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?


No comments:

Post a Comment