Scan the newspapers or watch the evening news, and you’ll quickly realize that environmental concerns are most keenly felt in rich countries, the citizens of which typically enjoy the best quality of the environment. The epicenter of apocalyptic sentiments about the state of the planet is Western Europe, with North America coming in a close second. This “eco-anxiety,” some scholars contend, is tied to a crisis of meaning in rich countries. A comparatively comfortable life and a decline of traditional religion has created a void that’s increasingly filled by environmentalism. 

Of course, all religions need their prophets. Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish environmentalist who sailed for two weeks on a solar-powered yacht from Europe to America to attend two global warming conferences, refused to travel by plane, due to the environmental impact of flying. Like the saints of yore, she has suffered for her convictions. Given Greta’s fame and notoriety, it may be worthwhile to ponder some of the psychological reasons for today’s environmentalist frenzy and recognize that – the true state of the environment aside – environmentalism fills an important purpose in rich people’s lives.  

Poor people are preoccupied with meeting their basic needs, including access to adequate food, water, warmth and safety. They are, to put it bluntly, primarily concerned with their survival. All other considerations are secondary. Following the collapse of the Zimbabwean economy in 2008, people started killing the previously protected wildlife in order to feed their families. Similarly, following the collapse of the Venezuelan economy in the mid-2010s, desperate Venezuelans killed and ate the animals from the zoo in the nation’s capital of Caracas. When people have to make the choice between their survival and environmental considerations, they tend to prioritize the former.

Rich people, in contrast, are preoccupied with self-actualization, creative pursuits and the search for meaning. They can do so, because their basic needs are well taken care of by virtue of living in prosperous societies. Moreover, rich people enjoy more leisure time and have access to more resources, both of which are necessary in the pursuit of self-fulfillment needs. It may sound strange to the modern ear, but the proper way to think about environmental protection is as a “luxury good.” People are willing to pay for more environmental protection when they have spare resources, but not when they don’t. According to a 2010 National Bureau of Economic Research paper titled, “Environmental Concern and the Business Cycle: The Chilling Effect of Recession,” 

an increase in a [U.S.] state’s unemployment rate decreases Google searches for ‘global warming’ and increases searches for ‘unemployment’ … From national surveys, we find that an increase in a state’s unemployment rate is associated with a decrease in the probability that residents think global warming is happening and reduced support for the U.S. to target policies intended to mitigate global warming.

In fact, economists have long suspected that there is a link between increasing prosperity and heightened concerns for the environment. According to what is commonly called the Environmental Kuznets Curve (EKC), a hypothesis with a large following in the field of economics, the environment worsens in tandem with economic growth until a certain income per person is reached. At that point, money starts flowing toward environmental protection and the ecosystem is restored. 

A 2006 paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America titled, “Returning forests analyzed with the forest identity” found that “among 50 nations with extensive forests reported in the Food and Agriculture Organization’s comprehensive Global Forest Resources Assessment 2005, no nation where annual per person gross domestic product exceeded $4,600 had a negative rate of growing stock change.” Put differently, societies with incomes above $6,200 (in 2019 dollars) either stopped deforestation or experienced afforestation. Similar EKC effects have been observed with regard to water and air pollution, as well as emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, lead, chlorofluorocarbons, sewage, etc. 

Richer people, then, tend to care more about the environment and tend to enjoy a better quality of the environment than poor people do. Strikingly, a 2017 paper in JAMA Psychiatry titled “Cross-sectional Comparison of the Epidemiology of DSM-5 Generalized Anxiety Disorder Across the Globe,” which surveyed approximately 150,000 adults in 26 countries, found that anxiety “is significantly more prevalent and impairing in high-income countries than in low- or middle-income countries.” Put differently, people enjoying the best environmental quality and the highest standards of living are also disproportionately more likely to be pessimistic, anxious and disillusioned about the world around them. 

Michael Shellenberger, an American environmentalist who won Time magazine’s “Hero of the Environment” award in 2008 and founded a California-based think-tank called Environmental Progress, noted in a recent Quillette podcast that life in a rich society “is kind of boring. There isn’t a struggle for survival, so there’s a huge question of meaning, and of course that’s deepened by the fact that increasingly few of us believe in a traditional god.” According to Shellenberger, 

We all need to feel like heroes in our own mind … and what does it mean to become a hero in a society where so much of our … basic sustenance of life is already provided for us? People want to feel powerful … [I]t’s interesting to me that so many of the stories of the Extinction Rebellion founders, as well as the story of Greta Thunberg, is a story of having been really depressed … Nietzsche and others [have pointed out that] … depression is the experience of powerlessness. And that when you feel powerful you feel happy, and when you feel powerless you feel bad. And I think we see that in the stories of  the radical environmentalists. [These are] people …[who] are quite depressed for a variety of reasons and so they sort of tell these stories that are exciting, about the end of the world, it’s all going to end in 12 years. And it gives them … social recognition – they get in the newspapers, they receive lots of people telling them how special and wonderful their voice is. And I think it’s a way for them to overcome their depression.

North Dakota State University psychologist Clay Routledge agrees with Shellenberger. He wrote that the “fact that almost everything is getting better in terms of material wealth, comfort, safety, and health, is an important factor in why so many [people] are freaking out.” According to Routledge, 

People in poor societies report higher meaning and are less likely to have mental health problems and die by suicide. Why? For one, their source of meaning is in their face every day. That is, the biggest empirical predictor of feeling meaningful is believing that one matters, that he or she is needed. Those closer to the struggle for basic survival can ironically more easily find meaning … People need to feel like they matter and no amount of material security of comfort will fill that need.

The search for meaning works on two interrelated levels, Routledge contends. People need to feel like they matter both in the immediate social sense (i.e., they are needed by others) and in the larger transcendent sense (i.e., they are a part of something bigger and more meaningful than their fragile and mortal lives). “One major benefit of traditional religion,” Routledge argues, “is that it often does a good job of promoting both the immediate social mattering (by shepherding people toward each other in moral communities) and self-transcendence (by giving people a space to meet spiritual needs and feel a part of something larger and more enduring).” He notes, 

When people are unrooted from more organic and traditional sources of existential security, many become psychologically vulnerable and anxious, and become more attracted to extreme ‘secular’ ideologies.

The decline of religion in rich countries has created a void that’s increasingly filled by environmentalism. As the University of Illinois at Chicago economist and historian Deirdre McCloskey put it in her 2010 book Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World

[In Sweden, nature] worship starts at home and in the kindergartens, with stories of the beneficent troll Mulle, and is carried on in the rest of the school, taking up substantial parts of the curriculum in the manner of religious instruction. By adulthood every Swede is a passionate nature worshiper, and spends her Sundays picking berries in the woods. Humans need such contact with the transcendent (though the theologians observe that worshiping anything short of God has the problem of idolatry for things that will pass). Sweden nowadays is no more a secular country than it was in the time of Norse gods, or of Lutheranism. The Swedes disdain Allah, yet worship passionately the transcendence of Mulle and Laxe and Fjällfina and Nova.

Greta Thunberg is a product of a wealthy and secular society in general, and the Swedish education system in particular. While her concern over the state of the environment is surely genuine, we cannot ignore the psychological forces that drive modern environmentalism. We should evaluate the veracity of their more outlandish claims in that context.