Human ‘behavioral crisis’ is root of climate collapse, scientists say

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Record heat, record emissions, record consumption of fossil fuels. With Cop28 a month away, the world is further away than ever from achieving its collective climate goals. The root of all these problems, according to recent research, is the human “behavioral crisis,” a term coined by an interdisciplinary team of scientists.

“We have socially engineered ourselves in the same way we geoengineered the planet,” says Joseph Merz, lead author of a new paper that proposes that climate collapse is a symptom of ecological excess, which in turn is caused by by the deliberate exploitation of human behavior.

“We need to be aware of the way we are manipulated,” says Merz, co-founder of the Merz Institute, an organization that researches the systemic causes of the climate crisis and how to address them.

Merz and his colleagues believe that most climate “solutions” proposed so far only address the symptoms and not the root cause of the crisis. This, they say, leads to increasing levels of the three “levers” of excess: consumption, waste and population.

They claim that unless demand for resources is reduced, many other innovations will be just a band-aid. “We can address climate change and make excess worse,” says Merz. “The material footprint of renewable energy is dangerously underestimated. These energy farms must be rebuilt every few decades; “They won’t solve the bigger problem unless we address the lawsuit.”

“Excess” refers to how many Earths human society is using to sustain – or grow – itself. Humanity would currently need 1.7 Earths to maintain resource consumption at a level that the planet’s biocapacity can regenerate.

While the climate debate often focuses on carbon emissions, focusing on excess highlights material use, waste production, and the growth of human society, all of which affect Earth’s biosphere. .

“Basically, excess is a crisis of human behavior,” says Merz. “For decades we’ve been telling people to change their behavior without saying, ‘Change your behavior.’ We’ve been saying “go greener” or “fly less,” but in the meantime, all the things that drive behavior have gone the other way. “All of these subtle and not-so-subtle signals have literally been pulling in the opposite direction, and we’ve been wondering why nothing is changing.”

The article explores how neuropsychology, social cues and norms have been exploited to drive human behaviors that grow the economy, from consuming goods to having large families. The authors suggest that ancient impulses to belong to a tribe, signal one’s status or attract a mate have been co-opted by marketing strategies to create behaviors incompatible with a sustainable world.

“People are the victims: we have been exploited to the point of being in crisis. These tools are being used to drive us to extinction,” says evolutionary behavioral ecologist and study co-author Phoebe Barnard. “Why not use them to build a genuinely sustainable world?”

Only a quarter of the world’s population is responsible for almost three quarters of emissions. The authors suggest that the best strategy to counter excess would be to use the tools of the marketing, media and entertainment industries in a campaign to redefine our socially accepted, material-intensive norms.

“We’re talking about replacing what people are trying to point out, what they’re trying to say about themselves. Right now, our signs have a really high material footprint: our clothes are linked to status and wealth, their materials come from all over the world, they are shipped to Southeast Asia most often and then shipped here, only to be replaced by the next season. trends. The things that humans can give status to are so fluid that we could replace them all with things that essentially have no material footprint or, better yet, have an ecologically positive footprint.”

The Merz Institute runs an excessive behavior lab where they work on interventions to address excess. One of them identifies “behavioral influencers,” such as screenwriters, web developers, and algorithm engineers, all of whom promote certain social norms and may be working to reconfigure society relatively quickly and harmlessly by promoting a new set of behaviors.

The article discusses the enormous success of the work of the Population Media Center, an initiative that creates mainstream entertainment to drive behavioral change in relation to population growth and even gender-based violence. Fertility rates have decreased in countries where the center’s soap operas and radio dramas have been broadcast.

Population growth is a difficult topic to address given the not-so-distant history of eugenics and ethnic cleansing practiced in many nations around the world. However, Merz and his colleagues insist that it is important to address the problem, as population growth has negated most of the climate benefits derived from renewable energy and efficiency over the past three decades.

“Frankly, it’s a women’s liberation issue,” Barnard says. “Higher levels of education lead to lower fertility rates. Who could say that they are against educating girls? And if they are, why?

The team calls for more interdisciplinary research into what they have called the “crisis of human behavior” and concerted efforts to redefine our social norms and desires that drive overconsumption. When asked about the ethics of such a campaign, Merz and Barnard point out that corporations fight for consumers’ attention every second of every day.

“Is it ethical to exploit our psychology for the benefit of an economic system that is destroying the planet?” Barnard asks. “Creativity and innovation are driving excessive consumption. The system is leading us to suicide. It is conquest, privilege, misogyny, arrogance and it comes in a fetid package that takes us to the abyss.”

The team is convinced that solutions that do not address the underlying drivers of our growth-based economies will only exacerbate the excessive crisis.

“Everything we know and love is at stake,” Barnard says. “Both a habitable planet and a peaceful civilization have value, and we must be aware of using tools in an ethical and justice-based manner. It’s not just about humanity. It’s about every other species on this planet. “It’s about future generations.”

“It frustrates me that people freeze and think: what do I do? Or what should we do? There are moral hazards everywhere. “We have to choose how to intervene to continue working on a path forward as humanity, because now everything is set up to strip us of our humanity.”

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