Case Study | The Illusion of Sacrifice

An observation of the systems that govern our society and how it stops us from living a sustainable lifestyle.

Two fundamental forces are at war, born from the various underlying systems that govern our society.

  • Our constant drive to consume more resources than required
  • The environments and ecosystems inability to cope with our over-consumptive nature.

We don’t lack the awareness that is required to be sustainable. But we still manage to turn a blind eye to it when it matters most. Why is it so difficult for us to be sustainable as a society in general? Why does it seem like we as a society don’t care about sustainability even though everyone agrees that it’s the only way forward? This observational analysis is an attempt at unravelling the answers to these questions and comprehending the social-psychological aspects of us human beings, that lives within a society that creates the contextual environment of influencing a behaviour I call “The Illusion of Sacrifice”

Authors Note:
This case study and its social-psychological aspect are looked at through the lens of western society as it has the potential to impact and create socio-economic change the most. When western civilization enacts change, the world follows.

Contextual Environments

Let us start from the beginning and understand the contextual environments that create the “illusion of sacrifice” behaviour within us, that makes us reluctant to shift to a sustainable society.

The contextual environment is a phrase I use commonly throughout my observations which are defined as the following:

“The environment a human being resides in creates a particular context that drives the motivations behind certain subconscious behaviours that we enact. This environment is called the contextual environment.”

To understand the motivations behind certain subconscious behaviour, you need to understand the contextual environment the human being resides in. Contextual environments don’t create behaviour, it only drives the motivation behind certain behaviours.

An effective contextual environment is one where a human feels like they are in control of its own decisions not realizing the context created by the environment is what really influences the motivations behind those decisions.

For example, a courtroom constructs the context to motivate a high level of decorum and professional behaviour, while a bar constructs the context that motivates you to wind down, have fun and be yourself with your friends.

I feel like there are 2 major contextual environments mixed in with some proponents of the way our evolution and Natural selection influences the behaviour behind our unsustainable way of life.

The 2 Contextual environments are

  • The education system we currently have
  • The economic systems we have in place influences our consumption-based society.

These are broad categories that I use to understand the social-psychological aspects of us human beings. Many intricate details also contribute to our lack of sustainable living like corrupt politicians and corporations that place profit over the interest of the environment, people who are against climate change and sustainable living, etc. but the primary focus over here is to understand the overall governing factors that influence our social psychology.

Before we get into the 2 contextual environments let’s first understand one very basic aspect of our psychology that has been influenced by evolution and natural selection. Human beings are hard-wired to only think in the short term. The ones that were quick on their feet, and can visualize what exactly they need to do in the present in order to make the best decisions in the next couple of moments would always come out on top. It just wasn’t necessary for evolution to prioritize visualizing anything beyond what’s happening immediately within our lives. At best it was a lot more useful to visualize something that could happen a couple of days or weeks later but anything beyond that wasn’t as necessary.

When we started to migrate away from the hunter-gatherer lifestyle (around 12,000 years ago) we created more opportunities to acquire the time that enabled us to ponder the future. It got to the point where we can visualize (to a certain extent) where we would be at least a year or 2 down the line, based on our current observations of the present. Anything beyond this timeline is regarded as life goals and dreams that we aspire to and not actual representations of the consequences of our decisions in the present moment (unless we cultivate the discipline to re-wire ourselves to think on an exponential timeline or use science and data to make informed decisions of the future).

The problem with this thinking is that we only derive the motivation to deal with the consequences of our decisions when the actual problem occurs. As we will always have more pressing matters to deal with in the present than in the future. So essentially the future will be forgotten by this “out of sight out of mind” effect and is the main reason why we’re still debating whether or not climate change is even real.

Spoiler alert: It’s real.

Education System

Contextual Environment 1

A majority of the educational systems we’ve created for society, especially for the developmental years of early childhood to late teen, are highly ineffective. They are unproductive, time-consuming and utterly inefficient for the challenges and needs of the 21st century.

This is mostly due to the following:

  • The current model of our educational system was designed around the industrial age and hasn’t been developed or evolved to suit the needs of the digital age.
  • Humans are placed in buckets grouped by age and are chartered down the years like a product in an assembly line.
  • Humans aren’t encouraged to critically think or develop emotional intelligence which is required to be able to create a mindset that helps you change your lifestyle.
  • This lack of flexible thinking doesn’t allow us to adapt according to the ever-changing nature of the digital age, where society tends to change once every 10 years instead of once every generation thanks to Moore’s law.
  • Because of all of these factors, there’s a lack of individuality and our tendency to follow what other people are doing will become more prominent than it should be.

