Why it is so difficult to be Green

Practically everybody with a brain has understood that we all have to do something to save the environment (and the world), yet we don’t make enough effort. Why? Behaving environmentally responsible is not considered to be “cool”. Trying to get someone to avoid plastic bags is like telling your children to eat up their veggies because it is good for them, because it will make them big and strong – later. Stopping to pollute the environment is like like telling someone to quit smoking, because cigarettes are not good and will kill the person with cancer – many years later.

The underlying problem is that we humans are wired by evolution to seek instant gratification. This is the desire to experience pleasure, reward or fulfilment without delay. It’s when you want it; and you want it now because it gives pleasure and triggers the reward mechanism in the brain. Modern marketing methods (“iPhone”), social media (“FaceBook”) and many other features that drive our fast-paced modern life exploit this behaviour. Even in economics, money-now is worth more that money-later; here it is called net-present-value (NPV) or in other context the time value of money.

The pleasure principle has been described in psychological science many years ago (see Google to find details and instant gratification). The desire in humans (and animals) to seek pleasure in instant gratification developed in primordial times, because it gave an evolutionary advantage. Apparently, it was more beneficial for our ancestors to get, what the could get now (eg. food) and without delay – it might not be available later. The change from hunting and gathering to farming and agriculture was an important departure from this primitive pattern. The skill of giving preference to long-term goals over more immediate ones is considered a virtue, producing rewards in the long term (“mind over body”). In fact, this transition could be considered the beginning of true humanity.

How can we convert environmentally responsible behaviour, being “green”, to something pleasurable, desirable and instantly gratifying? For most of its manifestation, green behaviour is ridiculed as tree-hugging, symbolized by crude self-knitted pullovers and long-haired activists, who risk their lives, to save the last few doomed whales from being converted to sushi, soap or lamp oil. Obviously, there is nothing pleasurable and instantly gratifying in collecting garbage at the beach, eating less farmed meat and more local plant produce and taking the shoddy public transport or bike instead of the prestigious SUV.

One of the few methods to promote green, environmentally friendly and sustainable behaviour – in fact any behaviour – is to pinch man’s (or woman’s) most sensitive body part – the wallet (or credit card, for that matter) to coerce them to do what is “right”. Charging for plastic shopping bags is a first (tiny) step into the right direction, but clearly no fun, no pleasure.

Any better ideas? How can we make the transition from polluting and destructing to conserving and make this pleasurable and gratifying? – Do you have a good idea? It could save the world.