Wednesday, 25 February 2009

February 2009 - The right behaviour, for the wrong reasons?

Sam Whimster, Professor of Sociology at the Global Policy Institute, commented on 20th February in the Guardian that if we are to stand any chance of navigating our way out of the financial crisis, we need to reassert human values as superior to those of the market. It is a mark of just how hegemonic the pursuit of financial wealth has become that this statement even has to be made at all - after all, an economic system is nothing if not an expression of human value. Yet, after several hundred years of industrial capitalism, we are somehow faced with a widening gap between the rich and poor, and an eco-system that is on the brink of collapse. Now, more than ever, a reassertion of human value is critical to an equitable, sustainable future.

Indeed, Professor Whimster's comments resonate far beyond models of economic development and financial regulation. While many people now accept that changes in our behaviour will be necessary to prevent dangerous climate change - at every level from political treaties to individual habits - it is less clear how these changes should be brought about. Investment! Revolution! Technological advances! A carbon market! In the UK, however, a surprising consensus between government, industry, and environmental NGOs has emerged - a consensus which is captured suspiciously well by the Tesco mantra 'every little helps'.

Most of us will have been implored to change our light bulbs to energy efficient ones, to unplug our phone chargers, to re-use our plastic bags. The 'every little helps' approach is intended to offer a way-in to environmental behaviour change, a 'foot-in-the-door' that sets the stage for greater changes in the future. The only problem, as Tom Crompton points out in the seminal WWF report 'Weathercocks & Signposts: The Envionmental Movement at a Crossroads', is that we are yet to progress beyond the little changes. Given the obvious urgency of the situation, this constitutes a serious challenge to the piecemeal approach to behaviour change.

Part of the problem, as activists like George Marshall from Climate Outreach and Information Network have pointed out, is that advice on 'saving the planet' tends not to differentiate between changes that have major impacts (e.g. not flying) and changes that have minimal effects (e.g. turning items off standby). Until there is a clear sense of what the priorities are, there is little hope of targeting the right behaviours.

The more profound problem lies, however, not with the actual changes themselves, but with the reasons for the changes. As Tom Crompton observes, the 'every little helps' approach typically avoids asking people to consider the reasons for their behaviours too deeply. In fact, energy saving advice is often couched in terms of saving money, while companies are more than happy to sell new versions of old products that offer a marginal improvement in energy efficiency. Fearful of being branded idealists, the values underlying pro-environmental behaviours (sustainability, justice, equality) are kept out of the equation - even by some environmental NGOs.

The upshot of this approach is that when environmental concerns dovetail with money saving measures, or the opportunity to invest in a new product, emissions are likely to be saved. But when these 'beautiful coincidences' do not occur - as when pro-environmental behaviour change involves personal inconvenience, or incurring a financial loss, the motivation for acting is removed. Not focussing on the values that underlie behaviour change can lead to a dead-end.

So, while the cumulative effect of lots of small changes is nothing to be sniffed at, they must be the beginning, rather than the end, of the story. The fundamental premise of 'foot-in-the-door' strategies is that bigger changes are likely to be accepted once smaller changes have been consented to - but if the bigger changes do not coincide quite so happily with personal convenience or financial incentives, will they ever be made?

In tackling climate change, just like navigating out of the financial crisis, a reassertion of human values is essential. We are not trying to 'save the planet' out of a puritan desire for austerity. In fact, we are not trying to save the 'planet' at all. The planet will be just fine long after we're gone. What we are fighting for is the equitable and sustainable distribution of the natural resources essential to our continued survival. What else, other than human values, could possibly be the reason for tackling climate change?


Monday, 23 February 2009

February 2009 - Are we a nation of liars?

In terms of ‘doing your bit’, it’s hardly a bold statement. But most of us have managed to get our heads around re-useable bags. They’re stronger! They’re slightly nicer to hold! Whether its 100 % cotton sophistication or basket-woven chic you’re after, no-one wants to be caught holding the plastic bag.

The only problem is that plastic bag use is barely down. The Waste and Resources Action Programme claim that businesses distributed 8% fewer bags in 2008 than 2007, but Defra estimates that about 88% of shoppers currently put all their shopping into free carrier bags, taking 3-4 bags at every shopping trip.

That our meagre environmental actions don’t always match up to our ambitious words is hardly breaking news – when 500 people were interviewed in the 1970s regarding their personal responsibility for picking up litter, 94% acknowledged responsibility. After leaving the interview room, however, only 2% of the people picked up the litter that the researchers had planted near outside the door. Tackling environmental behaviour is more important now than it ever was. Why don’t people do the things they say they do?

Perhaps we are simply a nation of liars. Alternatively, we may be deluded – deluded, but honest. Psychologists have shown that married couples systematically overestimate their own contribution to household chores, while simultaneously underestimating the effort that their other half puts in (the ‘ego-centric’ bias). So, we may be naturally inclined to believe our own distorted memory of how much we recycle, how little we drive, or how often we turn the thermostat on the heating down.

In addition, we tend to think about ourselves and others’ failures in different ways. When something goes wrong – an increase in the quarterly heating bill for example – we do not conclude that our clever new strategy of thermostat monitoring hasn’t worked after all. When things go awry, there are always situational factors to help explain it away. The cold weather, a new-found leak in the bathroom window, or an absent-minded family member are all viable alternatives to accepting responsibility, yet when other people fail, the blame falls squarely on them. In short, we seem psychologically programmed to misperceive our own behaviour. And when it comes to changing our environmental habits, we’re all guilty of a bit of creative accounting.

