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Consumption, Climate Change, and Mental Health

How changing our spending habits could help our mental health and the planet.

Key points

  • We can all help to fight climate change by curbing our own consumption.
  • By shifting our motivation in life from consumption to citizenship, we will also improve our mental health.
  • Basic income could be a way to facilitate this shift from consumption to citizenship.

For the last two weeks, COP26 has been dominating the news in Glasgow, where I live, and around the world. While world leaders and their negotiating teams have been speechifying about how to save the planet, protesters have been marching and demanding radical change. Promises have been made, but whether they will amount to anything is hard to tell. Meanwhile, the volume of cars, wasteful, senseless consumption, and plastic rubbish continues to increase. It can all be very depressing.

Although technological advances will make a big difference to curb emissions and, possibly, capture carbon, we also need to think about consumption. After all, everything we purchase comes with a carbon footprint, especially if it is shipped from the other side of the world and required considerable energy to produce. So, why do we consume? Obviously, a great deal of what we consume is simply to sustain ourselves: food, shelter, clothing, etc. By buying locally, organically, and ethically, we can ensure that our essential purchases are good for the planet.

But what about all those other purchases? What drives us to buy that new gadget? That shirt that we really don't need? That new car? The umpteenth plastic toy for our child? There are many reasons, of course, but one is that we purchase things to make us happy. Certainly, that's the message transmitted to us in most advertising. But even if our purchase makes us happy initially, the feeling rarely lasts. Soon enough, we are off to buy something else before long.

How do we change this? Trying to figure this out, I am drawn back to my research on the history of social psychiatry during the 1950s. It struck me that the middle-class, educated, and white social scientists who tried to determine what was good and bad for mental health in poor communities often criticized the consumption habits of the poor. Why did these people have color televisions when they couldn't hold down a job? Why did they buy cheap, plastic toys for their children? Why did they waste their money on cigarettes and alcohol? For these researchers, the poor could not be trusted with their money. They were the undeserving poor, merely shiftless and impetuous, with no ability to control their impulses.

I am struck by these researchers' inability to see how broader, structural problems, such as endemic poverty and racism—not personal failings—drove most of the decisions such people made. I'm also struck by how wealthier people had similar consumption patterns: they also bought for happiness, they just bought nicer things.

All of this reminds me of the first thing I ever published, a two-page article in Alberta Views magazine entitled "Citizenship or Consumerism." In it, I argued that people were drawn to consumerism because it fulfilled two basic needs: self-preservation and procreation. The more we bought, the more we felt insulated from life's vicissitudes. The more we bought, the more impressive we would seem to potential mates. But, I contended, we could easily shift our focus to citizenship (meaning doing things that improved our community and, essentially, made the world a better place). These activities would also provide for our need to feel safe and loved.

Today, I feel this more than ever, not least because such a shift in attitude is needed to fight climate change. One way to enable such a transformation in how we live our lives would be to institute a guaranteed basic income, as I've argued in other Psychology Today posts. But even if that doesn't come to pass right away, many of us (particularly those with stable incomes) still have the power to make changes in our own lives. Doing so would be good for the planet and be much better for our mental health than that next purchase ever could be.

References

Smith, M. (2021) Getting on in Gotham: The Midtown Manhattan Study and Putting the "Social" in Psychiatry. Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry 45 385-404, https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11013-021-09751-4

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