Environmentalism and the Fear of Disorder

Greens engage in rituals to allay their anxieties.


Auburn University

Why do people recycle and buy organic foods? According to Marijn Meijers and Bastiaan Rutjens, a couple of social scientists at the University of Amsterdam, they do it to realize a sense of personal control stemming from their fear that disorder is increasing in the world. Technological optimists, meanwhile, are more likely to eschew the comfort of such rituals.

To be fair, that's not exactly how the two researchers interpret their study, which was published in the August European Journal of Social Psychology. But as we shall see, it is not unreasonable to construe their results that way.

A popular new psychological model, compensatory control theory, argues that people are highly motivated to perceive the world as meaningful, orderly, and structured. When people perceive the world as being less orderly, Meijers and Rutjens explain, they strive to compensate for the anxiety and stress this produces. Often this entails attempting to achieve personal or external control. With personal control, Meijers and Rutjens write, "it is the feeling that people are able to influence their environment that provides them with the notion of an orderly and navigable world." With external control, "it is the feeling that an external source (e.g. an intervening God or a powerful government) exerts influence over their environments and the world in general that provides similar perceptions of an orderly world."

A threat to one source of order boosts the motivation to affirm the other. Instability in government, for example, produces more efforts to achieve personal control.

Meijers and Rutjens note that scientific progress "can be viewed as testimony to humanity's increasing ability to exert control over the world, and bolstering belief in scientific progress as such can provide order." The formulation "can be viewed" is just a bit too clever. In fact, the technologies developed as a result of the processes scientific discovery have dramatically reduced a lot of the randomness and disorder that a fickle and meager nature throws our way.

For example, a 2011 Reason Foundation study reported that, as a result of the increased wealth that modern technology has created, "aggregate mortality attributed to all extreme weather events globally has declined by more than 90 percent since the 1920s, in spite of a four-fold rise in population." Not surprisingly, such a huge reduction in actual, not just perceived, randomness and disorder does indeed go a long way toward "bolstering belief in scientific progress." 

In any case, the researchers wanted to test the hypothesis that questioning the ability of scientific progress to control "environmental challenges and natural threats" would lead subjects to reaffirm personal control by engaging in behaviors that are perceived to be environmentally friendly. Specifically, they aimed to test the idea that "behaving in an environmentally friendly way may work as an order-providing psychological mechanism and thus help to alleviate feelings of disorder."

The researchers conducted four different studies to test their hypothesis. The first study involved having participants read two fake newspaper articles, one stressing the rapidity of scientific progress and the other suggesting that scientific developments are insufficient to deal with urgent problems, e.g., HIV and climate change. As predicted, the positive article reduced feelings of disorder, and the negative one increased feelings of disorder.

The second study used a test in which participants had to unscramble words into sentences designed to induce either feelings of order and disorder. Then they were told that an institute at their university wanted to know their opinions about environmental issues. Those exposed to sentences suggesting disorder more highly endorsed "environmentally friendly" sentiments such as "we have to take the greenhouse effect seriously."

In the third study, the researchers sought to probe the idea that engaging in environmentally friendly behaviors increases the sense of personal control in subjects. So half of the students began by filling out the same opinion form regarding environmental behavior as in the second study. Then they were asked to imagine that they were business managers and to say, hypothetically, how much more in costs above regulatory requirements they would be willing to bear to cut air pollution at a manufacturing plant. In the final step, they filled out a survey disguised to measure their sense of personal control. The exercise was reversed for the other students, who completed the survey measuring their sense of personal control first and then went on to the environmental behavior tasks. The researchers found that participants who engaged first the environmental tasks expressed a higher sense of personal control than the others.

In their fourth study, the researchers aimed to fully test the proposition that "questioning scientific progress enhances feelings of disorder and consequently heightens environmentally friendly attitudes, intentions, and behaviors," and vice versa. First, they had participants read newspaper articles affirming or questioning scientific progress. Next, subjects answered a questionnaire that measured their disorder perceptions (e.g., their belief that our lives are ruled by randomness) on a seven-point scale. Then, their intentions to engage environmentally friendly activities (e.g., washing clothes at a lower temperature and recycling for the sake of the environment) were measured on a seven-point scale. Finally, participants were tasked to choose groceries from six product categories, each of which featured an organic item. The products did not differ in price.

The researchers found that participants who read the article questioning scientific progress expressed greater intention to recycle, reduce washing temperatures, and buy organic foods than those who read the version affirming scientific progress. Why the difference? Because, the researchers report, "questioning scientific progress results in a relative increase in disorder perceptions, which in turn triggers the motivation to restore order via personal actions such as engaging in environmentally friendly behavior."

A reasonable reading of these results is that a lot of environmentalists experience many aspects of the modern world as chaotic and thus seek to compensate for their perceptions of disorder by engaging in ritual behaviors that make them feel like they are exerting more personal control. It is not much of a leap to conclude that by imposing those rituals on others, some environmentalists seek to reduce their dread of disorder even more.

Why call them rituals? Because it is not all that clear that they actually do anything much for the natural environment. For example, the costs of curbside recycling often outweigh purported benefits, and lower organic crop yields mean more land taken from nature. But as Meijers and Rutjens have shown, partaking in such rites is much like reciting the Rosary, in that they, too, reduce participant anxiety.

Of course, being social scientists and sharing the customary prejudices of their tribe, that's not how Meijers and Rutjens look at their findings. Instead they write, "Our findings have important practical implications for understanding how environmentally friendly behavior can be increased and encouraged." How? By "looking more critically at the power of science and the limits of progress," that is, by casting doubt of the efficacy of people to solve problems using science and technology.

Meijers and Rutjens also cannily observe that rapid progress in various scientific and technological endeavors can be framed as sources of disorder. This is precisely how many environmentalists portray biotech crops, nuclear power, synthetic biology, and nanotechnology. Advances in science and technology are constantly remaking entire industries and ways of earning a living. So anxious environmentalists alleviate the stress induced by these perceived sources of disorder by trying to exercise personal control—including activism that, ironically, demands increased external control by government.

Disclosure: I have long sought reduce my anxieties about disorder by personally promoting scientific and technological progress.