October 28, 2019 - 12:21pm

Yesterday I came across an intriguing one-year longitudinal study published in 2018 in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, which looked at the climate-related beliefs and pro-environmental behaviour of 600 Americans. It established three principal clusters of beliefs: the ‘Skeptical’, the ‘Cautiously Worried’ and the ‘Highly Concerned’.

The study shows that among the ‘Highly Concerned’ group, “Belief in climate change predicted support for government policies to combat climate change, but did not generally translate to individual-level, self-reported pro-environmental behaviour”. In contrast, “climate change skeptics were generally more likely to report pro-environmental behaviour than their high-belief peers”.

Earlier this year, Emma Thompson was pilloried for flying first class from Los Angeles to take part in an Extinction Rebellion protest against our high-carbon lifestyles. Her behaviour may be indicative of a deeper split in attitudes to climate, environment and the best approach to addressing our current ecologically-unsustainable civilisation.

While much effort in the climate movement today focuses on policy changes to drive ‘decarbonisation’, in his 2000 essay ‘The Total Economy’, Wendell Berry argued that the environmental crisis is an inevitable consequence of our civilisation having outsourced nearly every aspect of ordinary household economy to an extractive economic system that buys and sells every aspect of human life, from food production to childcare. Berry’s view is that the only way environmental degradation can be halted is via individual, local action to reclaim human life from this ‘total economy’:

The danger now is that those who are concerned will believe that the solution to the ‘environmental crisis’ can be merely political – that the problems, being large, can be solved by large solutions generated by a few people to whom we will give our proxies to police the economic proxies that we have already given. […] The trouble with this is that a proper concern for nature and our use of nature must be practiced, not by our proxy-holders, but by ourselves.
- Wendell Berry

The study on environmental beliefs and behaviour considers whether that perhaps the ‘Skeptical’ group “might have been motivated to report behaving pro-environmentally for other reasons that they did not associate with climate change, such as reducing pollution or waste accumulation

In contrast, the report wonders whether the ‘Highly Concerned’ group “engaged in moral licensing […] whereby their concern about climate change psychologically liberated them from engaging in (and reporting) pro-environmental behaviour.”

If Wendell Berry’s analysis of our predicament and its remedy is correct, it may yet be not the climate-change evangelists who save us, but the sceptics.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.