Why people get angry about not taking action on the nature and climate crisis

Ever felt attacked when you talk to someone about the nature and climate crisis, even when offering perfectly rational solutions?

If you have worked for the environment or even joined a group to promote solutions I’m sure you have witnessed vehement responses to behaviour change recommendations such as reducing meat consumption, stopping flying, driving less, or perhaps installing a heat pump. I’ve been encouraging individual action for over a decade, and I’ve been bewildered by the resolute nonsense people present to me.

I thought for many years it was simply because people don’t care. But there is extensive evidence to show that children inherently want to protect animals and people in vulnerable situations. That nearly everyone feels significant negative emotions when presented with information related to the nature and climate crisis. And when the nature and climate crisis threaten food security and physical security, it should make us feel anxious. That is the basis of why people give such strong responses - they don’t want to feel anxiety.

If everyone cares deep down why do they not take action?

The rational response to human behaviour causing destruction of our life support systems should be to alter behaviour as it will remove that threat. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple - we have evolutionary, social and identity issues to overcome.

Firstly, our primitive human brains are visually dependent. Alongside this, we have difficulty understanding complex information, as well as a natural tendency to engage with folk led, rather than expert-provided information. This is unfortunately an evolutionary hang up.

On top of this, we have a natural tendency to avoid feelings of despair and anxiety, and put coping mechanisms in place to avoid them. It could be rationalisation where we justify behaviour that doesn’t align with a view. This could be ‘driving is easier’, ‘taking a plane is quicker’, ‘eating a burger is convenient’ - this then allows us to continue that behaviour by providing an excuse.

On the other hand, it could be where people tend to find ways to intellectualise why they are not taking action. This might include thoughts such as ‘China is not taking action so why should I’ or ‘People are inherently selfish so we will never tackle this issue’ or ‘It’s the corporations that are making this happen, they need to change before I can’. We feel intellectually justified to continue as we are.

It could be apathy where sufficient action is not taken so we slowly turn off. There is evidence to show this has happened in countries such as Norway where climate issues polled highest in the 90s and then have seen a steady decline as we continue not to provide a solution.

The most effective way to avoid feelings of anxiety is through sublimation, where people take whatever action they can. This won’t fully manage feelings of anxiety as there is still a huge amount out of people’s control. That’s why global collective action is important.

Where a strong emotional reaction comes from is where there is deep emotional conflict. Someone might use one of these mechanisms to deny that personal action will make a difference. When triggered by someone telling them about an important action, they get aggressive by attacking that solution, or by perhaps denying climate change altogether (another method of avoiding anxiety).

Psychologists say that these defence mechanisms have incredible cognitive energy costs. Getting people to lower their defences through exposure to anxiety is crucial so they can release their full creative potential to create or implement solutions.

What should be really noted is that everyone cares, emotional reactions are a result of deep emotional conflict, that we need to expose people to feelings of anxiety to release creative energy and that only through collective action will there be confidence of a solution.

Social and identity barriers to action

We have inherited social identities that stretch all the way back through modern history, through the Scientific Revolution, Industrial Revolution, all the way to the Digital Revolution.

Christianity set the scene by asserting the notion of dominion over nature (Genesis, Chapt 1), then was followed by the philosophy that humans were self-centred (Hobbes), followed by the embrace of science and business to tackle human suffering. This led to a dominant social paradigm that nature is composed of inert, physical elements which can and should be controlled by human beings seeking private economic gain.

This of course has served us quite well until the last 50 years or so, but we still inherit these ideas through generations. Through this we have created cultural opposition to environmentalism as counter-progress, resulting in the social norms of developers, farmers, big businesses and financiers being against environmental legislation or regulation.

This also stimulates groups of people who are fundamentally opposed to action, and will stubbornly take an opposing view simply to retain their social identity. Even when being challenged by a friend to take a pro environmental view, people use cognitive dissonance to resolve these conflicts, sometimes accepting false narratives to support their assertion.

This creates inertia in certain areas of society which can only be moved by shifting the social norm within society. This should be something like nature is composed of life giving, limited resources, which should be cared for by human beings for our continued prosperity. However, we have a long way to go to do that, with a key place to start being industries with entrenched views.

There are, as you can imagine, many more subjects to tap into on social and identity barriers, but these are headline ones. I would like to point to a major source of this article - the book The Psychology of Environmental Problems (2010) by S. Koger and D. Winter, and the paper How to SHIFT Consumer Behaviors to be More Sustainable: A Literature Review and Guiding Framework.

Fundamentally, we need to acknowledge the social identity of people, that the social norm we work to is of historical making, and that to move the dial on this individuals need to take charge of action in their own lives, whilst engaging others.

