Environmental extremists – Inspirational or Scary?

Every now and then social media is flooded with a story of someone, who is acting in a way most of us would find extreme, in order to save the environment.

Take Lauren Singer, an environmental studies major, living in NYC. Lauren is a woman so committed to reducing her environmental footprint, that all for her waste from the past 2 years fits into just 1 mason jar. ONE!

To put in in perspective, the global waste production of 11,2 billion ton per year. This means, every human being in average produces the weight of 112 elephants in waste*. So her waste would fit inside the trunk of my elephant.

And on a side note; how can a person look that hot and stylish, while producing zero trash?

Elephant by https://www.flickr.com/photos/digitalart/

Elephant by Digital Art @Flikr

Wow, what an inspiration!

People and stories like this, remind us that we could do so much more. We don’t need to produce so much trash, use so much water, live in energy inefficient homes, or use non-renewable energy.

While we read the article, we think ‘wow, that’s inspirational! If everyone did this, the world would be so much better’. And then we might share the story on our preferred social media.

But then what? We don’t actually start to put our waste in mason jars. We don’t live off the grid using only rainwater and solar panels. At most we close the tab feeling inspired, and think a little bit more about bringing our own bag when doing grocery shopping.

Why don’t we act more like the people who inspire us? The answer is loss aversion.

We like what we have, and we want to keep it.

A lot of research has been done in this field, and I strongly encourage you to read up on it. In short, we like what we have, and we don’t want to lose it. But it’s not without its price.

Research shows that participants who where given a mug, and then had the chance to trade that mug for equally valued alternatives, where less willing to trade, or wanted much more money for it, than it’s actual worth. Why? Because they felt ownership for the mug.

This is a simplified explanation of the experiment. You can read the article here.

A similar study was done with candy bars. Half the participants where given candy bars, and the other half where given mugs. They where equally valued, but when the participants where given the change to exchange a mug for a candy bar, or vice versa, only one in ten did. Again, they where already attached to their belongings.

‘What if I regret choosing the mug over the candy bar? I better stick with the candy bar.’

But this influences us more than just candy bars and mugs. It keeps us from walking away from toxic relationships or bad jobs. ‘What if I miss her? What if I can’t find another job?’ Let me stress that these concerns are valid and important to consider when making big decisions. We shouldn’t’ just ignore them. But we put to much merit into loss aversion.

I might miss it – The Needy and Nice list

I’ve been moving around a lot in the past 8-10 years, and I find it to be a healthy exercise in separating the ‘need to haves’ from the ‘nice to haves’. When packing for a move, I get rid of a Lot of stuff I don’t use. Stuff that just takes up room. I try to gift it to others who are in need of such a things. Like books, kitchenware, clothes that I only wear every 4 years, and so on.


The clutter of loss aversion

Then I feel happy about having to move less boxes with me, and therefor having saved myself the trouble, of finding a place for the things after I’ve moved. This is a hard process for me because; ‘what if I regret getting rid of these things’?

But the same thing happens every time I move. I move into the new place, start unpacking, and then think to myself; Why did I bring this?? What am I ever going to use it for?’

The What if is powerful. This is also why we are reluctant to give up all the comfort that comes with overconsumption. The fear of loosing unfortunately sway us towards making unhealthy decisions.

How do we overcome loss aversion?

I’ll get to the solution in the next blog post. If you want to be sure not to miss it, add me to your RSS feed, or sign up for my newsletter.

Till next time, I’ll leave you with Robert Frost.

*Note: The 112 elephants are how much trash we produce, including up-stream waste, meaning the waste that was generated while making the products we consume. An average Dane currently throws out about 447 kg of waste.
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