Posted by: Jon | 24/05/2011

Imagining Sustainability…

Imagine if our Western democracies unanimously declared war on unsustainability and our efforts became culturally embedded…

Imagine if, as in other times of extraordinary endeavour, our leaders led by example, making stirring speeches that warn us of the unthinkable consequences of failure and unite us in our collective resolve…

Imagine if news and stories of our progress dominated the media daily, extolling our efforts and normalising our shared intent….

Imagine if our cultural role-models – the celebrities, sports icons and business entrepreneurs who bench-mark success in our societies – were routinely asked on chat shows and in magazine interviews about what they are doing for the war effort…

Imagine if the mischievous propagandists who seek to undermine our efforts were, like Lord Haw-Haw, publically reviled…

Imagine if each new season’s  fashions and latest digital offerings were labelled with Government Warnings  – “Unsustainable Consumption Causes Human Suffering And The Extinction of Species”…

Imagine if Donald Trump and Alan Sugar required their Apprentices to not only turn a profit but also to prove the ethical credentials of their ventures…

Imagine if businesses that profiteer from selling exploitive goods without accounting for their ecological costs were popularly boycotted…

Imagine if, each time we put the key in the ignition, our cars flashed up the message “Why Not Walk or Take The Bike?”…

Imagine if “Is Your Journey Really Necessary?” popped up each time we booked a holiday flight on-line…

Imagine if local wardens came knocking on our windows at night, reminding us to  “Turn that stand-by off! Don’t you know there’s a sustainability war on?”…

Imagine if consciousness of the consequences of unsustainability informed our habits and behaviours every waking moment of the day…

Meanwhile, in the real world we live in, such imaginings seem entirely fantastical to us – not to mention highly undesirable to a vast majority who don’t want to conserve energy in winter by putting on an extra hairshirt.

Imagining a wartime scale of mobilisation is one way in which sustainability campaigners communicate the extraordinary scale of engagement needed to abate global warming. But history tells us that such a level of collective willingness to sacrifice self-enhancement for the common good has only ever occured in times of unequivocal threat, such as in World War Two when Churchill offered the British public “only blood, toil, tears and sweat” in rising to meet the challenge.

At present, we in the West feel our collective well-being to be much more threatened by on-going economic woes than by climate change. Although warnings of the impacts of global warming are credible to a surprising majority of us, we still feel entirely distanced because we believe these will occur only in the future or in far away places and we have more pressing concerns of our own. So most of us remain ambivalent about the need to act, especially if acting requires that we make our lives more frugal than enforced austerity is making them already.

It has become clear to campaigners that we will not be mobilised by public communications of alarm, even when these come from such authoritative voices as the UK’s chief scientist (describing a “human crisis of unprecedented proportions”) or the UN Secretary General (who has characterised our current economic system as a “global suicide pact” ).

Nor do we seem motivated in any meaningful way by ethical appeals for climate justice. We give generously to disaster and poverty relief but we are less inclined to reduce our accustomed comforts through ‘contraction and convergence’or steady-state economics, or any of the other untried but promising alternatives to the unsustainable status quo.

So, if apocalyptic messages seems premature to us and we are unable readily to empathise with people we don’t know in far away places, what, short of enforced regulation or first-hand experience of impacts, could possibly mobilise us to become sustainable?

Lack of awareness is not the problem…

Some have wondered if the fault lies in how climate science is communicated. Few of us, whether politicians, business leaders or citizens, understand the underlying science well enough to be able to evaluate it for ourselves. But scientists are not normally thrust before the public to explain their back-room investigations in terms that adequately convey the risks and the good sense of precautionary action. Which has made it easy for a vocal minority of contrarians to spread confusion and dissent.

Nonetheless, lack of public understanding does not seem to be the problem. Despite the challenges of communicating scientific uncertainties and the high profile of sceptical voices who amplify these, most people in the West claim to be well-informed about the causes and effects of climate change. And the large majority – between two-thirds and three-quarters – say they are ‘concerned’ at least to some extent by it. Moreover, many of these people state that they have already adopted some sustainable behaviours or are willing to do so.

