Stop chasing unicorns of inaction: Climate crisis, value-action gaps and personhood

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Abstract: Climate change is a ubiquitous subject – calling for radical transformation of society and individual lives both, thus posing the challenge to persons of how to deal with climate change in their daily lives. We will use the concept of Perezhivanie to analyze how interviewees describe their climate related actions. We will use Vasiluyk’s version of Perezhivanie (experiencing) which is “the psychological processes whereby a human being copes with critical situations in life” (Vasilyuk, 1992, p. 9) – a ‘coping’ that ranges from reestablishing the temporarily lost meaning to generating new meaning to guide the person’s future life. By understanding their work with making meaning as an existential activity in its own right we aim to contribute to the research concerning the way in which the climate crisis makes sense to people in relation to their other concerns as well as to the research exploring perezhivanie.

Extended abstract: Persons care about climate change, are concerned, and intend to contribute (Poortinga et al., 2018)– however at the same time face the fact that any action taken by them individually has next to no impact whatsoever. Additionally research shows that the actions persons take toward complying with the goal of lower CO2 emissions are far from adequate (Wynes, Zhao, & Donner, 2020), creating what is commonly known as the intention-behavior gap. The dominating responses to the intention-behavior gap comes from research that aim to identify relevant preceding factors of relevant climate action in order to bridge the gap. To find ways to make people act responsibly – have adequate climate related behaviors. A large part of this research has looked at ‘simple’ climate actions, for instance people turning their lights and water off. Furthermore, much research has been grounded in mapping the “the psychological barriers” as to why this apparently straightforward, and “rational” choice, is so difficult for people . Somewhat neglected is the attempt to understand how persons’ experience the climate crisis in their daily lives – i.e. as part of a number of concerns and activities.
But what if it is the alleged discrepancy between intention-behavior is not the most relevant conceptualization of the issue? What if the focus on the intention-behavior gap risks covering up what needs to be elucidated? What if people are acting appropriately to their concerns, and they are working to integrate their concern with climate issues into the way they lead their life. Action and behavior is not the same. Actions are related to activities and operations – being guided by motives and goals. In short, climate action must be understood as systemically connected to a person’s life overall. To understand why person’s do what they do, it may be less informative to look at their intentions and more informative to ask questions about climate that invites them to situate their thoughts on the climate and the description of their climate actions in the context of their life. This is the aim of this paper - rather than asking why people are doing too little to mitigate climate change, we ask how climate change figures in their lives.
The aim of the analysis therefor is to understand if, and how, the changes people make in their lives are at the same time work they do existentially to accommodate the meaning of climate change for them. Even if persons are not in personal crisis over their impact on the climate, the fact is that a vast majority agree that climate change is very real and needs to be mitigated – but at the same time individual contributions are unmeasurable. This means that the personal meaning of what constitutes good (and adequate) climate action is always also an existential, and not only an intellectual or a practical question.
Interviews with participants will in this paper be analyzed by taking departure in Vasilyuk’s concept of experiencing (Perezhivanie), which is a special sort of activity, distinguishable from practical and mental activity. Experiencing denotes “any process which brings about resolution of a critical life-situation, irrespective of how that process is directly felt by the individual” (Vasilyuk, 1992, p. 11). These critical situations takes various forms depending on the way the person engages with the problem – but are, in a word, existential - ”Experiencing is the repair of a ’disruption’ of life, a work of restoration, proceeding as it were at right angles to the line of actualisation of life” (Vasilyuk, 1992, p. 27). Thus, Vasilyuk orients us to the (existential) meaning of a person’s life – and their activity concerning upholding or changing that meaning when confronted with hardship – in this case, the challenges posed by concern with climate change. Furthermore, Vasilyuk offers a vocabulary for distinguishing between different ways in which a person may experience the challenge of adapting their values, and activities in relation to the climate – from stress, frustration, over conflict to crisis – “Experiencing is the repair of a ‘disruption’ of life, a work of restoration, proceeding as it were at right angles to the line of actualisation of life” (Vasilyuk, 1992, p. 27).
The paper aims to contribute to the ongoing research concerning how persons experience the climate crisis in relation to their lives – and it aims to contribute to the ongoing discussion of the concept of Perezhivanie.

Poortinga, W., Fischer, S., Böhm, G., Steg, L., Whitmarch, L., & Ogunbode, C. (2018). European Attitude to Climate Change and Energy: Topline Results for Round 8 of the European Social Survey. Retrieved from
Vasilyuk, F. (1992). The psychology of experiencing: Harvester Wheatsheaf New York, London.
Wynes, S., Zhao, J., & Donner, S. D. (2020). How well do people understand the climate impact of individual actions? Climatic change. doi:10.1007/s10584-020-02811-5
Original languageEnglish
Publication date2022
Publication statusPublished - 2022
EventNordic-Baltic ISCAR 2022 -
Duration: 14 Jun 202216 Jun 2022


ConferenceNordic-Baltic ISCAR 2022

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