Take a long, hard look at your kitchen bin. Are you certain there’s nothing in there that can’t be recycled? Do you occasionally leave lights on, because it involves less effort? And when was the last time you went round your home, conscientiously switching off every appliance rather than leaving them on standby? If you are letting your green standards slip, the chances are you are suffering from an increasingly common twenty-first-century affliction referred to as eco-fatigue. Symptoms include being too lazy to rinse out your yogurt pots, too rebellious to take armfuls of jute bags to the supermarket and too disheartened to believe you can save the planet by using cotton nappies.
If you look on Google you will find a welter of green confessions among eco-warriors who have grown weary of dedicating their lives to cutting carbon emissions, and are cutting corners instead. They admit to driving the 4×4 to the organic supermarket, throwing out peanut-butter jars because they are slightly difficult to clean and dumping recyclable paper into ordinary bins. We all know we ought to be reducing our carbon footprint. We’re familiar with grim newspaper headlines about melting ice caps, rising water levels and dwindling natural resources, so what makes us shrug in resignation, gulp down another mouthful of un-Fairtrade coffee and turn the page?
A phenomenon known as learned helplessness is a key factor at work when we refuse to face up to unpleasant facts. Identified by American psychologist Martin Seligman in the late 1960s, it’s a negative state of mind that arises when a person feels they have no control over events and situations. ‘Learned helplessness is what makes people turn away from a problem that cries out for immediate action,’ says psychologist Dr Rebecca McGuire-Snieckus, a lecturer at Bath Spa University. ‘The prospect of looming environmental catastrophe is such a complex crisis that many people feel overwhelmed. Because they can’t solve all of it themselves, they abdicate responsibility for solving any of it, and justify themselves by adopting a fatalistic attitude that there’s nothing they can do to prevent global warming.’
Some people are less prone to learned helplessness. They tend to be the ones who are especially good at adapting to situations and are unafraid of challenges — in this context, the environmental activists. The vast majority of us do, of course, want to help save the planet, but wonder if our meagre contribution is really worth the effort. It can be difficult to remain convinced that washing the duvet at 30 degrees will make a difference to the looming environmental crisis — a classic case of future-mindedness versus nowism. The future-minded are able to anticipate the consequences of their actions and maintain a long-term perspective.
Nowists, on the other hand, seek immediate gratification. ‘A nowist doesn’t extrapolate their behaviour and recognise the repercussions,’ says McGuire-Snieckus. ‘But a nowist can change their mindset by finding something to ignite their enthusiasm. Then they will act because they want to, and their concern will become part of their own identity.’ Inspiration rather than guilt, then, is the most effective antidote to eco-fatigue.