Worse still, short term commercial interests and fossil fuelled policy-making frequently collude to exacerbate our plight. In the past twelve months, we have been prescribed airport expansion, cheap flights and a new generation of coal-fired power stations for our carbon habit. Like a group of recovering alcoholics we need help staying on the wagon. But dangling carbon-temptations in front of our noses makes it next to impossible for us to change – even if we wanted to.

So what can be done? First and foremost, the non-psychological barriers have to be removed so that it’s easy for people to change if they want to. Public transport is more expensive than private travel. Our bosses expect us to fly to Holland for training at Head Office. Our cities are designed for car owning suburbanites rather than city dwellers on public transport. There are very real limits on what individuals can do – so while transformative power lies in every single one of us, our hands are tied until the structural constraints on our behaviour are removed.

We must also move ‘beyond information’. Switching the TV off standby doesn’t justify an extra flight to the Canary Isles, but most lists of tips for saving the planet don’t distinguish between important and inconsequential ways of reducing emissions. Information is necessary, but not sufficient to bring about change. We are not passive learning machines, and our behaviours will not change until we decide that we want them to. It isn’t enough to take a few plastic bags out of circulation – we have to start asking tougher questions about what the causes and the consequences of our unsustainable patterns of behaviour are.

Happily, decades of social and psychological research has furnished us with a detailed understanding of many aspects of human behaviour. But while Defra have commissioned multiple reviews of sustainable behaviour change, they have primarily relied on advertising agencies, environmental consultancies and social marketing teams. Correspondingly, the government seem unwilling or unable to move beyond meekly reminding us to buy energy efficient light bulbs. The discrepancy between the magnitude of the problem and the timidity of the solution would be funny if the stakes weren’t so high.

We desperately need some evidence-based leadership on changing our environmental habits and behaviours. There is now a solid scientific basis for understanding climate change, but what we really need is a social-scientific basis for understanding the cause of climate change – namely, us.

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

February 2009 - What are legitimate actions in the (public) face of climate change?

In December Ed Miliband said there needed to be a New Social Movement behind climate change:

"When you think about all the big historic movements, from the suffragettes, to anti-apartheid, to sexual equality in the 1960s, all the big political movements had popular mobilisation," said Miliband. "There will be some people saying 'we can't go ahead with an agreement on climate change, it's not the biggest priority'. And, therefore, what you need is countervailing forces. Some of those countervailing forces come from popular mobilisation."

Ok then, Ed suggests that it is hard for elected politicians (even the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change) to make tough decisions when there isn’t popular support to legitimate them.

In January Geoff Hoon also revealed this line of thinking in his public slanging match with Emma Thompson over the third runway at Heaththrow, he said: "I worry about people who I assume travel by air quite a lot and don't see the logic of their position, not least because the reason we have got this problem in relation to Heathrow is that more and more people want to travel more and more.” Interesting that Geoff calls the heathrow issue in these comments “the problem” a departure in language from his usual line about it being a wealth consolidating/creating opportunity for Britain. Also Geoff is, in actual fact, wrong to suggest the public are tacitly legitimating the governments action because a Government Consultation reported back to him a vast majority are against it. (

Thompson for her part came up with the baffling line, right back at Hoon “Get a grip Geoff this is not about Flying”!

To add to this heady mix, as the heathrow issue was debated John McDonnell took an action deemed unjustified (by his fellow MPs) in the course of his arguments against the runway (on behalf of his constituents who are directly affected) and FOR a vote on the issue picked up the ceremonial mace in protest (Heseltine style) and was told he had “Conducted himself in a grossly disorderly manner” and was suspended from parliament for 5 days. (

Meanwhile in January while the Government implored and then ignored the public the majority of the scientific community was reportedly set to do the very same. The Independent ran a front page saying that scientists (including James Lovelock) were ready to prepare a “Plan B” a geo-engineering solution to use if the political and social effort to reduce emissions doesn’t show results soon. (

We know science can act unilaterally and take extraordinary risks on behalf of people that are not always aware or in agreement with scientific actions - the Atomic Bomb for instance! Also right now Richard Posner senior US judge believes this is the case in respect of the Large Hadron Collider experiment, in relation to the (disputed) claim that the experiment has a 1 in 50 million chance of creating a black hole that could swallow the universe! The ‘Plan B’ response to Climate Change may lead us more frequently down this risky road.

In January the Japanese launched a CLIMATE CHANGE ROCKET!(

There has been continued consideration of the legitimacy of direct action on climate change especially following the Plane Stupid action at Stanstead in December and of course the ground breaking (public!) jury decision on the Kingsnorth protestors. Shockingly in December the Attorney General Baroness Scotland was reported to be looking at barring public juries from climate change protest cases and appealing against the kingsnorth protestors. (

Lets take Ed at his word and UP the participation of the general public... to continue to have public Jury trials for principled climate change protestors - what better way to judge the legitimacy of the protests. And for those Plan B experiments let us use citizen referenda to decide on the legitimacy of those actions which may be of massive benefit but may also present massive risk. In any case if politicians and scientists show faith in the citizen then a New Social Movement may grow UP that starts to tackle Plan A.