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Defamation of ecological feelings

In March this year, Frontiers in Psychology, which publishes rigorously reviewed research in the field of psychological sciences, printed an article by Swedish scholars entitled Why People Harm the Environment Although They Try to Treat It Well. The authors point out that politicians, environmentalists, and consumers have - when it comes to the implementation of the idea of climate compensation - a tendency to assess the impact of man on the environment by invoking moral intuition. This intuition was formed in interpersonal relations. According to psychologists, applying it to human-environment relations cando more harm than good.

The human brain, through evolution, has become specialised in searching for and evaluating reciprocity and balance - the essential elements for social exchange. This is achieved through a simplified method of inference - heuristics. They allow people to pass judgments without analysing much of the information on which the judgment should be based.

One of the ways of unconscious shortcut thinking in information processing is the availability heuristic. It comes down to assessing the frequency or probability of events based on the ease with which we can come up with their examples. This usually leads to accurate assessments, but sometimes it can be misleading, as not all the information available in the memory relates to frequent events. If the media constantly publicise - in a clear, dramatic, way - a problem or a rare event (e.g. the death of a whale due to eating plastic) or a questionable event (e.g. a 90% rate of sea-bird death due to the consumption of plastic rubbish), then it becomes more accessible for human memory. The more the thinking about an event is saturated with emotion (images of dead animals and the interpretation of those images), the easier it is to recall it.

The second psychological trap is the anchoring heuristic. This is a cognitive tendency based on the fact that when evaluating some numerical value (the sum of events, their frequency or probability) we take as a starting point some commonly available estimate, not necessarily reliable (e.g. the slogan More plastic than fish in the sea by 2050, imprinted by Ellen MacArthur Foundation), and then we modify this value according to the context and our knowledge. Treating a number or value as a true starting point for assessing frequency or probability becomes an anchor. Our assessments are most-strongly influenced by the data which was the earliest to be anchored. Information received later is either marginalised or ignored, something which Machiavelli had already noticed.

By applying this simplified reasoning to environmental relations, people tend to think in terms of maintaining a balance between environmentally friendly and harmful activities , and to account morally for the average of these components, not their sum. This moral accounting leads to the need to compensate for pro-ecological beliefs (which is not feasible). The authors also cite a Canadian study which shows that people are more likely to cheat after buying environmentally friendly products. This phenomenon is explained by the fact that they probably feel morally excused by the prior good deed - making an ecological choice.

Moral accounting also gives rise to illusions related to negative carbon dioxide emissions. Faith in climate compensation is ubiquitous. On the one hand, companies and countries claim to balance greenhouse gas emissions by planting trees or paying for CO2-emission compensation under the EU Emissions Trading Scheme. On the other hand, it is a misconception that individual  pro-ecological choices can compensate for what results from global unsustainability, and what is unsustainable as the sum of the individual eco-decisions.

To alleviate the sense of eco-guilt - derived from the imbalance in the moral sense of accountability in environmental matters - often promoted are activitieswhich appear to be pro-ecological which, in fact, are more harmful than total passivity. It is consumption which causes lasting damage to the environment, and ecological options are at best less harmful than regenerative options. Tracking the environmental impact of each of our activities is virtually impossible.

Unlike social error, our ecological footprint must not be wiped out. We cannot kiss the environment or put make-up on it. No matter how many meatless Fridays we decide on and how much plastic packaging, cups, or straws we choose not to use, we will not reduce our carbon footprint this way. The global trend for individual eco-decisions is powered by the strongest human passion - ignorance. And unfortunately, it perpetuates false collective social views.

The fuel industry, the power industry, and the heating industry, are all creating a huge environmental burden - not plastics. It is these sectors which on an annual average are responsible for approximately 95% of oil consumption every year.
They are the ones responsible in the vast majority for carbon footprints. On an annual average, approximately 1.4% of the annual volume of crude oil consumption worldwide is used for the production of plastic packaging. The share of the plastic packaging sector in the carbon footprint is estimated at approximately 0.6% on an annual average. On the German market - which is the leading producer of plastic packaging - it is estimated that the aggregate 11-year carbon footprint of the German packaging sector is equal to the carbon footprint of one Berlin - Mallorca - Berlin flight.

In a number of bodies, institutions and organisations, like mushrooms after the rain, spring up an ever-increasing number of initiatives eagerly promoting eco-decisions to reduce carbon footprint by excluding plastic packaging. The heuristics which support this process activate mechanisms promoting the spread of post-truth about plastics.

Krzysztof Żarnotal


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