How Gratitude Can Help Combat Climate Change

Our era is defined by climate change. The world’s leaders are coming together to work towards common global goals. Businesses will be judged on their impact on the environment. Millions of people marched down the streets in support. Progress is still slow and many major questions remain. What will happen to government investment and commitments? Are the markets able to adapt quickly enough for new technologies? Are apathy, fatalism and inaction likely to prevail?

The COP26 conference on climate change in Glasgow is over. We know the world has not yet reached the emission goals set out by the 2015 Paris Agreement. To address the global problem, it is essential that we use all of our unique human capabilities. This includes market incentives and government action.
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Positive behavioral and psychological research suggests a way forward. Changes in our attitudes, beliefs, and behavior can be made about the natural environment. First, we need to acknowledge that climate change is a serious and pressing issue. Our ability to judge morality for seemingly innocent or unintentional acts, like driving to family and powering the lights, is less developed. Problems that may imply they are guilty, or indirectly, can be difficult to deal with. Problems that have long time horizons or involve faraway places and uncertain outcomes are particularly difficult for human beings. Since it doesn’t come naturally to us, a special effort is required.

Research has identified several communication techniques that can be used to change how we discuss climate change. These include a focus on expanding people’s group identity (focusing on similarities rather than differences), highlighting positive social norms, and, perhaps most importantly, using existing cultural frameworks when we talk about the need to combat climate change. We don’t have to find new values for climate change. Instead, we can use existing cultural traditions which are deeply engaged with these issues.

A prime example of this approach is Pope Francis’ groundbreaking 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’He also writes about caring for the common home of our family. He talks also about gratitude. Laudato SiIt is important to link the moral and emotional lessons learned from our families with our relationships with nature. “In the family we first learn how to show love and respect for life….to say ‘thank you’ as an expression of genuine gratitude for what we have been given, to control our aggressivity and greed, and to ask forgiveness when we have caused harm.” Here Pope Francis invites us to see action on climate change as an opportunity to practice natural virtues like gratitude, care, and forgiveness. This ancient wisdom can also be connected to modern science in order to improve the way that we talk and act about climate change.

Practice gratitude

​Gratitude is the natural response to benevolence, whether that benefactor is a stranger, a loved one, the planet, or the divine. We can be grateful and acknowledge that the good we receive is unearned. It is an attitude that recognizes the gift of life and invites gratitude. You realize that you cannot waste these precious gifts. As we look up, we can see the support that is provided by greater forces than our own lives. Life provides both sufficiency as well as surplus. The world around us is our home.

Gratitude can be a powerful driver of environmental conservation and the reduction of resource consumption, as well as other environmentally responsible actions. We humans rely heavily on nature’s benefits, and feeling grateful to nature for its provisions and as a result wanting to protect nature in return is commonplace. During the 30X30 Challenge campaign in May 2016, for instance, nearly 13,000 individuals, 821 schools, and 463 workplaces from 68 countries took part to write “love letters” and “thank you letters” to nature. Law professor Elizabeth Loder defines environmental gratitude as “a finely tuned propensity to notice and feel grateful for one’s surroundings on a regular basis, which generates pervasive attitudes of concern for planetary welfare and commitment to contribute ecological benefits to the extent of one’s ability.” And examples of gratitude toward the environment are familiar.

Many cultures express motifs of the environment as teacher and healer, and all of the world’s religions teach the importance of reverence and gratitude for earth’s gifts. It is common to be grateful for our survival, and the many gifts that we have in spite of the suffering caused by natural forces such as earthquakes and storms. A sense of gratitude for all of nature allows us to reframe our perspective on these nature-related “acts of God.”

Many aspects of nature can be difficult to access or are far away. The ability to be grateful can make it easier for us to see and appreciate the abstract processes and systems of nature that are hidden from our sight. Insomuch as gratitude implies living in celebration, the healing of disconnection, and preserving and protecting what we most treasure, according to philosopher Nathan Wood, it has a unique advantage as a human virtue in that it can function both as “an attitude of thankfulness in response to a benefit received” and in a non-instrumental sense as “an active appreciation that something is the way it is.”

Most importantly, gratitude should be an action word. Gratefulness isn’t passive. Grateful people are “trustees,” caretakers of that which has been entrusted to them. On the other hand, gratitude is when one fails to keep and protect gifts that have been given or received. A series of new researches has demonstrated that gratitude can drive sustainable actions, such as the extraction of less resources from an economic pool. The people who feel environmental gratitude have a strong moral compass and are intrinsically motivated to be responsible. People who feel environmental gratitude actively tend to the land out of an awareness of the many ways that the planet sustains, feeds, and allows them to thrive.

Gratitude and Flourishing

For individual and collective well-being, gratitude is essential. The big questions of “What virtues should we nurture and how should we act?” “Under what conditions—cultural, political, and natural—should we aim to live?” and “What kinds of emotions should mark and energize our lives?” can be summed up as a single fundamental question: “What does it mean to flourish?” This question has occupied human beings intensely for millennia. This question is the heart of many diverse fields, from biology to economics and philosophy to theology to theology. According to epidemiologist and director of the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard’s School of Public Health, Tyler VanderWheele, flourishing itself may be understood as a state in which all aspects of a person’s life are good. The extremes of climate changes will limit human potential for flourishing. This is evident. But what is the solution? We can at least cultivate gratitude in the fight against climate change. Everyone, whether they are a farmer from Indiana or a financier from Hong Kong, needs to be grateful.

  • How does environmental gratitude inspire, motivate, and drive behavior that is conducive to the creation of ecological action for planet welfare?
  • Is it possible to encourage wonder and awe-inducing emotions in order for people to feel a greater appreciation of the natural world and have fewer conflicts?
  • What can we do to properly reciprocate nature’s generosity?
  • What could be done to reduce the suffering of the commons by having grateful members of a larger group?
  • Do you consider negligence and destruction of the natural environment to be a sign that you are not grateful for the gift of living?
  • How do implicit beliefs about the world’s basic qualities, know as “primals” (abundant or barren, enticing or dangerous, regenerative or improvable) influence environmentally responsible action?
  • What is the relationship between human flourishing and biological flourishing in order to ensure that humans thrive?
  • What does it mean to be grateful for past and present? How can this influence the generative actions that are taken in order to maximize the future success of the next generation?

Although Gratitude is not enough to restore biodiversity and halt the rise of sea temperatures, it does seem unlikely that it can be used alone in solving any major environmental issues.


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