The impact of our Environmental Education system

Environmental education has one major problem. It is looked at as a problem to solve and information to understand, instead of a mindset that we have to cultivate in order to even start creating any sort of change.

Cultivating a mindset that values the environment is called sustainable thinking, yet nothing close to that is taught in our schools. At best we tell our children that deforestation is bad, greenhouse gases are warming up the earth, the polar bears need saving and so on. Just the usual doom and gloom.

The problems we portray are always out of sight and out of mind, so we inevitably look at them through the bystander effect. These ideas subconsciously imprint within our minds as we grow up that there’s nothing we can do, and people are left with a sense of hopelessness, even if they don’t realize it.

Here is some information gathered by conducting a survey at my college in a group assignment. We interviewed around 50 students within Symbiosis Institute of Design:

  • 73% of the students didn’t understand the difference between sustainability and environmental conservation
  • 85% of students believe that sustainability is not taught effectively in school, once we explained what sustainability was all about.
  • 54% of students didn’t feel like the problem was that serious growing up mostly because of the bystander effect.

Some other insights:

  • People subconsciously assumed (due to the bystander effect) that the experts or the environmental conservationists will be the ones to take care of the problems like deforestation and melting ice, caps and that there’s nothing they could physically do.
  • Environmental education didn’t feel relevant at the time, and the only major thing they remember being a part of was the plantation drive their school would run every now and then.
  • Students became aware but only grew concern for the issue as it has become politicized in the last couple of years
  • Awareness about the environment was prevalent but only environment-friendly techniques were taught in school but barely practised. Practising a sustainable lifestyle wasn’t even considered.

To inculcate sustainable values within our lives, society itself needs to fully adopt a sustainable outlook. Then only then can it create the contextual environment that allows us to live a sustainable lifestyle? But certain factors stop us from moving towards a sustainable society. It’s like we’ve created psychological roadblocks that stop us from truly adopting a sustainable lifestyle through the economic systems we have in place, which leads us to the second contextual environment.

Economic systems that make us over-consume resources.

Contextual environment 2

Our modern consumption-based society is the main driving force behind most unsustainable practices across the world. But it is the underlying economic systems that govern our world (primarily western civilizations) that are the main contributing factors that create the context which drives the motivation behind our over consumptive behaviours.

There are 3 main factors within our modern society that creates the contextual environment that motivates our over-consuming nature of goods and resources.

  • Information overload and our high-stress lifestyle
  • Western Economic system that normalises over-consumption
  • Coping with our high-stress lifestyle through technology and overconsumption.
  1. Information overload and our high-stress lifestyle

The digital age we’re living in has drastically changed the way we consume information. 30 years ago when it comes to knowing what went on in the world, we would always receive a steady trickle of information every day through the use of newspapers, magazines, and mingling with our social circles.

Now it’s as if someone destroyed the dam and we’re flooded with information from all directions. It’s possible to understand what’s happening in any country at any moment through a simple google search. The stressful factor is that we receive all sorts of information, both the positive and the negative. The main problem with negative sources of information is that they get more traffic and engagement as they influence powerful human emotions like anger, fear and anxiety. And the media has always adopted a policy “if it bleeds it leads” in other words if someone’s suffering, dying and in misery, it will engage people more when compared to happy stories and objective sources of information.

This constant bombardment of information creates a very high-stress environment. Information overload is an actual problem and it gets us to a point where we can’t even distinguish between what’s real and what’s fake news. Misinformation runs rampant and takes advantage of this overload and eventually, chaos ensues in society.

Social media is another stressful factor, where we not only gather information about the world but also receive data on the “social statuses” of the people in our social circle. We’re in a constant state of comparison with each other trying to showcase the highlights of our lives, and the world comes crumbling down if we don’t get enough attention on our posts as we usually do which is another major source of stress and anxiety. The worst is when we compare our lives to people that are not even in our social circle but are classified amongst the upper rungs of society in terms of wealth and fame.

2. Western Economic system that motivates over-consumption.

There is a simple economic system that drives the motivations behind our over-consumptive behaviour called Neo-liberalism. One aspect of Neo-liberalism is about the free market and how everyone should have an equal opportunity to influence the market through buying and selling goods. The fascinating aspect of economic systems is that each economic system fundamentally changes the way we behave in society as a whole.

