The Need for A New American Dream

When discussing the causes of climate change, we fail to consider the factors driving human behaviors that harm the planet. Climate change is largely a result of human behavior and decisions. It doesn’t really make sense for humans to make unsustainable choices, so why do we act in ways that are at odds with our survival?

We make decisions that harm our home, the planet, and thus work against ourselves. These decisions are even referred to as “maladaptive behaviors” because we are failing to adapt appropriately to our environment. We act as though we have dominion over the world around us, but clearly, we do not. This mentality and behavior will only lead to catastrophic consequences for us by destroying our habitat. Climate change is an issue of human behavior, rather than the environment responding to factors outside our control. 

Using a lens of conservation psychology, which examines the relationship between humans and nature, allows us to better understand why we make unsustainable decisions knowing they are not conducive to human survival. 

Professors Susan M. Koger and Britain A. Scott state that the health of not only the environment but also ourselves, is impacted by unsustainable choices. Mental health challenges, such as anxiety and depression, are heightened by resource overconsumption and materialistic values. The American Dream is a painfully perfect embodiment of these two principles. This ethos equates success to material possession. It encourages people to have not one, but multiple cars, buy the biggest house possible and buy items they do not need simply because they have the financial means to do so. Thus, actions taken in the name of the “American Dream” reflect short-term pleasures and self-interest. People are more concerned with what appeals to them in the moment than the long-term consequences of their actions on the larger collective of people. Koger and Scott summarize the dilemma of balancing personal desires with moral actions by stating, “such common dilemmas occur when individuals are tempted by personal benefits to overuse and degrade a shared resource.” 

Ultimately, morality drives both sustainable and unsustainable behaviors. In his book “Science and Human Behavior,” psychologist B.F. Skinner states, immediate reinforcers are more compelling than delayed costs.” Humans make choices according to what will produce the most instantaneous, pleasurable result. It is difficult for us to make sustainable changes in our actions and behavior, even if these changes provide greater long-term benefits. The short-term pleasures of material possession overpower the long-term goal of protecting the planet. Furthermore, sustainable actions are not often taken because it is difficult for people to understand the abstract consequences of climate change and the vast number of people that will be affected by it. One solution is to center calls for sustainable action around peoples’ emotions. Emotions are particularly powerful in motivating people towards sustainable action. There is a far greater emotional response when people hear someone’s first-hand account of their experience with climate change. 

However, emotional responses can sometimes be too powerful and produce “psychic numbing,” or other psychological methods of defense. Messages about danger and disaster can then become counterintuitive to the push for more sustainable behavior. Unsustainable behavior increases because the problem seems too great and uncontrollable. Professor Janis L. Dickinson explains how this mentality leads many to deny the existence of climate change: “People are prone to deny the validity of research and tests indicating that their lives could be in danger and elect to endure pain and suffering so long as it is accompanied by the promise of a long life.” People are driven away from climate change by fear and thus sometimes go as far as to deny it exists. This mindset prompts individuals to avoid taking action. If no one else is concerned and shifting their behavior, why should I? The main gripe with this attitude is that the solution to pushing people towards sustainable action lies in personal accountability. When one person decides to act sustainably, others are primed to follow suit. The power to make changes to mitigate climate change lies in the individual.

Changing our actions means accepting that the world around us is changing in ways we cannot control. Shifting from unsustainable to sustainable behavior threatens the worldview we have been raised on as Americans. As I mentioned before, the “American Dream” is rooted in unsustainable behavior. It has made success synonymous with buying and possessing material goods. But we can shift our mentality. We can view sustainable behavior not as a chore but rather as an act of compassion for those around us, the planet and ourselves. 

We can make a new “American Dream,” one defining success not in terms of what an individual possesses but rather what an individual can do to contribute to a safe and habitable environment for everyone.