If I asked you to tell me how environmentally friendly you are, you’d probably say that you think you rate pretty high on the scale; that you use few paper products, compost, try to eat local when possible and have switched to energy-saving appliances and devices. You might drive a hybrid or an all-electric car. In fact, you may even state with some confidence that you’re more environmentally friendly than your neighbor or anyone else you know.
The thing is, you would probably think that, whether you are or not. Recent research from the University of Gothenburg in Sweden shows that we tend to overestimate our personal environmental engagement. In a study that included participants from England, India, Sweden and the United States, most said that they were convinced that they acted more environmentally friendly than the average person.
You might conclude that such a slight delusion is harmless, unless you consider that such a belief is probably keeping you from going forward in a truly environmentally responsible way. And now, that’s more important than ever. We’re rarely given the chance to restructure our societies and ways of living in the wake of a devastating worldwide pandemic. Right now, our attentions are laser-focused on how to remake the world so that our health and the health of the planet is ensured for the future.
And this time, we need to get it right.
The better-than-average effect
In the University of Gothenburg study, which was published in the science journal Basic and Applied Social Psychology in November 2019, more than 4,000 people responded to how much and how often they perform environmentally friendly activities compared to others. For example, questions were asked about buying eco-labeled products, reducing the use of plastic bags and saving household energy.
Results revealed that the majority of the participants rated themselves as more environmentally friendly in comparison to their friends, as well as to unknown people. They were more likely to overestimate their engagement in the activities that they performed often, and many seemed to draw the faulty conclusion that they did them more frequently than others.
These findings are in line with previous research studies that found that most people consider themselves to be more creative, better drivers and more honest than others. This tendency to overestimate our own abilities is known as the “better-than-average” effect. And while we might chuckle at our human hubris, it could be dangerous.
The Anthropocene pause
A consequence of thinking that you are more environmentally friendly than others is that it can reduce your motivation to act that way in the future. The University of Gothenburg study also demonstrated that when we think we are more environmentally friendly than others, we actually tend to become somewhat less environmentally friendly.
And, as I see it, that’s the problem. As the world slowed down in response to COVID-19 and as we begin to make our way back up from the depths of the pandemic, we’re being given the opportunity to recalibrate our societal systems, which have a big impact on our planet’s health. We may never be more motivated or have this great of a sense of urgency again.
The coronavirus pandemic caused a prolonged interruption of everyday human activity. Lockdowns went into effect, and would-be drivers and fliers stayed home. A lot of human activity was paused. The disruption of our normal patterns of consumption and production meant that global greenhouse gas emissions fell for a time; and some wildlife, such as loggerhead turtles in Florida, benefited from the “anthropause.” The pandemic’s surreal gap gave us a clear view of how our present-day behaviors and methods have failed us.
As vaccines are becoming more ubiquitous and as countries are starting to rebuild their stalled economies, carbon emissions and other pollutants are on the rise again. That means we need to consider an important question: When this is finally all over, can we afford to return to what was before; to what we consider as “normal”?
The answer is no. We can’t. We have to aim higher.
The coronavirus pandemic exposed the consequences of our putting political ideology before science. COVID-19 is where “normal” got us; and if we settle for going back to irresponsibility and science denial, we’ll soon find ourselves here again—only this time, at the point of no return.
I can’t honestly say there’s any bright side to the current planetary pandemic. But it may at least have given us a glimpse of what the future could look like: air pollution levels could drop, and at-risk wildlife populations could recover. We saw what could be possible if we rethink our dependence on fossil fuels as our chief energy source and our reliance on gasoline-powered cars as our primary means of transportation. We now know firsthand that pollution isn’t simply the price we have to pay for economic progress. Disease demonstrated that if across countries, generations and ideologies we come together, we might be able to address climate change and mitigate its most grievous manifestations.
The coming of clean energy
We can create a better, safer world if we tie our economic plans for the future to climate action and a transition to clean-energy sources. We can couple stimulus bills with money for energy-efficiency programs, such as public transit.
As hard as it is to believe right now, this pandemic will end. In the meantime, though, we need to start reimagining how we want our society to work. The goal isn’t to go back to “normal.” We shouldn’t.
And, importantly, for motivation and mindset, we need to develop a more realistic view of our own environmental efforts.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,