Irrational People - Behaviours and Decisions

Irrational People - Behaviours and Decisions
Published: Aug 16, 2013
STOCKHOLM: Sustainable development expert Kaj Embrén discusses the relationship between human behaviour and the ecological consequences of our actions.

I often find myself thinking about our ability to make decisions. Perhaps this is because the fundamental ethics that lie behind our choices can apply to both the large and small issues that we deal with each day – at work, with our families or when we go shopping.

Psychologists and philosophers like Kant and Hume have voiced some interesting ideas on decision-making and human irrationality. It seems that we are often short-term thinkers, poor at analyzing facts and experience over longer periods of time. These problems are exacerbated and made increasingly complex in the context of globalization. With a larger web of irrational individuals and states interacting with one another, we have found ourselves in an environmentally unsustainable situation.

But as both citizens and consumers we are responsible for our actions, whether at the dinner table, at work, in politics, or shopping at the supermarket. It is important to develop some set of normative ethics within our society if we are to create a world which can be beneficial to us all in the long term. In order for this to happen we need governments, NGOs, businesses and individuals to act as ethical ‘agents’ that can help us to better understand the impact of our actions and to encourage better choices.

One positive sign is the strengthening of corporate social responsibility (CSR) in business. As it becomes easier for consumers to see the consequences of their choices, companies have begun to realize that short-term profit maximization is not the best way to protect their brands. More businesses are beginning to express their strategies as a balance between economic, social and ecological values, with 95 per cent of the world’s 250 largest companies now producing sustainability reports and 80 per cent following the guidelines set out by the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI). Collaboration between companies within networks like The Natural Step, UN Global Compact or Transparency International can further encourage more responsible business practices.


We need an educational model that helps us to make more rational choices.

But while it is certainly useful to see how our money is used when we purchase products and services, it is even more fundamental that we understand why these decisions are important. Scientists are of course knowledge-builders who can help us make the right choices, especially with regard to one of our planet’s biggest dilemmas – the threat of climate change. But these issues can be complicated and despite increased awareness, individuals still lack enough real knowledge to make globally-minded decisions. As the UN prepares to bring together the world’s top climate change experts in Stockholm next month, it is vital that we develop ethical agents that can help translate the knowledge of the scientific community into something accessible and applicable. We need an educational model that helps us to make more rational choices.

A good example of this process can be found in the book The Human Quest by the Swedish scientist Johan Rockström and photographer Mathias Klum. One of the key issues that the book addresses is the planet’s sensitivity to carbon dioxide. It is clearly an important question and although there remains some degree of academic uncertainty, research suggests that the planet is facing a temperature rise of between two and eight degrees. Rockström then goes on to discuss the importance of understanding the long-term dynamics of the earth’s natural oscillation between cold and warm periods. He is concerned that this latter fact is used as a smokescreen by skeptics who argue that increased carbon dioxide emissions do not contribute to global warming. The book rationally outlines the implausibility of these claims, which completely ignore the fact that for the first time in the planet’s multi-billion-year history, humans now spewing out huge amounts of CO2.

Rockström asks disturbing but necessary questions about our planet’s boundaries – issues that most of us have developed a natural concern for through news and the media. But most importantly, the book presents credible insight in an educational way that can facilitate decision-making and affect future behavior on an individual level.

There must be a greater focus on such attempts to forge links between the complex science of climate change and the simpler understanding that motivates our everyday choices. This is the only way to create a clear roadmap to a sustainable future.

We must demand that the political sector inspires, educates and engages members of society.

One of the key areas of education should address how we interpret the carbon output that we are each responsible for. Unlike the more commonly used figure of production-based emissions, consumption-based calculations take into account the the CO2 involved in imports and exports for the goods we consume. The difference between the two can be surprising and give us food for thought about the impact of our purchases.

An excellent report from the Swedish Trade Union (TCO) highlights this perfectly. It shows that in 2010 the average Chinese person emitted six tonnes of production-based carbon dioxide, a little higher than the Swedish figure of five tonnes. But the average Swede’s consumption-based emissions were nearly double that of their Chinese equivalent, due to a greater dependence on imported goods. Incidentally, this figure was almost 100 times higher than the average Ethiopian.

A sustainable society requires both sustainable production and sustainable consumption patterns. The latter is the responsibility of the individual. This is why ethical agents can make such a difference by providing a link between social ethics and global dilemmas. This process is already in motion and can be seen by the growth of products that are certified as carbon neutral, Fairtrade or otherwise certified as sustainable.

There are many different organisations and individuals that can assist our decisions but, ultimately, governments are best placed to act as ethical agents. They have the power to redefine our public morality and their failure to act means that people’s choices are too heavily influenced by powerful lobbyists and climate skeptics. Politicians are still too passive. We must demand that the political sector inspires, educates and engages members of society to take individual action against climate change, which remains the greatest challenge of our time.

Kaj Embrén has been involved with sustainable development for more than 30 years. He led the International Co-operative Green Campaign at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro 1992, and was also involved in the start up of the Swedish Foundation – The Natural Step. In 2000, he co-established Respect with Gordon and Anita Roddick, and in 2003 was involved in the start of the Climate Group. Kaj lived in London for 10 years, but is now based in Stockholm, Sweden.

This article was originally published on Kaj's blog on 14th August 2013.


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