A team of psychologists in Sweden has developed a theory that may explain why we harm the environment, even when our intentions are good. The experts suggest that we treat our relationship with the environment like a social exchange, believing that environmentally friendly behavior can compensate for harmful behavior.

The problem is that we cannot smooth things over later with the environment as we can in our social lives. According to the researchers, it would be impossible to mentally account for the environmental impact of all of our actions, so we use mental “rules of thumb” to track our green footprint and seek out eco-friendly products to make up for any damage we may have done.

Study lead author Patrik Sörqvist is a professor of Environmental Psychology at the University of Gävle.

“Reciprocity and balance in social relations have been fundamental to social cooperation, and thus to survival, so the human brain has become specialized through natural selection to compute and seek this balance,” said Professor Sörqvist. “But when applied to climate change, this social give-and-take thinking leads to the misconception that ‘green’ choices can compensate for unsustainable ones.”

In reality, all consumption causes permanent environmental harm. Green options are not fully restorative but are simply less harmful.

“You can’t kiss and make up with the environment. Jetting to the Caribbean will make you a huge environmental burden, no matter how many meat-free Mondays you have,” said Professor Sörqvist.

When eco-friendly items are incorporated with conventional items, people often believe that the overall product is environmentally friendly.

“For instance, some groups have found that people intuitively think the environmental burden of a hamburger and an organic apple in combination is lower than the environmental burden of the hamburger alone – or that the total emissions of a carpool remain the same when hybrid cars are added to the pool.”

The new theory suggests that this leads us to pursue misguided quick fixes to address our guilt for harming the environment. The researchers explained that stricter legislation of marketing devices and a carbon footprint label for products would be a way to better guide consumer behavior.

“Terms like ‘eco-friendly’ or ‘green’ encourage the view that objects, behaviors, and decisions with these labels are ‘good’ rather than ‘less bad’ for the environment,” said study co-author Dr. Linda Langeborg. “Calling a hamburger restaurant ‘100 % climate compensated’, for example, may deceive people into believing that eating dinner at that restaurant has no environmental burden.”

“Instead, we should give consumers immediate feedback on how much ‘eco-labeled’ and other products add to the environmental impact of what they are buying. For example, self-scanning systems in supermarkets could provide customers with an accumulated carbon footprint estimate of their shopping basket.”

The study is published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer

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