Frenemies of the Earth: Yes You, the Guy on the Bicycle, Move Away from the Sustainable Coffee

I try, often successfully, to spend at least 30 minutes a day riding my Peloton; and on those days that I succeed I have had a great workout and deserve a reward. Unfortunately, the donut I select negates not only the 30 minutes of exercise today, but puts a significant dent into the calories to burn tomorrow. I am not alone in this calculus, where good behavior balances bad. McDonald’s found that introducing salads to their menu drove the sales of Big Macs much higher. Another urban myth is the magical thinking behind carrots and lettuce having negative calories – that the act of eating them requires more calories than they provide.

All of these examples are examples of a bias in our behavior termed moral licensing. We Sapiens are, above all, social creatures requiring relationships and cooperation with others of our tribe. Tit-for-tat, treating others as they treat us, reciprocity, is our natural response. Now whether the wiring in our brain proceeded the behavior is a conversation for another day, but we do look for balance in behavior. Our response to gifts is an excellent example of reciprocity, although as I have said in the past, ProPublica may have taken the concept a bit too far. Moral licensing is the balancing act of our “good and bad” actions

A report in Frontiers of Psychology look at the damage caused by moral licensing of our behavior regarding “the environment.” Let me add quickly, that these authors are pretty strict, in their words, “environmentally harmful behavior can neither be compensated for, restored nor undone.” For them, there is no balancing, and our evolutionary sociability is an environmental liability – green choices do not compensate for unsustainable ones.

If you accept their premise, carbon offsets or credits are off the table. Those experts flying by jet to confer on the carbon problem make the problem worse, not better. And their concern extends to us, all those eco-friendly purchases at Whole Foods, better than factory food, but still worse than not purchasing them at all. They never address how those eco-friendly farmers will be compensated but isn’t nature far more important than humans? It is an interesting metric when the carbon dioxide of volcanic eruptions get a pass, as natural and transportation to keep our species alive doesn’t.

Like much of the early study of Prius and now Tesla drivers, who were signaling their environmental righteousness, the authors fear that our balancing act creates some form of moral accounting that ultimately results in more destruction. In their thinking, riding a bicycle every day doesn’t compensate for the jet flight to vacation – much like my time on the Peloton doesn’t compensate for the donut.

Our other cognitive biases also impact our environmental behavior. The impact of climate change is too far in the future for us to readily grasp, temporal discounting. And our personal impact is so small compared to that of our species that we discount that too. If that was not enough, the authors also point to our ability to reject information that makes us look bad and creates guilt. I am guilty of that too, I know the donut is 400+ calories, but it is so delicious in the moment. There I combined selective rejection of inconvenient truths and ignored my final cardiovascular reckoning in the future.

What solutions do they offer?

Of course, we must begin with the velvet glove of education, helping people to understand the problem, but not with so much force and fear that they will reject the information. That is not as easy as you might hope, eco-labels are fueling the problem providing moral coverage and compensation for our subsequent bad behavior. But, as always, the glove will come off, and we must invoke legislation to provide obligatory carbon footprint estimates. There is, of course, a more definitive way to avoid the environmental apocalypse.

“Population growth is one of the major driving forces of future climatic change and legislations to prevent population growth would mitigate climatic changes, but such legislations are likely to be met with both ethical, political and religious arguments.”

China has already tried that experiment, and the process was not pretty and the results equivocal at best. I would offer a simpler alternative. There is increasing evidence that as more of the global population of women are educated and brought into the workforce, and this is not to in any way denigrate stay-at-home women, that the birth rate plummets. Rather than carbon credits, perhaps true equality for women would be a way to reduce our carbon impact.


Source: Why People Harm the Environment Although They Try to Treat It Well: An Evolutionary-Cognitive Perspective on Climate Compensation Frontiers in Psychology DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00348