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Human ‘behavioural crisis’ at root of climate breakdown, say scientists

New paper claims unless demand for resources is reduced, many other innovations are just a sticking plaster

This article was originally published in The Guardian on 13 January 2024 by Stable Planet Alliance media advisor Rachel Donald, who drew upon her interview with Alliance marketing advisor Joseph Merz and co-founder and founding CEO Phoebe Barnard about their paper with other colleagues, "World scientists' warning: the behavioural crisis driving ecological overshoot," published 30 Sept 2023 in Science Progress.

Photo credit: Heidi Fin in Unsplash

Record heat, record emissions, record fossil fuel consumption. One month out from Cop28, the world is further than ever from reaching its collective climate goals. At the root of all these problems, according to recent research, is the human “behavioural crisis”, a term coined by an interdisciplinary team of scientists.

“We’ve socially engineered ourselves the way we geoengineered the planet,” says Joseph Merz, lead author of a new paper which proposes that climate breakdown is a symptom of ecological overshoot, which in turn is caused by the deliberate exploitation of human behaviour.

“We need to become mindful of the way we’re being manipulated,” says Merz, who is co-founder of the Merz Institute, an organisation that researches the systemic causes of the climate crisis and how to tackle them.

Merz and colleagues believe that most climate “solutions” proposed so far only tackle symptoms rather than the root cause of the crisis. This, they say, leads to increasing levels of the three “levers” of overshoot: consumption, waste and population.

They claim that unless demand for resources is reduced, many other innovations are just a sticking plaster. “We can deal with climate change and worsen overshoot,” says Merz. “The material footprint of renewable energy is dangerously underdiscussed. These energy farms have to be rebuilt every few decades – they’re not going to solve the bigger problem unless we tackle demand.”

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

Where discussion of climate often centres on carbon emissions, a focus on overshoot highlights the materials usage, waste output and growth of human society, all of which affect the Earth’s biosphere.

“Essentially, overshoot is a crisis of human behaviour,” says Merz. “For decades we’ve been telling people to change their behaviour without saying: ‘Change your behaviour.’ We’ve been saying ‘be more green’ or ‘fly less’, but meanwhile all of the things that drive behaviour have been pushing the other way. All of these subtle cues and not so subtle cues have literally been pushing the opposite direction – and we’ve been wondering why nothing’s changing.”

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

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

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

“We’re talking about replacing what people are trying to signal, what they’re trying to say about themselves. Right now, our signals have a really high material footprint –our clothes are linked to status and wealth, their materials sourced from all over the world, shipped to south-east Asia most often and then shipped here, only to be replaced by next season’s trends. The things that humans can attach status to are so fluid, we could be replacing all of it with things that essentially have no material footprint – or even better, have an ecologically positive one.”

The Merz Institute runs an overshoot behaviour lab where they work on interventions to address overshoot. One of these identifies “behavioural influencers” such as screenwriters, web developers and algorithm engineers, all of whom are promoting certain social norms and could be working to rewire society relatively quickly and harmlessly by promoting a new set of behaviours.

The paper discusses the enormous success of the work of the Population Media Center, an initiative that creates mainstream entertainment to drive behaviour change on population growth and even gender violence. Fertility rates have declined in the countries in which the centre’s telenovelas and radionovelas have aired.

Population growth is a difficult topic to broach given the not-too-distant history of eugenics and ethnic cleansing practised in many nations around the world. However, Merz and colleagues insist it is important to confront the issue as population growth has cancelled out most climate gains from renewables and efficiency over the past three decades.

“It’s a question of women’s liberation, frankly,” says Barnard. “Higher levels of education lead to lower fertility rates. Who could possibly claim to be against educating girls – and if they are, why?”

The team calls for more interdisciplinary research into what they have dubbed the “human behavioural crisis” and concerted efforts to redefine our social norms and desires that are driving 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 to benefit an economic system destroying the planet?” asks Barnard. “Creativity and innovation are driving overconsumption. The system is driving us to suicide. It’s conquest, entitlement, misogyny, arrogance and it comes in a fetid package driving us to the abyss.”

The team is adamant that solutions that do not tackle the underlying drivers of our growth-based economies will only exacerbate the overshoot crisis.

“Everything we know and love is at stake,” says Barnard. “A habitable planet and a peaceful civilisation both have value, and we need to be conscious about using tools in ethical and justice-based ways. This is not just about humanity. This is about every other species on this planet. This is about the future generations.”

“I do get frustrated that people sit in paralysis thinking, what do I do? Or what must we do? There are moral hazards everywhere. We have to choose how to intervene to keep us working on a path forward as humanity, because everything right now is set up to strip us of our humanity.”


Keywords: Ecological overshoot, behaviour change, population, consumption, economy, capitalism, evolutionary behaviour, climate emergency, biodiversity loss, social instability. For more on this story, see our popular summaries of the paper in The Conversation, The Big Question, and Sage Perspectives and other stories at bottom in The Guardian here.

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