Don’t Call "Green" a Sacrifice

How the language of denial holds back climate progress

I used to cherish flying on holidays to faraway countries. I loved eating pepperoni pizza and keeping my house a little too warm in winter. I don’t do any of these things anymore. For a while now, I’ve been trying to lower my carbon footprint, to contribute my tiny part to saving the planet.

At the same time, I feel torn. For one, the systemic emissions of my fossil fuel society mean that, even if I could lower my carbon footprint to the level of a homeless person in the United States, my share would still be about 8.5 tons carbon dioxide per year—far beyond the “under 2 tons” environmentalists have pegged as the limit to avoid catastrophic climate change. That’s because individual contributions to climate change are just a part of larger, societal inputs, from road construction and police services to schools and the military. And two, what would me doing my part matter if others were not doing the same? Attendees of the Davos conference in 2019, for example, were estimated to take 1,500 individual private jets flights to get there, potentially costing thousands of tons of carbon. The irony was that many of them went to Switzerland to talk about climate change.

Faced with data like these, my sacrifices seemed increasingly pointless and unfair. The more I dug into the research, though, the more it became clear that the problem was not with any penances I or anyone else would pay for the planet. The problem was more basic: Centering the discussion around the concept of “sacrifice” was misguided in the first place.

Is Acting Green a Sacrifice?

“Sacrifice” is a tool used by climate skeptics and environmentalists alike. On the skeptic side, it is a way to make action unappealing. In his book Green Hell: How Environmentalists Plan to Control Your Life and What You Can Do to Stop Them, for example, petroleum industry lobbyist Steven Milloy warns that if we were to reduce our carbon footprints we would soon be “living on a smaller, more inconvenient, more uncomfortable, more expensive, less enjoyable, and less hopeful scale.” U.S. President Donald Trump, meanwhile, ranted in Texas in 2019: “I really don’t like their policy of taking away your car, of taking away your airplane rights, of ‘let’s hop a train to California,’ of ‘you’re not allowed to own cows anymore!’”

On the other end of the climate divide, the voices are not so different. Bloomberg titled one of its articles “What Are You Willing to Sacrifice to Stop Climate Change?" while The New Republic demanded that “You Will Have to Make Sacrifices to Save the Planet.” Breakthrough Journal, too, has linked climate-friendly acts with sacrifice on at least one occasion. And when Greta Thunberg sailed the Atlantic Ocean, eating freeze-dried foods and skipping showers so that she could attend climate talks in New York, commentators applauded her “sacrifice.”

“Sacrifice” is a tool used by climate skeptics and environmentalists alike.

But sacrifice is a charged word, recalling religious devotion, as when Abraham offered a ram to God to spare his son Isaac. From this perspective, eating vegetarian, lowering our thermostats, or biking to work is seen as either diminishing our well-being in return for a higher good (if you are on the side of the environmentalists) or diminishing our well-being for no good at all (if you are a skeptic).

However, there is one major flaw in the sacrifice rhetoric: Science doesn’t support it. Whatever one individual’s relative ability to contribute to the fight against climate change, research shows that acting “green” is linked with more happiness and satisfaction, not less. A study to be published in the July 2022 issue of Environmental Science & Policy shows, for example, that engaging in pro-environmental behaviors—such as taking short showers, avoiding food waste, or buying products with less packaging—is linked to enhanced well-being in seven various nations, from India and the United Kingdom to Poland and Brazil. Those effects are strong no matter the person’s income.

A slightly older study, meanwhile, revealed that, in Canada, 37 out of 39 pro-environmental behaviors were positively associated with life satisfaction. People who ate vegetarian, attended pro-environmental meetings, or reduced home air conditioning use reported more satisfaction with their lives than those who didn’t. In this study, the only two eco-behaviors that didn’t seem to boost happiness were running the washer/dryer only when full and taking public transport (that last one might have had something to do with the quality of Canada’s public transport). When researchers from the University of Groningen, the Netherlands, conducted a meta-analysis of 78 studies, they found evidence of links between well-being and green behaviors across the board, no matter the size of the study, where it was located, or what methodology the authors had used.

Acting Green Has Psychological Benefits

The question, of course, is why “green” behaviors would feel rewarding. In some cases, like riding a bike, it might be that the activity is more fun than the alternative. With others, though, like recycling or turning off the lights, that is unlikely to be the case. There’s also the related question of whether happy people are simply more likely to engage in behaviors that are also pro-environmental, or are those behaviors making them happier? There is still no clear research evidence to support the second hypothesis, but according to Stephanie Zawadzki, environmental psychologist at the University of Groningen and the author of the meta-analysis, there is some indication that causality may run both ways, potentially creating a feedback loop where happier people engage in more green deeds, which then in turn make them even more happy. “It becomes this self-reinforcing cycle,” she told me in November 2021.

