Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Sleepwalking Toward the Abyss

Psychological flaws can stymie climate action.

Key points

  • Throughout history, people have habitually taken more than they need from the planet. Climate change is the natural result.
  • To heal the Earth, we must work together and prioritize preserving natural resources over economic gain.

People have a long record of taking too much from the environment. Our excesses are catching up with us. How did our species become such a threat to the planet, and what can we do about it?

The Problem: From Killing Too Much Prey to Buying Too Much Stuff

In favorable environments, humans overuse resources and ignore long-term costs. This happened in the "Pleistocene Overkill" when our ancestors wiped out their large prey animals. Today, it is an Internet spending spree financed by credit. We must understand these recurring tendencies if we are to break them.

Conspicuous consumption is a key motive. Our ancestors went beyond killing for food and hunted for prestige. Shopping junkets are also motivated by the need to project social success.

The Way Out

We are trapped in a contradiction. Economic success and increasing GDP are lauded by politicians who also claim to be addressing climate change. These objectives are mostly contradictory. Consequently, we are sleepwalking toward the abyss. How do we get out of this cognitive trap?

1. Understand the problem. Climate change is the price we must pay for economic growth and individual prosperity. Yet, our assault on the planet is killing the goose that lays the golden egg. We must protect the natural wealth of our planet if we want to survive as a species. By hurting the planet, we are injuring ourselves.

When Brazilian farmers destroyed rainforests to grow more crops, for example, they made the regional climate warmer, drier, and windier—greatly reducing crop yields. They also turned the vast carbon sink of the Amazon region into a source of carbon pollution.

2. There's no us versus them. Given the seriousness of climate threats, all of the countries of the world need to act in concert to reduce carbon pollution. Unfortunately, the annual climate change (COP) conferences tend to degenerate into a squabble over money.

Developed countries are said to have benefited from carbon pollution and often promise to pay off poorer countries that suffer the brunt of extreme weather events and disasters. These promises are rarely honored. When they are, the money gets diverted and misused. It is far better to enlist the help of developing countries in tackling the climate problem.

3. Respect indigenous lands and increase wildlife reserves. Indigenous people still occupy a quarter of the land surface of the planet. They are highly motivated to protect their land because it is the source of their livelihood and because they have ancient emotional and religious connections to specific sites. Researchers found that indigenous people were more effective at protecting land than nation-states despite having minimal economic resources.1 Just as indigenous people have the biggest stake in their own land, subsistence farmers rely on the land for their livelihoods.

4. Protect subsistence agriculture and minimize climate refugees. Unfortunately, many farmers are on the front lines of climate change, fueling refugee crises in places like Somalia and Central America. While a lot of damage has already been done to marginal farmlands, they can be made more resilient. This involves planting hardy vegetation, such as shrubs, trees, and bamboo, that holds soil in place and prevents erosion by wind and floods. Another tactic is to plant a greater diversity of food crops so that the failure of one species does not bring famine.

Can We Rise to the Challenge?

With an ancient record of excessive consumption, how can people agree to take less from the planet so as to mitigate climate change? The answer is that we must become responsible stewards of the planet to preserve, and benefit from, its riches. Establishing protected areas of the sea increases fish yields in nonprotected areas, for example. Conversely, mindless exploitation depletes fish stocks.

Developing nations have a critical role to play in addressing climate change and will benefit economically from doing so. Examples include manufacturing green stoves, windmills, solar cells, and harvesting water from the air—green applications that are highly beneficial in less developed countries. Developed countries should invest directly in such enterprises, thereby boosting the economies of poorer nations.

We are all beholden to the planet for our food and must investigate resilient agriculture to feed the population explosion. If climate remediation is to succeed, we must recruit indigenous people and subsistence farmers alike.

We certainly need the full support of developing countries that include both the most threatened land, the largest indigenous populations, and the most valuable carbon sinks.2

There is no point in reducing coal use in developed countries if larger countries like China and India are going to increase theirs. We are all in this together and need to stop creating divisions with divisive payments for natural disasters. Instead, we must work together to prevent them.


1 Fa, J. E., Watson, J. E. M., Leiper, S., Potapov, P., Evans, T. D., et al. (2020). Importance of indigenous peoples' lands for the conservation of intact forest landscapes. Frontiers in Ecology and environment, 18(3), 135-140. DOI: 10.1002/fee2148

2 Hayhoe, K. (2021). Saving us: a climate scientist's case for hope and healing in a divided world. .New York: One Signal Publishers/Simon and Schuster.

More from Nigel Barber Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today
More from Nigel Barber Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today