Environmental Extremist part 2- Overcoming Loss Aversion

This is the second post on the subject of Loss Aversion. If you missed the first post about why environmental extremists are both inspirational and scary, read it here. 


What if I had nothing?

Turning the question of loss aversion upside down, what would actually happen if you had nothing? Or at least less than you have now? Look around you. How many things would you really miss if you didn’t have them?

Untitled by Janne Uusitalo

Untitled by Janne Uusitalo

A Danish television documentary aired last year about this subject. 4 people in their 20’s, gave up Everything they owned for 30 days –including their clothes. They were allowed to choose one thing each day, to take back. Not surprisingly, they all chose a onezy the first day.

And then it got interesting. When you have to choose everything in your life very carefully, what do you choose first? The bed? Toothbrush? iPad?
And more importantly, what would you actually miss?

When you have covered all your basic needs, clothing, wallet, bed, hygiene products, do you still miss all the other things?

The answer, not surprisingly, was no. It’s a very few things we actually miss once we’ve lost, or given them up. The fear of loss is much greater than the loss itself.

I would like to live like that, but…

When we read about people who seemingly give up a lot to live sustainable, we tell ourselves, that we would like to do the same, but we can’t possibly do it in reality. It’s scary. Those inspirational people have to be a bit crazy in order to give those things up, right? And you’re not crazy, you’re not that extreme. You will make the smart choice -recycle your waste instead.

So the people who started out being an inspiration, have now almost turned into a scare tactic. That’s not to say you shouldn’t read and learn from these people, or even try to copy them.

It has to start somewhere.

Remember when people who ate only organic seemed inspirational and extreme? Or when some people bought an electric car? Or when women started voting? Wow,
those were some extreme changes, right?

BeTheChangeThe more people who actually adopt an “extreme” behavior, the faster it becomes the new norm. What was radical, extreme, and just too much yesterday, is called progress today. Getting really cheesy for a moment, Gandhi was right.

(Fun fact, Gandhi never said Be the change, though he is often misquoted for it. What he said was: As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him)


What to do instead: Focus on the gains

So if you’re planning an environmental campaign, or pushing for environmental legislation, this is what you should do. Focus on the gains.

Do not highlight, or ”sell” all the things you have to give up. We’ve all seen those campaigns.

Do good for the environment! Stop this, cut down on that! Do it for the children!

They don’t work. At best they leave us indifferent, a worst they distance us further for the problem, and hence from acting. Instead, put the focus on the positive derived effects, the things you gain.

More happiness, more time. Better water quality. Fewer droughts. Higher job security. Better cash flow. A more stress-free life, longer life, more smiles in the mirror each morning. Don’t believe me? Here’s a link to an article about how people become happier when they recycle.

Wait a second! Are you selling bulls***?

If you’re thinking, ‘No way man! Doing good for the environment doesn’t have any positive side effects, at least not in my line of business’, I would like to challenge you to a duel, good sir. Or madam.

The hidden costs of pollution and climate change are much, much greater than the current price tag. Hence, the positives effects of minimizing, or eliminating pollution, climate change, and other environmental issues, are greater than publicly debated. Go here for more info on the hidden cost of environmental services.

Here’s your challenge, should you choose to accept it:

For environmental planners and campaign managers:

If you feel your cause isn’t “selling”, take 20-30 min where you turn the situation up-side-down, What is the negative cost of not changing this behavior? What positive benefits are you not seeing?

If you really can’t find any, post the issue in the comments, or mail it to me. I will try to find the highlights. If I can’t do this, I will send a great big gift basket to your office, and dedicate an entire blog post to you and your field.


For people who find themselves inspired, and scared when coming across a person who does something extreme for the environment:

Make a list of the 20 things in your life that you could absolutely not go without.

Did you actually make it to 20 without thinking, ‘Hmmm, this is actually a nice to have’?

Now take the 10 things that are the least need on that list. What would be the worst outcome of losing them? And is that a realistic outcome? Would it really be so bad to give up those things?

My guess is, that more than half of the things on your need list, should actually be on the nice list. Comment below on the most surprising finding.

Summing up, you wouldn’t miss it as much as you think

There you have it. Loss aversion keeps us from adopting what we find to be an extreme environmental behavior. Find the positive gains instead, and focus on them.

And now that I’ve overspent my use of the word extreme, here is a treat for sticking around to the end of the post. I give you the Extreme Mix scene from Harrold and Kumar go to White Castle – With a special shout out to Jonhard West.


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