, I’m sorry to say. Of course we might not be able to completely abandon weighing pros and cons in our decisions and focus entirely on one absolute purpose, and you might say that the fact that the trip was made to do an internship at an environmental organization partly weighs up the decision to fly (or makes it completely contradictory, depending on how you see it) but the fact remains that turning to justification of actions instead of changing behavior when encountering cognitive dissonance can stand in the way of positive change for the environment.

In my view, there are a number of focus points that is applicable for most individuals in the Global North when it comes to improving the situation for the environment, where justification of behavior just won’t do it: a change in behavior is demanded.

Firstly, we need to eat less meat and dairy products. This is usually a very sensitive subject for people, and “arguments” as ‘I just like my meat’ often come up. Somehow eating habits seem to be especially hard for people to break, and it’s also a topic that has been largely ignored by action plans to mitigate climate change. The truth is though, that the meat industry alone is responsible for 15-24% of the current total anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions (Fiala, 2008), which is more than the entire transportation sector, and it’s increasing as more and more people eat large amounts of meat. The low energy conversion ratio from feed to meat is also a huge environmental concern, with the subsequent destructive monocultures (contributing among other things to biodiversity loss) that are occupying immense parts of the land in developing countries, and whose produce is shipped and used for meat production in the Global North. Not to mention the water requirements for meat production, and naturally the animal welfare issues. Simply put, reduced meat and dairy consumption is a very sustainable action to take, and in a fossil fuel-addicted country as the U.S. it may just be the easiest thing to do for the environment as well.

Apart from eating less animal products, a switch to more organically and locally produced food is another sustainable action that can’t be emphasized often enough, and to take it one stop further: why not start growing your own food? It’s a therapeutic as well as fulfilling practice, and it gets you healthy and environmentally friendly food that is independent of corporate control. (For the ambitious; check out the course in permaculture design that’s given twice a year by the San Diego Sustainable Living Institute.

Another focus point is of course changing travel habits. As already mentioned, the U.S. probably isn’t the easiest country to live in if you try to travel sustainably. Still, there are ways to go: car-pool, or make use of the public transport system (and demand its improvement and extension) if you live in a city, and bike WHENEVER possible, especially if you live in the sunny and lovely part of the world where San Diego is located. 

Furthermore, consider your energy use. Use less, but above all: show companies and policy makers that there is a big demand for energy from renewable sources. At this point a large majority of the energy in the U.S. is derived from fossil fuels such as petroleum, coal, and natural gas. A major change is needed, let’s make it happen.

And lastly, consume less, and differently. It all comes down to that we are in need of a system change, and that can probably not be achieved solely through individual choices, but we can always start by objecting to what the system wants us to do, and that is to consume stuff. We may be stuck in a bubble of growth, but that doesn’t mean a total takeover of our thoughts and actions.

I guess what I’m trying to say with all this is two things. One; try to be more aware of the phenomenon of cognitive dissonance and make changes where you really CAN make changes (instead of justifying actions that are contradictory with your beliefs). Everyone should be able to identify at least one situation where they often experience cognitive dissonance due to their knowledge of environmental problems, and instead of choosing to justify their behavior or put less emphasis on their beliefs at that point, they can make a conscious choice to change their habits. Just do it! Two; there is a strong societal need of possibilities for people to change their behavior. Some things can’t be changed at an individual level, but must be introduced by governments. They have a responsibility to provide a context where our knowledge about the environment can be used. But WE still need to push for those changes. We as citizens must make demands, and push governments to give us the options to change our behavior where we currently can’t, using all means necessary. The scientific community has provided enough information about the severity of the situation for our planet, and although it’s been said and heard countless times before I’m going to write it again: now it’s time for action. In the words of Herbert Marcuse: ‘Let us continue with whatever we can, no illusions, but even more, no defeatism.’