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.

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