Climate change is the defining issue of our era. World leaders have come together to align on global goals, companies are judged by their environmental impact, and millions of ordinary people have marched in the streets. Yet, progress remains slow and major questions outstanding. Will government commitments and investments materialize? Will markets adapt and technologies emerge rapidly enough? Will apathy and fatalism set in?
As the COP26 climate change conference closes in Glasgow, we know that the world is not on track to achieve the emissions goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement. In addition to governmental action, market incentives, and technological innovation, we must also use the full complement of unique human capacities to address this planet-wide problem.
Fortunately, behavioral and psychological research indicates a powerful path forward. We can change how we talk, think, and feel about the natural world. As a first step we must acknowledge the reasons that humans are not well equipped to identify climate change as an important and urgent imperative. We are less attuned to assign moral judgement to unintentional or seemingly blameless actions, such driving our cars to visit family or powering our lights. People are also reluctant to engage with problems that imply that they themselves may bear some level of guilt, even indirectly. And human beings particularly struggle with problems that involve long time horizons, faraway places, or uncertain outcomes. Since it doesn’t come naturally to us, a special effort is required.
Researchers have identified a variety of communications techniques to help us change the way we talk about climate change. These include a focus on expanding people’s group identity (focusing on similarities rather than differences), highlighting positive social norms, and, perhaps most importantly, using existing cultural frameworks when we talk about the need to combat climate change. Rather than seeking to create new values around climate change, we can leverage existing cultural traditions that already engage deeply with environmental issues.
A prime example of this approach is Pope Francis’ groundbreaking 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’, where he writes about the care for our common home by our common family. He also talks about gratitude in the Laudato Si, relating the emotional and moral lessons we learn in our families to our relationship with the natural world. “In the family we first learn how to show love and respect for life….to say ‘thank you’ as an expression of genuine gratitude for what we have been given, to control our aggressivity and greed, and to ask forgiveness when we have caused harm.” Here Pope Francis invites us to see action on climate change as an opportunity to practice natural virtues like gratitude, care, and forgiveness. We think there is also an opportunity to connect this ancient wisdom to cutting-edge science to change the way we act and talk about climate change.
Gratitude is the natural response to benevolence, whether that benefactor is a stranger, a loved one, the planet, or the divine. When grateful we affirm that we have received an unearned good and recognize that this good comes from outside of us. Gratitude is a way of being that is grounded in the invitation to see life as a gift. It comes with the realization that these gifts are not to be squandered. We look up and we look out and see how our lives are sustained and supported by forces that transcend our individual lives. We see that life provides sufficiency and surplus. We remember how we are bound to the world that surrounds us.
Significantly, gratitude can potently drive environmental conservation, the reduced consumption of resources, and other forms of environmentally responsible action. We humans rely heavily on nature’s benefits, and feeling grateful to nature for its provisions and as a result wanting to protect nature in return is commonplace. During the 30X30 Challenge campaign in May 2016, for instance, nearly 13,000 individuals, 821 schools, and 463 workplaces from 68 countries took part to write “love letters” and “thank you letters” to nature. Law professor Elizabeth Loder defines environmental gratitude as “a finely tuned propensity to notice and feel grateful for one’s surroundings on a regular basis, which generates pervasive attitudes of concern for planetary welfare and commitment to contribute ecological benefits to the extent of one’s ability.” And examples of gratitude toward the environment are familiar.
Many cultures express motifs of the environment as teacher and healer, and all of the world’s religions teach the importance of reverence and gratitude for earth’s gifts. It is not a foreign notion to express gratitude for our survival and the gifts we enjoy in the face of suffering from natural forces like storms and earthquakes. A sense of gratitude for all of nature allows us to reframe our perspective on these nature-related “acts of God.”
Furthermore, many aspects of nature are distant and inaccessible. Gratitude can help us take environmental processes and systems that are abstract or hidden beyond our view less for granted. Insomuch as gratitude implies living in celebration, the healing of disconnection, and preserving and protecting what we most treasure, according to philosopher Nathan Wood, it has a unique advantage as a human virtue in that it can function both as “an attitude of thankfulness in response to a benefit received” and in a non-instrumental sense as “an active appreciation that something is the way it is.”
Most importantly, gratitude is an action word. It is not passive. Grateful people are “trustees,” caretakers of that which has been entrusted to them. Ingratitude, conversely, is a failure to preserve and protect the gifts that one has received or has been entrusted with. In a set of remarkable new studies research has shown that gratitude drives sustainable actions including the extraction of fewer resources from a common pool in an economic game. People who experience environmental gratitude are morally concerned and intrinsically motivated to act responsibly. They actively strive to tend the landscape out of a sense of reciprocity and attune themselves to the countless ways in which our planet supports and sustains, nourishes and provides the means for us to flourish.
Gratitude and Flourishing
Gratitude is vital for individual and collective flourishing. The big questions of “What virtues should we nurture and how should we act?” “Under what conditions—cultural, political, and natural—should we aim to live?” and “What kinds of emotions should mark and energize our lives?” can be summed up as a single fundamental question: “What does it mean to flourish?” This question has occupied human beings intensely for millennia. Indeed, it is in many ways the core concern of many disparate fields from philosophy and theology to biology and economics. According to epidemiologist and director of the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard’s School of Public Health, Tyler VanderWheele, flourishing itself may be understood as a state in which all aspects of a person’s life are good. One thing is clear: that the capacity for human flourishing is surely limited under the extremes of climate change. So what can be done? At a minimum, we can cultivate gratitude as an action at the core of the struggle against climate change. Everyone from a farmer in Indiana to a financier in Hong Kong to the COP26 negotiators should seek to incorporate gratitude into their thinking by asking themselves these questions:
- What are specific ways in which environmental gratitude motivates, inspires, and drives behavior conducive to generating ecological action in the service of planetary welfare?
- How can the related emotions of awe and wonder be promoted to generate greater connection and appreciation for the natural world?
- How do we appropriately reciprocate the generosity of the gifts we have received from nature?
- How might the presence of grateful individuals within a larger group reduce the tragedy of the commons?
- Is negligence or destruction of the environment a sign of ingratitude for the gift of life itself?
- How do implicit beliefs about the world’s basic qualities, know as “primals” (abundant or barren, enticing or dangerous, regenerative or improvable) influence environmentally responsible action?
- In what ways is human flourishing predicated upon biological flourishing?
- How does gratitude for the past and present influence generative action directed toward maximizing the flourishing of future generations?
Gratitude alone will not restore biodiversity or halt sea temperature increase, but it seems unlikely that we can solve any significant environmental problems without it.
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