Here, think of the relationship between life satisfaction and materialism—the drive toward bigger houses, bigger cars, and more consumer goods, all of which mean more carbon emissions. In general, research shows that people who place high value on material things report lower subjective well-being than those who do not. Tim Kasser, Emeritus Professor of Psychology at Knox College, and his colleagues followed several hundred Icelanders and Americans for intervals of six months, two years, and 12 years. They found that those whose materialism diminished over time also experienced increases in their subjective well-being (controlling for other factors, such as income or age). That makes sense, since the pursuit of wealth may be impossible, and it may take time away from more rewarding activities.

Whatever one individual’s relative ability to contribute to the fight against climate change, research shows that acting “green” is linked with more happiness and satisfaction, not less.

Related to all this—and another reason pro-climate behaviors don’t necessarily feel like a sacrifice—is something scientists call the “warm glow,” that pleasant, fuzzy feeling many of us experience when doing a good deed. In one experiment, researchers approached passengers at a train station in the Netherlands, asking them if they’ve ever engaged in environmentally-friendly behaviors, such as taking short showers, separating waste, or buying organic. For some of the passengers, the question was framed so as to suggest that they did those things out of their own free will and concern for the planet, while for others the question was phrased to suggest that the choice wasn’t really theirs—they only took short showers because of time pressures, for example.

Next, all the travelers were asked how acting green made them feel. Proud? Happy? Or perhaps frustrated or uncomfortable? The results revealed that those who were nudged to feel like they’d made decisions out of concern for the planet reported more positive emotions about taking such actions. In other words, the short showers made them more cheerful than frustrated. What’s more, the underlying reason for this, the experiment revealed, seemed to be a belief that acting green was related to being a good person.

In some situations, however, nice feelings about oneself could be detrimental to meaningful climate action. If it’s enough to simply believe a behavior is green to feel the warm glow, we may look for that “high” by engaging in behaviors seen by society as good for the planet, no matter how impactful they really are. That’s a perfect ground for greenwashing—a marketing technique in which companies put a spin on their products and services to make them look eco-friendly, when in reality, they are not. If you could get the pleasant experience of warm glow from recycling or buying eco-products, why would you, say, give up your yearly flight to Cancun? Reducing air travel is not only more personally costly, our culture does not necessarily treat such reductions with as much appreciation as it does composting, even though, compared to cutting down on flying, composting has tiny effects (and even though there is no research that links long-distance vacation travel to greater happiness).

Of course, there are cases where good feeling and big impact converge, and the best example may be housing, which accounts for nearly a quarter of the average U.S. American family’s carbon footprint. Beyond the cost of heating and cooling a bigger space, there is more carbon dioxide embedded in materials for construction. (In the United States, the average house has expanded from about 1,000 square feet in the 1950s to 2,641 for a new house in 2018.)

Yet this extra footage does not automatically equal extra happiness. A study done in Germany also found that moving to or living in a better home is unrelated to life-satisfaction. Looking for the reason behind such findings, the researchers who conducted the German study hypothesized that any positive effects of upscaling accommodation are quickly offset by added chores and financial responsibilities of a bigger lodgment. It seems Frank Lloyd Wright might have been right when he said that “many wealthy people are little more than the janitors of their possessions.”

This isn’t true of just the wealthy. Even when people move out of slums, their well-being doesn’t soar long-term as much as one might expect. When a Latin American NGO, Un Techo Para Mi País (“A Roof for My Country”), provided small, prefabricated houses for slum dwellers in El Salvador, Uruguay, and Mexico, at first the recipients reported highly improved perceptions of well-being. After two years, however, most of the gain had already disappeared, a process called hedonic adaptation. This, of course, does not mean we should stop fighting inequality and providing decent accommodation to the less fortunate members of our societies. But it does mean that we should take with a grain of salt any claims that middle-class Westerners living in smaller spaces or forgoing a purchase of a new car are making a huge sacrifice.

Acting Green Has Physiological Benefits

For some pro-environmental behaviors, the mental health benefits may be driven less by psychology than by physiology. Take meat—one of the top climate “sins.” Of all greenhouse gases worldwide, a large chunk comes from livestock. If everyone on Earth went vegan by 2050, the yearly savings for the climate would add up to about 8 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide. However, going vegetarian or vegan is often portrayed in popular culture as the dietary equivalent of having a root canal.

