Young people are deeply concerned about the future of the planet that the older generations leave behind. Of the 10,000 16 to 25-year-old participants in an international survey conducted by British psychologists, a large majority said they are anxious, sad, and angry about climate change. Climate stress is increasingly cited by young people as the reason for their dejection and depression. Greta Thunberg's anger is palpable as she addressed world leaders: “How dare you? You stole my dreams.”

As a representative of the older generation, I won't deny that we messed up. We wanted to live in houses our parents couldn't afford and take trips they could only dream of. Yet the question is whether this young generation is capable of doing things differently. The biggest obstacle to sustainable behavioral change lies in human nature. Every human being has a deep-seated need for status, and many activities that cause global warming are fueled by our desire for status – from the energy-guzzling Jeep at our doorstep to the beauty products that make us young. Status is the currency that, in the society of our distant ancestors, the hunter-gatherers, determined who had access to food, protection, and sex. You gained status by having something that others in the group value, for example, a talent for hunting or recognizing plants, beautiful smooth skin, or by possessions such as weapons, tools, and jewelry.

According to Darwin's theory of sexual selection, these are peacock tails – precious, costly signals that increase a person's status and thus make an attractive romantic partner. Status immediately paid off in posterity. Anthropologists have found among current hunter-gatherers that the best hunters and peacekeepers in the group have more children who live longer. In short, we are all descendants of ancestors who were very status-sensitive. You may think that these advantages no longer exist in today's modern society, but then you are wrong. Canadian research shows that people with a high social position have more sex, cheat more often, and start a second leg. An inevitable conclusion is that you should not ask people to do or not do things for the planet that lower their status and prestige. You cannot expect people to exchange their flight holiday to Thailand for a cycling holiday in their home county. What can we do, from an evolutionary psychological perspective, to use our hunger for status for a better climate?

Link Sustainability to Status

Marketing specialists have understood this message for some time – although it took some time to sink in. When Nike introduced the environmentally-friendly Considered shoe, made from hemp fiber, more than 10 years ago, no one was interested in it because it did not match the sporty, high-tech image of the brand at all. The entrepreneur Elon Musk understands that people want to drive electrically, but in a beautiful, luxurious, expensive car, the Tesla S, and not in a battery on wheels. Social psychological research confirms this. People first read a story that triggered their status need – they were offered the prospect of a nice promotion at work – and then they were given a choice of a number of products, such as a car, rucksack, or washing machine, with models that were more or less environmentally friendly. When their status was triggered, more people chose the eco-friendly option, especially if it was more expensive than the standard model. More people also opted for the green model when they bought the product in-store instead of anonymously at home behind the computer. The conclusion is that green products should above all be good and not too cheap so that consumers can show that they both care about the planet and have money.

Lower the Status of Unsustainable Behavior

Conversely, you can of course also try to lower the status of people who do not care about the climate. Social norms play an important role in this. If your friends show their moral indignation when you want to spend a weekend in New York, the fun will soon be over. Using a high-status figure, such as a celebrity, also seems effective. Sales of the hybrid Toyota Prius got a huge boost when Hollywood stars, including Leonardo di Caprio, started driving it -- Leonardo recently traded his Prius for a Tesla. According to psychologists, activating guilt and shame also helps to encourage individuals and organizations to change behavior. Researchers found that people contributed 50% more to group interest when threatened to reveal the names of the most selfish individuals in the group. In the Netherlands, Milieudefensie publishes an annual ranking of the most polluting companies, in which Shell, Tata Steel, and Vattenfall often score highly. The danger of “greenwashing” is lurking because companies benefit from giving misleading information about how sustainable they are. A lawsuit is now pending against Volkswagen that tampered with the software of their diesel cars to make them look cleaner.

Make Green Sexy

You can also use Darwin's sexual selection to turn sustainable behavior into a precious, status-enhancing peacock tail. I can already see a campaign linking sustainability to sexual appeal. Recent research from our team shows that students who are committed to the climate are more often seen as suitable romantic partners for a long-term relationship. They radiate that they want to invest in their future and possibly suitable father/mother material. Some climate activities are more status-enhancing than others, for example, rescuing orangutan babies in Borneo or chaining yourself to a tree to prevent forest clearance.

In general, the more people are willing to give to save the planet, the more that says about their qualities as a relationship partner. For young people, there are now dating sites like and to help them find a like-minded, eco-conscious romantic partner. Maybe in the end things will work out for this planet after all (especially if these couples decide, for the sake of our planet, not to have children).

Note: This essay also appeared in Psychologie Magazine (in Dutch)

Read the full Climate Change and Evolution series:

1. Introduction: The Nexus Between Climate Change and Evolution by Helen Camakaris and James Dyke

2. The Anthropocene: A Shock in the Evolutionary History of the Earth System by Will Steffan

3. Evolutionary Mismatch, Partisan Politics, and Climate Change: A Tragedy in Three Acts by Helen Camakaris

4. A Climate of Change: To Combat Global Warming, We Need to Break the Law by A.C. Grayling

5. Changing Social Norms Could Create a Green Future by Mark van Vugt

6. Addressing Gaps Between Knowledge, Action, Justice: The Climate Change Challenge by Richard Falk

7. The Solution To Climate Change Is To Talk About Climate Change by Rebecca Huntley

8. Dealing with Disproportionality in Climate Change Policymaking by Christopher M. Weible


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