One Question Quiz
Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

SocietyJuly 27, 2022

Happy copycats: The psychology of taking climate action

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

Berating people with bad news isn’t conducive to making change. Future Proof‘s Ellen Rykers asks professor Niki Harré about the psychology of sustainability.

A lot of New Zealanders care about climate change, according to a recent survey. But fewer of us actually take action in our daily lives. Why does this gap exist? Maybe in some cases we don’t know what actions to take, or sometimes it’s just tricky to do the sustainable thing. Plus, when you read about “climate criminal” celebrities taking 17-minute flights in their private jets, composting that spinach past its use-by date might seem, well, pointless. You are not alone. And therein lies the secret: there is power in numbers.

Professor Niki Harré from the University of Auckland was drawn to study the psychology of sustainability when she first learnt about climate change and realised it was “unreservedly my problem, as it is everyone’s problem”. She researches how to engage people in creating a more sustainable and equitable society, using psychology.

“There’s some sort of assumption that if we simply repeat how bad the situation is and how much we need to change, this will magically result in people altering their lives,” says Harré. “What that misunderstands is the way in which life is interwoven with a whole series of different values and demands. And it’s very difficult to just pick out one and just change that.”

Professor Niki Harré. (Photo: Dean Carruthers/University of Auckland)

Part of it has to do with how our systems and society are set up – for example, we’re unlikely to cycle if there isn’t safe cycling infrastructure. Or there may be other life practicalities that get in the way of a more sustainable choice. Some of it can be chalked up to our social networks and organisations, and the norms within those.

Harré reckons that organisations in particular have potential for change that’s “big enough to start to get a bit of traction”. 

“I think organisational level change holds this really good space between the difficulty of doing something as an individual, and the hugeness of it all,” she says. Embedding sustainability in our workplaces, educational institutions and governments is like planting a seed in fertile soil – you’re more likely to get results that stick, and spread like weeds. 

This is partly because humans are copycats, mimicking those around us. “The more we hear about it, see it demonstrated, consider it viable for people like us, the more likely we are to do it,” says Harré. 

But focusing on change at the organisational level doesn’t mean you should stop toting around your reusable coffee cup. It’s about living consistently with our deeply held values. 

“I don’t know how you avoid individual action if you care,” says Harré. “To me the question of whether it’s worth it or not is irrelevant – to me it’s an aesthetic thing, a moral thing, an emotional thing. I don’t want to chuck things in landfill, waste food – that’s just not who I am.”

There’s another key ingredient for change: positive emotions. After all, we’ve got to keep living while we try to make the world a more sustainable place.

In her book, Psychology for a Better World, Harré notes that positive emotions elicit creativity, a desire to connect with others, and openness to change – all things we need if we’re going to tackle climate change and foster a truly sustainable society.

In her book, Harré notes that positive emotions elicit things we need if we’re going to tackle climate change and foster a truly sustainable society. (Image: Auckland University Press)

Harré invites us to experiment with emotion: “Think about whatever scares you most about climate change, and you can actually feel a sort of an inward turn, that closing down, and that sense of desperation that something needs to be done urgently. Whereas with positive emotions, you can feel that sense of possibility, wanting to join with others, a kind of sense that there are multiple ways to deal with this.”

So this brings us back to how we talk about climate change. We can lay out facts “without the catastrophising and the fear, but not straying from the truth”, according to Harré.

“I do wish people would think really hard about what they’re conveying to young people,” she says. “When a young person is right in front of you, you can see what a treasure that person is, and all their vulnerability. Then, it’s brutal, really, to insist to a young person that the planet is in dire straits and nothing is being done about it.”

You may find the doom and gloom exhausting and overwhelming. But dystopia isn’t a given for our future, and perhaps it’s time we start imagining something better, and start embracing being happy, sustainable copycats. Because when it comes to the environment, sustainability and climate change, as Harré says, “Nobody is out of place here – this is all of our issue in a very genuine way.”

Sign up to The Spinoff’s brand new weekly newsletter Future Proof, sponsored by Electric Kiwi. Every Wednesday, Ellen Rykers will dive into what’s happening in the environment to keep you informed, empowered and inspired about our natural world. Sign up by August 9 and go in the draw to win a year’s free power for our partners at Electric Kiwi. (T&Cs apply.)

Keep going!