Yet research shows a very different picture. In Finland, the happiest seniors are those who eat the most fruit and vegetables, regardless of their meat consumption. It’s unlikely to be simple correlation, either, since random placement experiments also show benefits to plant-based eating. In one trial, non-vegetarian volunteers who were assigned to a plant-only diet for two weeks ended the study with lower anxiety, less stress, and less fatigue. Other research, including a meta-analysis, confirms an association between consumption of meat and higher incidence of depression.

Some research has shown, meanwhile, carnivorous diets may be detrimental to happiness because they tend to be loaded with saturated fat. Saturated fat can promote inflammation and oxidative stress, change dopamine-related gene expression, as well as disturb our fight-or-flight response, the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, which can contribute to anxiety disorders and depression. It can also reduce the expression of a protein called BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), which helps the development and survival of nerve cells in the brain.

The climate crisis is urgent, and in acting, we won’t only avoid the future sorrows of a six- or eight-degree warmer world—we might also end up happier in the process.

To be sure, there are also a few studies out there that find the opposite effects, showing that meat avoidance is related to poor psychological health. Yet these studies tend to have one thing in common—meat industry money. An author of one such recent academic paper on the benefits of meat, for example, received a $10,555 grant from the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. Outside of these studies, the conclusions seem to point one way: Reducing meat consumption might not be bad for our mental well-being after all.

Acting green might also impact human physiology through feelings of togetherness and social connection. Many pro-environmental behaviors happen to encourage doing things with others—be it walking or taking public transport instead of driving, sharing stuff instead of buying, participating in climate protests, and the like. Decades of research have linked social connectedness to both mental and physical well-being. Togetherness calms the stress response, lowering levels of cortisol. It spurs the release of social hormones, such as oxytocin, vasopressin, and serotonin. Those are both responsible for the warm and fuzzy feelings and also for strictly physical benefits (oxytocin, for example, has anti-inflammatory effects). When I was researching my latest book, Growing Young: How Friendship, Optimism and Kindness Can Help You Live to 100, I found scores of research studies showing that doing things with other people, displaying kindness and volunteering can be at least as important to health and longevity as diet and exercise.

It Feels Good to Be Green

For a variety of psychological and physiological reasons, going green is not likely to be a sacrifice. It is the non-green behaviors that should be more suspect. To offer one more example, take airline travel. In his book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari points out that our modern belief in the necessity of long-distance travel is quite bizarre from an evolutionary or a historical perspective. “A chimpanzee alpha male would never think of using his power in order to go on holiday into the territory of a neighboring chimpanzee band. The elite of ancient Egypt spent their fortunes building pyramids and having their corpses mummified, but none of them thought of going shopping in Babylon or taking a skiing holiday in Phoenicia. People today spend a great deal of money on holidays abroad because they are true believers in the myths of romantic consumerism,” he writes. By engaging in holiday travel, and international travel in particular, we can show off to the Joneses and confirm our social standing.

Romantic consumerism is a powerful force, and it underlies the conviction that reducing people’s climate impacts has to be a sacrifice. Yet hedonic adaptation, the warm glow and even our physiology cause us to derive fewer psychological benefits from materialistic lifestyles than from acting green. To be sure, the idea of sacrifice is sticky. One study suggested that emotions explain as much as half of the variance in people’s support for climate-related policies. That’s why both sides have deployed this particularly emotionally laden term. But likely, it hasn’t helped the planet.

When discussing pro-environmental behaviors, instead of talking in the language of sacrifice for the greater good, it might be worth highlighting the non-climate benefits individuals may derive from green deeds—the warm glow of happiness included. Emphasizing such benefits works well, even for climate skeptics. What’s more, we can even try to kickstart the warm glow loop. Studies reveal that when people anticipate they will feel good about their green deed in the future, they are more likely to actually do it. And once they’ve experienced pleasant feelings, they want to feel them again. It becomes a self-reinforcing cycle. On the flip side, negative expectations, also in the sphere of climate change, have a tendency to become self-fulfilling prophecies. If you expect something to be painful and unpleasant, it probably will.

Of course, it’s unlikely that every single behavior that benefits the climate will also make us happier, or that all green deeds will boost everyone’s well-being just the same. However, research shows that they’re even less likely to bring pain and sacrifice. We need to remind people that the climate crisis is urgent, but also show them that if we do act, we won’t only avoid the future sorrows of a six- or eight-degree warmer world—we might also end up happier in the process.