Identifying the truths and misconceptions behind the usage of consumerism to combat climate change

Uncontrollable wildfires rage across the state of California. Storms, heat waves, and droughts increase in both frequency and intensity, wreaking havoc across the nation. One study predicts a 23% fall in average global income by the turn of the century. All are a result of the ever-increasing climate crisis the world faces today. 

As the evidence behind climate change, one of our generation’s greatest scientific challenges, grows stronger, so too grows the number of those who write off this evidence as nonsense or conspiracy. This form of denial in itself should come as no surprise, of course—the rejection of scientific proofs and findings has a history that stretches back as far as science itself. However, when the future of our planet as we know it may well lie in the balance, the implications of what may come off as casual skepticism get a lot more serious.

For years, the primary goal behind efforts to combat climate change has been to convince the naysayers of climate science. However, a more radical theory, one which claims the population can subconsciously be driven to fight climate change, has recently begun to take shape. Before the possibilities and shortcomings of such a theory can be analyzed, though, it is first important to understand where the denial of science comes from. 

The Creation of Denial

“At its heart, climate change denial is a conflict between facts and values,” David Hall, a senior researcher in politics at the Auckland University of Technology, writes in an article for The Conversation. “People deny the climate crisis because, to them, it just feels wrong.

Hall’s assertion provides a simple, blunt answer to this complex issue: people are constantly at conflict between their intuition and the facts they are presented with, and they will deny the things that feel wrong to them.

By and large, such a claim is supported by psychology. In particular, the famed Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud suggested in his 1925 essay Negation that any form of denial stems from a mental process that attempts to use one’s own perceptions to twist and reinterpret reality. Modern psychology identifies a similar concept with the idea of “motivated reasoning”: as the facts of science come into conflict with individuals’ preconceived ideas and beliefs, they will attempt to reason around the facts and defend themselves from any further revision.

The Marketplace: a Viable Strategy?

In recent years, though, a new plan to combat climate change has begun to emerge. According to economics writer Michael Rieger, such a solution lies in the marketplace itself—left to their own devices, it is actually more profitable for companies to invest in sustainable and environmentally-friendly practices, Rieger claims.

Indeed, such claims do make intuitive sense. After all, if a product is both more environmentally friendly and also of higher quality than its counterparts, consumers would be more incentivized to buy the former, regardless of whether they themselves care about environmental friendliness—being environmentally friendly would only be an added benefit.

Outside of the theoretical realm, such arguments are also supported by real-world evidence: electric vehicles are indeed better for the environment than their gasoline-powered counterparts. “Electric cars are less polluting, and producing more EVs will help reduce total carbon emissions,” James Ellsmoor, entrepreneur and Forbes contributor, said. “EVs are responsible for considerably lower emissions over their lifetime than vehicles running on fossil fuels.”

Despite this, most people do not actually buy electric vehicles for their environmental benefits. “Environmentalism is not a substantial area of interest [for Tesla buyers],” reporter John Voelcker told Forbes. “This indicates that Tesla interest is driven by the technological or aspirational aspects of the brand rather than it’s [sic] environmental benefits.” Voelcker’s observation paints a similar picture: psychologically speaking, the average consumer is only incentivized to buy the best, most desirable products—yet if that product also happens to be the most environmentally friendly, then consumers will unconsciously purchase in a more environmentally friendly manner without realizing it.

In Norway, the country with the most EVs in accordance with population, the perceived environmental benefits of EVs was only the main factor in around 13% of EV owners’ decisions to purchase their vehicles. Other factors such as technology, financial savings and fun factor, were just as or more substantial factors in their buying decisions. 

When asked to consider the general public’s buying habits, MVHS junior Kevin Kim shared similar sentiments. “I do think that between two similar products, most people would try to choose the more environmentally friendly one,” Kim described. “However, if there were other factors such as a huge price difference, or huge inconvenience, that would hinder your ultimate decision as to what you buy, because ultimately, those are the things that matter to the consumer the most.”

A Dangerous Misconception

Unfortunately, the endless consumerist desire for the best product over sustainability leads to the emergence of disparities in this theory, as there is in fact substantial evidence to suggest that energy companies actually have little incentive to invest in renewable energy sources at all. Notably, it has been well established that fossil fuel companies, such as ExxonMobil, have known and acknowledge the existence and potential harm of climate change since as early as 1977, yet have purposely paid for and promoted the spreading and publication of studies playing down or outright refuting such evidence.

In fact, this sort of behavior from fossil fuel companies directly contradicts the notion made by proponents of consumer-oriented environmentalism. If it is indeed more profitable for companies to seek sustainability, then companies would hope to promote the dangers of climate change to consumers, not attempt to hide them up. 

When junior Ryan Hong first considered this scenario, he initially shared a similar view. “At first, I would think that people could be directed to unconsciously buy more environmentally friendly products,” Hong stated. “But really, though, big companies don’t care about the environment at all, they just care about profit, and if it’s more profitable to lie to consumers about the climate rather than seek sustainability, they would choose to lie. It’s still most crucial for buyers to be educated in the danger of climate change and the sustainability of the products they buy.”

Hong’s claims were echoed by sophomore Ethan Tarng. “I think that more education or more information [on climate change] is still needed to successfully combat the problem,” Tarng explained. “In the end, good consumer habits are a part of the solution, but they are not all that is needed.”

The idea that consumerism will force producers to push for sustainable, environmentally-friendly practices sounds good on paper, and it works to some extent. Yet, a consumer’s desire for the best, and only the best, products results in such an idea’s ultimate downfall. In the end, if the average individual is to truly make an impact in the fight against climate change, simply buying what they want and looking to the market to direct itself is just not enough. One’s own knowledge of what they are buying is still just as important as their desire to buy, and as a result, combating the denial of those who reject science still remains the most crucial step in the fight against climate change. 

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