It has become routine to remark ‘if you’re not sitting uncomfortably in today’s world, you’re really sick’. It is, paradoxically, comforting (not only for me, I have discovered) to meet more and more people who are wrestling with a growing sense of cognitive dissonance as they sense the gap between their daily behaviours and their desire to live ethically in tune with the planet. In researching the contributors to (and detractors from) resilience, it is evident that socio-ecological dissonance is one of the latter. This isn’t simply a personal dilemma; it’s a reflection of the systemic challenges that confront us, collectively, as we strive for ecological integrity. As someone said to me recently “we live hypocritically in the world today”.

Whilst this statement may be an expression of solidarity, the implications of the normalization of hypocrisy are serious. Eco-anxiety, also known as climate anxiety, arises from the dissonance we feel between caring about the planet yet living in ways that contribute to ecological threats like climate change. This anxiety relates to the belief that we lack the means, both as individuals and collectively as citizens, to influence these environmental dangers.

The roots of our dissonance

People experience significant tension between their role as increasingly aware citizens, cognisant of sustainability issues (and even directly impacted by climate disasters), and their role as consumers and workers. Social norms valorise materialism over frugality. As consumers and workers, we are encouraged to engage in convenient, status-driven, or novelty-seeking behaviours. The lack of low-impact consumer choices leaves us pushed to accept what is available, affordable, desirable or normalized, even if it contradicts our values and perpetuates a system that drives ecological harms. We then wrestle with the contradictions which makes dissonance even worse.

The structural barriers to living within ecological constraints are a significant contributor to ego-dystonic behaviour. Since these are embedded in a system that is antithetical to ecological stability, we are mostly unable to change them on our own. The growth imperative also means regulations favour environmental exploitation over stewardship. These short-term interests hide the imminent tragedy of the horizon.

For many, the lack of agency to address systemic change leads to rationalisations and an absolving of ‘guilt’ over unsustainable personal behaviours. Blame can ‘rightly’ fall on ‘the system’. It is this systemic mismatch between our pro-ecological attitudes and the anti-ecological actions the system engenders, that forms the crux of our cognitive dissonance. The recent notion of ‘deviant leisure’ provides significant food for thought in this regard – at both an individual and societal (collective) level.

Dissonance as Conscience

Our dissonance may well serve as a modern conscience, a relentless reminder of the compromise we’re entangled in by participating in unsustainable systems that we know are not in service to life. It’s a signal that our moral self-concept is under threat, challenging our well-being, self-esteem and sense of personal integrity.

The implications of this discord between economy and ecology are grim and destabilising of both planetary and societal systems. At a societal level, the impact is compounded. Widespread ‘learned helplessness’ feeds a culture of cynicism and apathy that reduces faith in the agency and cooperation of others. A lack of social trust presents a very real danger to social cohesion and collective action. Ultimately this weakens societal resilience, which reduces individual resilience. And so the cycle repeats.

Building Strategic Hope Through Collective Action

Navigating the paradox between consumer appetite and ecological conscience is an ongoing struggle. Resolving this tension requires structural changes to the way the world works, including to social norms about consumption. Whilst individuals are able to exercise personal agency through small daily choices or supporting collective efforts, changing systemic drivers feels beyond the capacity or means of most. As a result, a pervasive sense of learned helplessness dominates and exacerbates our eco-anxiety.

Learned helplessness theory provides a useful framework for understanding the psychological underpinnings of eco-anxiety and environmental inaction. However, a recent new view of learned helplessness, presented by Jane McGonigal in her book Unimaginable, suggests that helplessness is an instinctive, not learned, behaviour. By her account, we can equally learn to overcome this through our individual and collective action. Dissonance might just be the indication of conscience that could spur action and drive change at a systemic level.

Whilst the weight of dissonance can be overwhelming, it might open avenues for building strategic hope and collective action. Recognising our dissonance might be the first step in moving us towards living with greater ecological integrity. It forces us to confront the realities of our choices and the system that shapes them. Channeling this discomfort into collective action might help us begin to address the systemic barriers to sustainability.

There are a number of ways in which we can start this, and many places in which this movement is happening. Some ideas include:

· Community Engagement and Solidarity: There is strength in numbers, participate in the creation, building or support of communities that embody your personal values, offer mutual support (shared resilience) and strategies for driving change to ecological footprints.

· Advocacy and Systemic Change: Leverage and amplify collective voices, support advocacy for policies and practices that align with ecological sustainability and push for systemic changes that reduces the gap between values and lived reality.

· Innovation and Education: Encouraging innovation in and spreading awareness through education in sustainability practice can equip individuals and communities with the tools to make more sustainable choices.

· Reflection and Growth: Engaging in personal reflection and dialogue about the dissonance we experience can foster growth, resilience, and a deeper commitment to our ecological values.

As we navigate the complexities of living sustainably in an often unsustainable world, embracing our dissonance—not as a source of guilt but as a catalyst for change—can empower us. It’s a call to action that reminds us of the urgency of our collective efforts toward ecological integrity.

There are so many initiatives all over the world that you can engage with for any of the ideas above. If you are one, please share your link in the comments below. If you’re looking for one, say where and we’ll send you some ideas.

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