Why we accumulate ever more stuff once we have been tempted to get it, oftentimes even past its useful lifetime – as well as a lot of environmental discourse – can be explained simply through what psychologists call loss aversion: we value things that are ours much more highly than things which are not. – At least, we do when we are threatened with losing them.
Psychologists had been illustrating this effect by a simple experiment. They presented cups to their test subjects and asked how much they would pay for them. Then, they gave them a cup as present, and later asked how much they would sell it for. The result? The cups were “worth” twice as much as an object in one’s possession than they had been while they were not yet one’s own property.
Obviously, most environmental losses are of things we do not quite think of as ours. Moreover, their disappearance takes place too slowly to notice. When something like a cherished landscape, a grove of trees, is suddenly threatened, it can galvanize action. When it is about climate change or low-level pollution, the influence is too spread out, the sense of possession/belonging not so strong and the feeling of loss strong only where it concerns our lifestyles. When it comes to – seemingly – choosing between giving up my computer and iPod, or letting some biodiversity disappear that, as is often said, does not even belong to me but to the world and even future generations, I want my toys/tools.
The effect is also one of the reasons why throwing out unnecessary stuff can be such a daunting task. Not only does it take work and time, it also takes the mental energy to overcome our aversion to losing something by rational thinking, reminding us that we don’t need it, never use it, are really just troubled by all the space it clutters. Here is the other side to lifestyle change and (/for) its connections: the feeling of losing out can be so strong that we have a knee-jerk reaction opposing the very suggestion of change – like President Bush sr. did when he stated (at the UN “Rio Conference” in 1992) that the American way of life was not up for negotiation – as if lifestyles didn’t change all the time. It can keep us from doing things which are necessary, and even from things which take thought and effort, but will leave us feeling and being happier for having accomplished something.
The mechanism even extends into the area of life and convictions. When we are reminded of our mortality, we tend to hold on to our more conservative certainties more strongly, become less open to other people and new ideas.
Obviously, this is another issue where balance is the real challenge. You can be a conservative who feels strongly about “your” traditional way of life and surrounding home country, and therefore do everything to protect it, or you can conservatively cling to your lifestyle even when it does not fit this world and your own chances of happiness; and you can be a liberal who wants global fairness and communication, but never stops to think that a lifestyle assembled of ideas and products from around the world, clung to so strongly because it is your (“and a great!”) idea, may be destructive of the very things it values.