How ACT might change the story about addiction to fossil fuels

How can ACT help reduce excessive consumption of fossil fuels?  In this blog, the third and probably last in my series on ACT and environmental change, I want to critique an economist’s view of behavioural change and argue that ACT helps us understand how to tackle our addiction to consumption.

An Economists Perspective on Addiction to Fossil Fuel Use

So first to the economists’ view. In a fascinating article, Suranovic (2013) argues that addiction to fossil fuels use is a lot like addiction to cigarettes: In both cases, there are short-term reinforcers for continuing current behaviour and punishers for changing. And in both cases, people undervalue the long-term outcomes. Suranovic argues that:

“… an individual can break an addiction to fossil fuel only if two conditions are met. First the present value of the future costs of climate change, accounting for its likelihood of occurrence, must outweigh the current benefits of using fossil fuels. Second, this perceived net future benefit of preventing climate change must also exceed the adjustment costs borne by an individual switching to alternative energy sources.”

The problem is that human beings heavily discount the value of future outcomes. Just as smokers are likely to discount the negative effects of long-term illness from smoking, most of us in the developed world are excessively discounting the negative long-term effects of our consumption patterns.

In the end, Suranovic seems pessimistic. If it has taken us 50 years to deal with the relatively simple case of cigarette addiction, what hope do we have of bringing about behaviour change in the much more complex and interdependent case of addiction to fossil fuels?

While I do occasionally despair, I also find hope in watching how ACT can help people create real and sometimes rapid changes in problematic, repetitive behaviours.  In the next section, I explore how ACT could change some of the basic assumptions arising from economics.

An ACT Perspective: Changing our relationship to the stories we tell changes what and how we value

The view of people as utility optimisers is limited in at least two important ways: it doesn’t account for how we can change our relationship to what we value, and it ignores identity.

The stories we tell affect the value of events

For Suranovic, the extent to which we value different outcomes is relatively unchanging.  He treats utility as “exogenous” – it affects the system but cannot be affected by the system. But as we practice with ACT we know that we can change not only how much we value different aspects of our lives, we can also change the process of valuing itself.

One reason why mindfulness seems to help with smoking addiction is because it helps addicts reinterpret and accept the pain of withdrawal (e.g. Witkiewitz et al., 2012). Positive psychology has repeatedly demonstrated the power of reinterpreting aversive experience as an opportunity for learning and growth.  Psychological flexibility is about changing our responses to negative experience.  If reducing fossil fuel use is not happening in part because of the short-term ‘pain’ of change, then psychological flexibility can help us reinterpret and re-value the pain.

What is interesting here is that changes in meaning and valuing can occur instantaneously.  I remember standing in a line at a café growing increasingly annoyed at a sandwich maker who seemed to be taking forever to make each sandwich.  But then I heard him speak …. and I realised he was intellectually disabled.  As my perceptions shifted in an instant, so did my valuing of standing in line patiently.

Think of the 180 degree shift in perception we experience when we stop seeing a person as selfish, stubborn or lazy and instead choose to see them as an individual with needs and wants just like ours.  This type of change in meaning and valuing of a situation is not the linear, incremental change that Suranovic bases his argument upon. It is nonlinear – there is a tipping point as changes in one small meaning cascades to change the meaning of everything about the situation.

The stories we tell about who we are change the value of events

Often this sort of radical reappraisal of a situation involves a change in identity. We suddenly see that we are defending some belief about who we are or what we stand for. And this might also be true for dealing with addiction to fossil fuel. For many of us, our self-worth is entwined with our purchasing power.  My value as a parent sometimes feels proportional to the things I can give my children.  ACT helps us become more flexible about our identity, less defensive of any particular view of ourselves – and this makes change easier as we become more flexible and responsive to what is actually going on and not rules about how we should be.

I have tried to emphasise how change can occur not just in what we value or how much we value it, but in the way that we do valuing – in the way we make sense of our lives.  While this might be obvious to readers of this blog, it actually calls into question some of the most fundamental assumptions economists make about human behaviour. Relational frame theory provides an account of how changing the stories we tell ourselves changes the way we value our experiences.

I am excited about the possibilities of combining the tools of ACT with powerful tools from other disciplines such as scenario planning.  Vivid stories about possible futures, like those outlined in this wonderful paper by Bob Costanza, help us avoid the perils of excessive discounting of future outcomes. But these stories also help us reinterpret our experience now, and the tools of ACT help change our relationship to the pain of change so that we can act more in the direction of what really matters. This is making use of language at its best.

3 thoughts on “How ACT might change the story about addiction to fossil fuels

  1. Thanks so much for your series on environmental change. As an environmental scientist I often find myself in a roomful of scientists or concerned citizens who are wanting to better understand the psychological dimensions to the gulf we observe between our stated values and our actual actions. It’s really helpful to read some considered thought in this area that is grounded in psychological research findings. The addiction analogy is a really interesting one, and I’d like to learn more about where that analogy helps us and when we risk taking the analogy too far.

    1. Paul: Thanks for another excellent post! This information really needs to get to a broader audience, and you are doing an important part here.

      Nicky: Some recommended readings:

      Biglan, A. (1995). Changing Cultural Practices: A Contextualist Framework for Intervention Research. Context Press.

      Sloan, D. S., Hayes, S. C., Biglan, A., & Embry, D. D. (in press). Evolving the Future: Toward a Science of Intentional Change. Behavioral and Brain Sciences. Retrieved from http://journals.cambridge.org/images/fileUpload/documents/Wilson_BBS-D-11-00562_preprint.pdf

      The latest issue of Inside Behavior Analysis contains several reports from the Behavior Change for a Sustainable World Conference (free download if you register):

  2. Thanks Nicky, The fact that fossil fuel use is a tragedy of the commons situation whereas cigarette addiction is individual seems to me to be a major difference that limits the analogy. The whole structure of reinforcers is different and social. Still – it is perhaps a generative analogy in a space where we need creative thinking. Cheers

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