This 28 Sept 2023 article by Heated's Emily Atkins and Arielle Samuelson, originally published on their Substack page, focuses on our newly published paper in Science Progress, coauthored with well-known global marketing strategists, on shifting marketing messages away from destructive hyperconsumerist and pronatalist narratives driving corporate profit and national interest, to more life- and community-affirming behaviour choices that benefit society, individuals, and the planet.
Someone I admire recently reached out and asked if we could discuss his climate anxiety. This person, who does not work in climate change but reads about it frequently, told me that no matter how hard he tries, his anxiety about the planet’s future keeps getting worse.
Comic credit: the wonderful NonSequitur by Wiley Miller - GoComics.com .
One reason for this, he speculated, was the feeling of screaming into a void. He said it feels like most people—including those who work in climate professionally—aren’t truly grappling with the severity of the problem.
He said it feels like there are certain hard truths, particularly regarding humanity’s overconsumption of natural resources and the need to change behavior, that even climate-focused journalists, activists, and policymakers don’t seem to want to acknowledge.
He wanted to know: Was he crazy for feeling this way?
I replied: Not in the slightest.
I tell you this anecdote because yesterday, I came across a new academic paper that I think does a good job of illustrating why some folks have increasing sense of dread about the climate crisis.
Published last week in the journal Science Progress, the topic is “ecological overshoot”—that is, the consumption of natural resources that exceeds Earth’s regenerative capacity.
Led by New Zealand-based conservationist Joseph Merz, the paper’s authors argue that capitalism, and the consumer culture it drives in high-emitting nations like the U.S., “is causing [humans] to consume our natural resources at rates faster than they can be replenished, while also creating waste in excess of what the Earth can assimilate.”
If the world’s highest emitting countries only focus on technological climate solutions (like switching to renewable energy) and not systemic behavioral ones (like buying less stuff and using less energy), the authors argue, climate change may be slowed. But ecological overshoot—which includes symptoms like biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse, and ocean acidification—will worsen. And as overshoot worsens, the authors argue, “the likelihood of societal breakdown increases.”
The researchers thus call for global recognition of a so-called “Human Behavioral Crisis,” and propose that countries and individuals start recognizing the need for systemic change in social norms in addition to a change in energy systems. “This paper is a call to action,” co-author Mat Maroni said in a statement. “It is a new way to frame an issue that deserves a better conversation.”
There’s far more I could write—and want to write—about this paper, the topic of ecological overshoot, and the role of social norms in driving the climate crisis. I had a fascinating conversation with the lead author yesterday, and I’d like to hear from some other scholars and critics on the topic as well. (If that’s you, email me).
I just share it briefly with you now because I think it illustrates where so many people with increasing climate anxiety are coming from. For many, it’s not enough to hear that “we’re moving in the right direction toward the energy transition”—because they intrinsically understand that simply transitioning is not enough. And yet, despite that intrinsic understanding that consumer culture and norms must change as well, it seems very few people want to talk about that. I feel it myself when I attend conferences that purport to be climate “solutions,” and yet only hear discussions about technology. Why do so few want to address consumption, too?
I know part of the answer lies in the prevailing idea that “consumption” is a problem that can only be addressed at the individual level, and that we shouldn’t place the burden of solving climate change on individuals. I agree with the latter point, but not necessarily the former. I think there are a lot of systemic drivers of consumer culture, and many opportunities to drive culture away from it, particularly in Hollywood.
Of course, I also know the answer lies in part in fear of right-wing backlash, in a familiar refrain: ”They’re trying to take away the American way of life!”
But I think for many living under capitalism, the American way of life isn’t actually very fulfilling. Indeed, I’m beginning to believe there’s vast political opportunity in imagining and pitching a future where our status and happiness is no longer based on the stuff we consume. Perhaps that imagined future could lessen climate anxiety, too.
But anyway, it’s just the start of an idea for me. If you’re a subscriber, I’d love to hear what you think.
Editor's note: You can email Emily Atkin at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave a comment here. Please consider sharing!
Photo credit: Gwen Dewar, PhD: https://parentingscience.com/kids-connected-with-nature/