Cognitive Dissonance

There is societal pressure to always be or seem, busy. We put value on doing things but, I wonder, might not doing things generate more long term value for our planet? I’ve spent my whole life doing a whole lot of things. I’ve been fortunate to benefit financially from travelling around the world doing lots of things. Has the earth benefited from me doing all those things? Other than financially, to a certain extent, will my children and their children and great grandchildren ultimately benefit from me having done all those things?

The many occasions, for example, when I sat at my desk in my corporate job eating a ‘working lunch’ out of a single use plastic disposable tray. What is the (very) long-term cost benefit analysis on that activity? Do the people who travel to work on a bus, who, by existing societal norms, are ‘less successful’ in life ultimately provide more long-term value to the earth and its’ future inhabitants? They use the finite resources that go into transportation: the metal, the carbon emissions etc. much more efficiently than those of us in private cars. All the (probably unnecessary) cosmetic renovations of bathrooms and kitchens we did over ten years ago? We generated a whole lot of waste mindlessly that I didn’t think about then.

I have the privilege to sit quietly and reflect on this now in my nice comfortable home because of how busy I was in my younger years, when I ignored these important questions. Cognitive dissonance. Isn’t that a conundrum?

We have known (deep down in our core even if we willfully ignore it) for some time that the power source that all of humanity’s comfort has been built on is killing our planet. And that our production methods and materials are polluting our waterways and killing all the wildlife. We know that can only end badly. We have the knowledge, the technology and the tools to make better choices that will allow us to keep everything we have now. But the fortunes of entire families, companies and countries rely on the status quo.

The GDP of my native Trinidad and Tobago relies 45% on the energy sector and boasts one of the largest natural gas processing plants in the Western Hemisphere. Many people I love are dependent on revenue from oil and gas exploitation. What happens to them if the world shifts to renewable energy? My husband’s (and therefore my family’s) livelihood and that of many of my friends is based on the recreational travel industry, more specifically cruises. More family and friends work in the airline industry. Right now, in our current ‘business as usual’ paradigm those industries are great polluters.

These truths are immensely inconvenient. It’s easier to believe it’s not true but the change is already happening. Permafrost is already thawing in Siberia and it may already be too late. We can face up to it and try to reverse course, or we can continue mindlessly with our wasteful ways. I would like to believe that Trinidad and other national and corporate oil producers and nation states can see what is coming and are starting to pivot to other industries, but reporting indicates that is not the case. There is much talk of sustainability, and ‘green washing’, but the results of studies of our behavior especially over the last few years, proves otherwise. We are underestimating how damaging our business-as-usual scenario is now that we are so many more people.

As the most recent Circularity Gap Report highlights, “Material Extraction and Use are climbing year on year. In only 50 years, global use of materials has nearly quadrupled—outpacing population growth. In 1972, as the Club of Rome’s report Limits to Growth was published, the world consumed 28.6 billion tonnes. By 2000, this had gone up to 54.9 billion tonnes and as of 2019, it surpassed 100 billion tonnes.” There are estimates that we now have more ‘stuff’ on earth than biomass, i.e. more man-made materials than all ‘life’.

Nobody wants to sit at home and do less. No one wants to go back to the middle ages when only kings and feudal lords enjoyed as luxuries the everyday comforts we all take for granted today; running hot water; climate-controlled ‘chariots’ to wisk us about; ‘servants’ (like washing machines). But we have to fundamentally change our economy. If we change our economy we can still keep everything we need, and create a more just world for everyone. One in which we do not waste millions of tonnes of food while millions go hungry.

And if we continue to ignore these inconvenient truths? If we continue to push them way down deep inside, if we continue to keep ourselves ‘busy’ everyday without really thinking through the consequences of our ‘business’? Well then we will surely be swamped by the oncoming tsunami, probably literally, at sea level, in South Florida, and not one of us will be able to honestly say ‘we never saw it coming’.