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The Human Behavioural Crisis

May 30th, 2024


When following the news, it is easy to associate the planet’s declining health with terms like ‘environmental crisis’ or ‘climate change,’ but these simply describe the symptoms of a bigger problem. A recent study exploring the role of human behaviours in climate change explains that without addressing the source of the issue – overconsumption of resources -, we will constantly be chasing our tails in the fight against environmental decline. To improve understanding of the difference between source and symptom, the study pushes for the term ‘human behavioural crisis’ to be used instead of ‘climate crisis’, as it points where the intervention needs to take place if we are to prevent further environmental decline.  

Why is the study important? 

With an estimated global population of 8.1 billion and a 69% decrease in biodiversity over the last 55 years, reducing our environmental impact is definitely a priority [1,2]. However, a recent study argues that we need to approach the issue from a new direction! Instead of putting all our time and money into dealing with the consequences of climate change and biodiversity loss, the study argues that we should focus on addressing the source of the issue: overconsumption. For example, transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy is a positive step forward, but the source of the problem lies in our ever-increasing fossil fuel/energy consumption rates. We now use 175 times more fossil fuels than people in the 1800s, and if we were to continue using resources at this rate, we would need 1.6x Earths to actually provide that.  In other words, we are past the point of ecological overshoot; we’re consuming natural resources faster than the Earth can replenish them are are producing waste faster than the planet can process. 

What the study found 

By studying six key aspects of society (energy, pollutants, nature, food systems, population, and the economy), the study identified economic growth, marketing and pronatalism (ideas promoting having children) as the main factors responsible for the development of ecological overshoot in society.  


In a natural system, energy and materials cycle through human activities and back to nature. Yet, many economists view the economy as disconnected from nature, believing that thanks to the growth of technology, the economy can also expand without limits. But what is often forgotten is that a large amount of economic growth since the Industrial Revolution has depended on fossil fuels. Despite the amount of influence the economy and environment have on each other, their link is often neglected, at a detriment to how we consume resources. 


The marketing industry develops alongside economic growth. Before the 1900s, items were produced and sold mainly to meet the demand for things that people actually needed. However, as competition grew, marketers like started to use psychological tactics to influence people’s behaviour. They focused their advertising on appealing to people’s emotions rather than their needs. Advertising success was no longer just about raising awareness of the existence of a product, but about tapping into people’s individual desires. 

This fuelled the development of data analytics: companies now track and sell personal information so that they can target consumers effectively. They can work out your location, your age and interests and tailor their advertising accordingly. This has led to a culture of excessive consumption, especially among the wealthy, which in turn has harmed the environment further. Despite this, reducing how much we buy and of what is possible without sacrificing our living standards, especially in more wealthy societies, where what we use far exceeds what we need for our well-being. 



Finally, a less commonly addressed contributor to ecological overshoot is the pressure on expectation of people to have children. The IPCC has already reported that the emissions resulting from population growth have cancelled out any savings made by renewable energy. 

The researchers suggest that religion, social depictions, policy and culture all contribute to the expectation that people should have more children. They argue that these factors help drive population growth beyond the planet’s support. However, it is important to note that the study does not propose population control measures such as the one-child policy, but instead pushes for the creation of a cultural landscape that supports women and their true reproductive desires. In places where a gentler approach was utilised, birth rates dropped from over six to less than two, proving that access to education and contraceptives can be more effective than forceful control. 

The study effectively outlines the key contributors to the ecological overshoot and how ‘human behavioural crisis’ is a more fitting term than ‘climate crisis’ for the issues we are facing. Rather than looking outwards at the symptoms around us, it is time to address the problems within our societal structure and to reduce our environmental footprint to a sustainable level.

How to Find Another Way 

The researchers call for collaboration between social and environmental scientists to create a new framework in which we can live sustainably, developing advertising strategies to encourage people to live in a way which not only does not harm but actively helps the environment. By recognising and understanding the sources of ecological overshoot, we as individuals can think twice about our personal motives for consumption and can help to promote a sustainable way of living. Only buying what we need and choosing sustainable options when available are important contributions we can all make to helping our planet. 

Translating Science article by Abi Hinchcliffe.

Photos via Unsplash: Dan Burton, Kirill Shavlo, Florian Wehde.


Study paper: Merz et al (2023). World scientists’ warning: The behavioural crisis driving ecological overshoot. Science Progress, 2023.

1. World Population Clock: 8.1 Billion People (LIVE, 2024).

2. WWF (2022). Living Planet Report – Building a nature-positive society. Almond, R.E.A., Grooten, M., Juffe Bignoli, D. & Petersen, T. (Eds). WWF; p.32.

Disclaimer: Another Way’s Translating Science project aims to bring accessible and inclusive environmental science to the public, highlighting underrepresented researchers and suggesting solutions as a result of the latest research. We hope to empower the public to think critically about scientific studies and findings, and use them to inform behavioural choices for our planet’s health. Our articles are written by student volunteers and while we make every effort to reflect the original scientific articles we are translating, they are not approved by the original authors. Our ‘How to find Another Way’ section at the end of every article is in the best opinion of our volunteers, and not from the original study. 

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