Heat record, emissions record, fossil fuel consumption record. One month before Cop28, the world is further than ever from achieving its collective climate goals. According to recent research, at the root of all these problems is the human “behavioral crisis,” a term coined by an interdisciplinary team of scientists.
“We have socially modified ourselves in the same way that we have geo-engineered the planet,” says Joseph Merz, lead author of a new paper which proposes that climate breakdown is a symptom of ecological overshoot, itself caused by the deliberate exploitation of human behavior.
“We need to be aware of how we are being manipulated,” says Merz, co-founder of the Merz Institute, an organization that studies the systemic causes of the climate crisis and how to address them.
Merz and his colleagues believe that most of the climate “solutions” proposed so far only address the symptoms rather than the root cause of the crisis. According to them, this leads to an increase in the levels of the three “levers” of overrun: consumption, waste and population.
They argue that unless demand for resources is reduced, many other innovations will be little more than a Band-Aid. “We can address climate change and make exceedances worse,” says Merz. “The material footprint of renewable energy is dangerously under-discussed. These energy farms need to be rebuilt every few decades – they won’t solve the bigger problem if we don’t tackle demand.”
“Overshoot” refers to the amount of earth’s resources that human society uses to maintain – or develop – itself. Humanity would currently need 1.7 Earths to maintain its resource consumption at a level that allows the planet’s biocapacity to regenerate.
While the climate debate often focuses on carbon emissions, the emphasis on overshooting highlights material use, waste production, and the growth of human society, all of which affect the Earth’s biosphere .
“Essentially, overshoot 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 say “be greener” or “steal less,” but in the meantime all the things that drive behavior have moved in the other direction. All of these subtle and not-so-subtle signals have literally been pushing in the opposite direction – and we’re wondering why nothing is changing.
The article explores how neuropsychology, social cues, and norms have been harnessed to guide human behaviors that grow the economy, from the consumption of goods to the creation of large families. The authors suggest that ancient motivations to belong to a tribe, to signal one’s status or to 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 that we are in crisis. These tools are being used to drive us to extinction,” says Phoebe Barnard, an evolutionary behavioral ecologist and co-author of the study. “Why not use them to build a truly sustainable world?
Just a quarter of the world’s population is responsible for almost three-quarters of emissions. The authors suggest that the best strategy to counter overreach 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 report, what they’re trying to say about themselves. Right now, our signals have a very high material footprint – our clothes are linked to status and wealth, their materials are sourced from all over the world, shipped most often to Southeast Asia, and then shipped here, to be replaced by those of next season. tendencies. The things that humans can assign status to are so fluid that we could replace everything with things that have essentially no material footprint — or, better yet, an ecologically positive footprint.
The Merz Institute runs an Overreach Behavior Lab where they work on interventions to address overreach. One of them identifies “behavioral influencers” such as screenwriters, web developers, and algorithm engineers, all of whom promote certain social norms and might work to restructure 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 spark behavior change around population growth and even gender violence. Fertility rates have declined in countries in which the center’s telenovelas and radionovelas have been broadcast.
Population growth is a difficult subject to discuss given the not-so-distant history of eugenics and ethnic cleansing practiced in many countries around the world. However, Merz and his colleagues insist that tackling the problem is important because population growth has wiped out most of the climate gains from renewable energy and energy efficiency over the past three decades.
“Frankly, it’s about women’s liberation,” Barnard says. “Higher levels of education lead to lower fertility rates. Who could claim to be against girls’ education – and if so, why?
The team is calling for more interdisciplinary research into what it has dubbed the “crisis in human behavior” and concerted efforts to redefine our social norms and desires that lead to overconsumption. When asked about the ethics of such a campaign, Merz and Barnard point out that companies are fighting 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 asked. “Creativity and innovation lead to overconsumption. The system pushes us to suicide. It’s conquest, entitlement, misogyny, arrogance and it comes in a fetid package that leads us to the abyss.
The team is adamant that solutions that do not address the underlying drivers of our growth-based economies will only exacerbate the overshoot crisis.
“Everything we know and love is at stake,” Barnard says. “A habitable planet and a peaceful civilization both have value, and we must be mindful of using tools in an ethical and justice-based manner. It’s not just about humanity. This concerns all other species on this planet. It’s about future generations.
“I’m really frustrated that people are paralyzed and wondering: What should I do? Or what should we do? There are moral hazards everywhere. We must choose how to intervene to continue working on the path to the future as humanity, because everything is currently set up to strip us of our humanity.