Saving the planet means consuming less, but why is it so hard to do?

Nate Hagens’ epiphany was powered by Intel. Well, strictly, by Intel shares. In the 1990s Hagens was a vice president at Lehman Brothers earning a hefty $500,000 doing stock trades for some of the richest people on the planet. He spent nearly all of it, but can thank a recurring quirk of those billionaires for his Damascene moment.

“I would field calls from clients and they were whispering because they didn’t want their wives to hear them calling for stock quotes while they were in the delivery room. Their son or daughter was being born but they wanted to see where Intel stock was,” says Hagens.

Still in his 20s, Hagens did a volte-face on Wall Street, signed up for a PhD in natural resources and now earns a more modest $50,000 consulting and teaching systems ecology as an adjunct associate professor at the University of Minnesota. Hagens’ feat is all the more remarkable because it overcame a stumbling block that vexes sustainability experts across the globe.

The United Nations Environment Program estimates it will take three Earths to service our current consumption patterns should the world population reach the expected 9.6 billion in 2050. Yet there is, as one expert puts it, “a huge gap between the available knowledge about sustainable consumption and real action towards it, at all levels of society“.

The gap is a major challenge for the UN’s recently adopted 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development which calls on developing countries to take the lead to “protect the planet from degradation, including through sustainable consumption and production”.

The message to rein in consumption is clear, yet why do so many people seem impervious to it? At least part of the problem may be in our wiring.

Hagens explains that psychological drives to overconsumption start in our evolutionary past. Tribes that amassed surplus resources, such as food, and appreciated novel objects in their vicinity, such as predators, did better. We’re primed to be acquisitive and like new things, hence all the glazed eyeballs at the shopping mall.

There were even evolutionary pressures to be wasteful. The peacock’s tail attracts mates because it signals it has enough resources to squander them on just looking good; the European roadster is probably its latter day equivalent.

But, as Hagens explains, there is a catch. “These billionaires were feeling like they were getting more, but the next day they had to start all over and build another shopping centre or make another million dollars.”

Hagens’ billionaires were experiencing “hedonic adaptation” which psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky describes in The Myths of Happiness as our “tremendous capacity to adapt to new relationships, jobs, and wealth, with the result that even such rewarding life changes yield fewer and fewer rewards with time”.

Read the full feature in the Age newspaper here