What can we do?

Firstly, understand that there isn’t just some dark force stopping action on nature and climate, it’s fundamentally human nature, and we need a level of compassion in our dealings. It’s our desire not to feel anxiety alongside our history, identity and social surroundings that are driving our behaviour. Asking for behaviour change is often also asking for identity change too.

It’s important to acknowledge what we are doing in our own lives to avert feelings of anxiety about the nature and climate crisis. I encourage you to think about using sublimation by creating a plan for your life so it aligns with global goals for nature and climate (Net Positive Life Plan). You can then move forward in confidence by not projecting action upon others which you have not taken yourself.

The next stage is to influence society as a whole. Encourage your friends and discuss climate at work, your gym or church, and get involved in encouraging a new social paradigm through politics.

Net Positive Life Planning (promo I’m afraid)!

We have a straightforward choice. Either we help the planet heal or consciously or unconsciously continue a polluting life that makes much of the planet inhabitable and destroys nature.

Making a net positive life plan allows you to align your life with global goals for nature and climate. If we collectively achieve these goals we will stabilise our climate and restore nature at scale. Making the plan and following it allows you to be on the right side of history. You can say to the next generation - “I took every action I could to make a better world”.

To do this you need to calculate your footprint on nature and climate, in all areas of your life (food, home, transport, stuff you buy, services and financial impact). You then need to figure out how you will reduce the impact from these things by plotting out actions you can take to 2030.

When I did this it took ages which is why we created the NetPositiveLifeApp. We put all the expertise from our team into this piece of work, resulting in the first and only tool that allows you to plan a net positive life. It’s taken us over a year to develop the tool - now it’s yours so you can utilise our expertise.

You receive the average carbon footprint of a UK citizen, and then you plot what actions you’ve already taken, and those you plan to do. When you’re not sure about an action you can learn more by reading information or watching videos we’ve curated to help you on your journey. The app informs you about the impact of those decisions, and gives you a graph on how you are doing on your journey to net positive. The other amazing part is we also cost your actions allowing you to financially plan for those decisions, whilst seeing expected cost savings.

Here’s a summary of the amazing tools on the NetPositiveLifeApp - allowing you to align your life with global goals on nature and climate - your way:

  • Carbon and nature life audit - breaking down impact in each area of life.
  • Real impact life actions - scientifically researched.
  • Curated ‘how to’ information - articles and videos, to support choices.
  • Tips and support - inbuilt tips and supportive digital encouragement.
  • Journey mapping - costing your choices - :moneybag:, :evergreen_tree:, :penguin:.
  • Social sharing - encourage your friends and family by sharing your plan.
  • Group accounts - get family, company or group accounts for collective impact.

Learn more about the net positive life app - click here.

Defence mechanisms to avoid anxiety about nature and climate.

Rationalisation The most common defence mechanism to use to justify behaviour that doesn’t align with the climate or ecological crisis. This could be ‘driving is easier’, ‘taking a plane is quicker’, ‘eating a burger is convenient’ - this then allows us to continue behaviour that we might do by providing an excuse.
Intellectualisation Educated people tend to find ways to intellectualise about why they are not taking action. This could be ‘China is not taking action so why should I’ or ‘People are inherently selfish so we will never tackle this issue’ or ‘It’s the corporations that are making this happen, they need to change before I can’.
Displacement This is where we displace our anxiety about an issue. We decide to get angry at BP or Shell or our own spouse for not recycling. We displace our anger so we don’t have to feel it ourselves and it makes us feel better.
Suppression This is where we put anxiety focused thoughts out of our mind consciously. This is where people turn off the radio or don’t buy a newspaper because they know it will trigger their anxiety about the issue.
Denial This is whyThis why people deny that the issue is actually occurring or is forced by something else. We have seen this extensively within the climate problem but not so much with the nature issue.
Reaction formation Also denial but vehement denial about the issue. This happens regularly with some who hold strong views about the climate and ecological crisis. This is usually because there is deep emotional conflict about the issue (more likely to tip these people).
Projection People project when they fail to acknowledge that their own behaviours are like the others they are criticising. They may vehemently point to others not taking action, whilst not realising they themselves aren’t doing enough.
Apathy When people do not see solutions to an issue they slowly turn off. There is strong evidence to show this has happened in numerous countries where climate issues have polled highly and then collapse as resolutions don’t present themselves.
Sublimation This is where people channel their concerns about issues into socially acceptable actions like joining an environmental NGO or taking action in their own lives. This is a way of managing their anxiety ‘I’m doing what I can to tackle this issue’.