earth in hands – grass background – environment concept

(© Romolo Tavani -

GAVLE, Sweden — If we hurt another person, we might do something nice to make up for it. Such relational dancing does not impress Mother Nature, though. And while much of our daily activities have some sort of impact on the environment, scientists suggest that humans haphazardly feel that one good deed erases a not-so-good one when it comes to how we treat the planet.

But that type of behavior just doesn’t fly, researchers say. We can’t justify jetting around the world burning fossil fuels just because we’ve exchanged beef for soy burgers. That mentality could wind up hurting the planet more than helping it.

Swedish psychologists with the University of Gävle have an explanation for why we cause damage to the environment, despite our best intentions to counterbalance our green sins. We may attempt to humanize nature, even giving nature a name, but the interaction between the two is not the same as the interaction between humans.

“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,” says lead author Patrik Sörqvist, an environmental psychology professor with the university, in a release. “But when applied to climate change, this social give-and-take thinking leads to the misconception that ‘green’ choices can compensate for unsustainable ones.”

Because we are unable to track the impact of each of our actions on our green footprint, we can become easy prey to advertisers, politicians and others who offer quick fixes to assuage our eco guilt. But do these climate compensation good deeds make up for our environmental follies?

The truth, says researchers, is that all consumption harms the environment. Green options just do less damage. But they do not fix the problem.

“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,” Sörqvist quips.

People tend to believe that there are magical scales they can balance through “climate compensation.”

“Calling a hamburger restaurant ‘100% climate compensated,’ for example, may deceive people into believing that eating dinner at that restaurant has no environmental burden,” says study co-author Dr. Linda Langeborg, also with the university.

According to researchers, studies have found that consumers believe that buying “eco-friendly” items along with “conventional” items balances out or even reduces the overall environmental impact of the purchase. Such misguided thinking can lead us into all sorts of weird mental gymnastics to deal with our eco-guilt.

“People might purchase some extra groceries because they are ‘eco-labeled’; think that they can justify jetting abroad for vacation because they have been cycling to work; or take longer showers because they’ve reduced the water temperature,” says Sörqvist. “And companies–nations, even–claim to balance greenhouse gas emissions by planting trees or by paying for carbon offsets through the European Union Emission Trading Scheme.

“Meanwhile, the best thing for the environment would of course be for us to consume less overall.”

Because what we consume is the sum of the total. As the authors point out, those eco-labeled bananas are better for the environment than regular bananas, but the only way to avoid all harm is to buy no bananas at all.

One solution the authors offer is to provide obligatory carbon footprint impact alongside purchase price information during point of sale self-scanning. “We should give consumers immediate feedback on how much ‘eco-labeled’ and other products add to the environmental impact of what they are buying.” says Langeborg.

Weighing the environmental scales may make individuals and larger groups of people feel better about their choices, but it’s a smoke screen. The harsh truth, experts contend, is that all consumption has an impact on the environment.

Study authors say it is time to stop kidding ourselves and find more practical, thoughtful approaches to resolve our eco guilt and treat our planet better.

Otherwise, as an old commercial once warned us, “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.” And we do not want to deal with those repercussions!

Research findings were published in the March 4, 2019 edition of  Frontiers in Psychology.

About Terra Marquette

Terra is a Denver-area freelance writer, editor and researcher. In her free time, she creates playlists for every mood.

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