This particular economic system creates an environment where the world is looked at as one big interconnected, competitive and free market that everyone has the freedom to influence, which creates a new standard for humans to follow when it comes to freedom of self-expression.

Before this particular economic system, our freedom of self-expression and the value we provide to society was through the words we choose and the work we create from our own two hands. This new economic system creates a much simpler way to derive your freedom of expression through your ability to express your preferences and your individuality through the goods you acquire while you represent your value through your ability to sell your labour for wages.

This creates an environment of constant over-consumptive behaviour amongst humans and normalizes the act of representing your individuality and freedom of self-expression through the goods you buy and the products you consume. As nothing is more personal than how you represent your individuality through the way you spend your hard-earned money by collecting goods and consuming resources that cater to your individuality.

3. Coping with our high-stress lifestyle through technology and overconsumption and what it leads to.

We as a species, have never truly adapted to the digital age we live in. Everything is constantly changing to the point where the world is unrecognizable every 10 years. People can’t distinguish between what is information and disinformation thanks to our brains getting overloaded by this constant stream of data every day. And none of these factors is of any help to our mental health. Anxiety disorders and depression are at an all-time high, suicide rates are going up, our living wages aren’t adjusted according to inflation. And people are finding it extremely difficult to live a stable life.

How on earth do we cope with this digital age? SURELY the leaders of society must have understood that this was going to be the case, after confiding with the economists and scientists at the time as they were building this digital age, right?… right?

Sadly as with every democracy, the leaders of society are run by people that are just like us, who are foiled by the same cognitive biases that get in the way of our own lives. And they make misinformed decisions, where they are unable to visualize the impacts of their present decisions on the generations that come after them many decades later (we’re technically not wired to do that anyways thanks to evolution as we mentioned earlier).

As we’re humans and one of our brains speciality is adaptability, we did eventually find ways to cope with this high-stress society we live in. Albeit it’s not really the right way, nor is it the healthy way since mental health issues are still running rampant. But it’s something at least. However, the main singular consequence that arises from how we cope with this high-stress environment (amongst all the others) is that it leads us to live highly unsustainable lives that damage the environment and ecosystem in the long run.

There are 2 particular actions we use to cope, that is driven by this high-stress society we live in:

  • Using technology to cope with the stress
  • Using our consumption-based society to cope with the stress.

Technology (primarily, our use of social media) has been well designed to target our dopamine systems through the feedback loops it immerses us in. No matter what goes on in our lives, it always feels good to mindlessly scroll through a social media feed, absorbing content, posting a picture to get likes or binging on Netflix. Even IF it doesn’t help us in the long run, and worse, be detrimental to our mental health.

But the use of technology to activate our dopamine systems is akin to how people use cigarettes for that kick of dopamine from the nicotine they consume. And just like the relationship a smoker has with a cigarette to wind down after the end of the day or to deal with something stressful, we undergo the same psychological effect when we start scrolling through social media or start consuming content. The only difference is that scrolling through social media is socially acceptable, and you can do it anywhere…

This same effect applies to the way we approach how we consume goods and resources.

We can acquire food, clothes, products and whatever else we need, all at the touch of a button on a slab of plastic, glass and metal that holds millions of transistors.

We use all these varying factors to instantly gratify ourselves to help us numb down and self-medicate the stresses of living in the digital age.

And this constant feedback loop of living in a stressful society and managing that stress through instant gratification inevitably hardwires our brain to accept and feel like this consumer-based society we’re living in is acceptable and the only thing we can use to cope with everyday life.

We essentially normalized our unsustainable lifestyle and hardwired it into our brains that this is the only way to go. So in order to live a sustainable lifestyle, we essentially tricked ourselves to feel like we’re giving up more than what’s necessary, when in fact whatever we should be giving up is just an abundance of what we already have.

Essentially creating the phenomenon I call the “Illusion of Sacrifice”.

Even if the benefits of a sustainable lifestyle is apparent, obvious and just downright the most logical thing we can do in terms of the long term survivability of our species. We’re incapable of visualizing the benefits of a sustainable lifestyle because of our short term thinking brain conditioned by some million years of evolution mixed in with the “Illusion of Sacrifice” phenomenon created by the contextual environments constructed by the underlying systems of our society.

So according to our wonderfully complex human brains, subconsciously we truly believe that a sustainable lifestyle is not possible at all.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store