So, whilst undeniably true that our stated concerns have failed to translate into widespread mobilisation, such findings do suggest that the latent potential for change is there. The problem remains how to tap into it.

Barriers to change…

There are many societal and institutional barriers to change, not least of which is the marginal place of sustainability in our education systems. But most of these barriers are dependent on intervention by governments. The challenge for public campaigns is to engender the popular will for change so emboldens public leaders to regulate and legislate.

Recent research has shown up the short-comings of public information campaigns, such as the weakness of ‘one-size-fits-all’ social marketing, the incongruence of following alarming messages with only trivial proposals for action, and the cynicism that results from inconsistent rhetoric and action by governments and from failure to provide adequate feed-back on progress.

Research has also highlighted some significant social and psychological factors that reinforce our unsustainability and impede our ability to change. Prominant amongst these are:

Habit – as any smoker knows, breaking a habit, however harmful we understand it to be for our health, is very hard. For those of us who are not smokers, Tim Jackson suggests that we have someone move the waste bin in our kitchen to another part of the room and see how long it takes for us to stop from returning to its old location…

Lock-in to the momentum of the status quo  – our habitual behaviours extend to how we function in society more generally. Most of us naturally gravitate to what is familiar and reassuring in how we organise our lives, earn our livings and provide for the needs of ourselves and our families. Even if we are motivated to make substantial changes, the intractability of the unsustainable systems and institutions that govern our lives often seems insurmountable. Few of us, for instance, are in a position to quit or change our jobs because we have noticed that what we are paid to do is unsustainable. And it can be socially isolating to curtail familiar activities with friends because they have not experienced the same life-changing conversion…

The perceived undesirability of sustainable lifestylesvegetable growing, voluntary frugality and relating only with our immediate neighbours are lifestyle choices that appeal only to some of us. Most people with adequate means are hugely reluctant to relinquish the autonomy that a disposable income provides to maintain far-flung friendships, take regular holidays abroad and in other ways to display our status and enjoy the fruits of our labours. Frequently those of us with less adequate means aspire to exactly the same materialistic goals. Research has shown that the more relative importance we place on rewards like wealth and status, the less likely we are to practice sustainable behaviours.

In Western culture our social identity is deeply integrated with our consumption choices and is publically demonstrated in the cars we drive, the clothes we wear, our leisure pursuits and so on. So the large majority of us are naturally reluctant to give up on consumption growth until we are compelled to do so by regulation or circumstance. Meanwhile we find all sorts of ways, consciously and subconsciously, to rationalise and minimise our predicament…

The ‘bystander’ effect – some well-known psychological studies have demonstrated that, when confronted by an emergency, most people wait to see what others will do, especially when there are plenty of other people around who also not reacting. In the case of our escalating ecological emergency, this human tendency seems to apply to governments also…

The ‘free-rider’ effect - even when we are initially motivated to make our own lives more sustainable, we frequently lose this motivation if we see that our efforts are negated by others in our communities who ‘free-ride’ on the back of our achievements…

Lack of perceived agency and empowerment – as with our sense of  ‘lock-in’ to unsustainable systems over which we have no control, this is a significant barrier when, for example, whatever political party we might vote for, none are proposing adequate action. Lack of individual agency is a commonly expressed reason for doing nothing in the first place. What difference can one person or one nation make when “China is building a new coal-fired power station every week”…

Tokenism – we can find it convenient to believe that now we’ve changed the lightbulbs and we recycle our waste, we’ve done our bit. This kind of ‘bargaining’ justification is one example of how we seek to minimise the severity of our predicament with an inadequate response. Ultimately ‘tokenistic’ small actions can lead to the ‘Jevons Paradox’ or ‘rebound effect’, whereby we might reward ourselves with money saved from turning down the thermostat by flying off on an extra foreign holiday…

Bias towards optimism - psychologists have long observed that most of us maintain an often irrationally positive outlook on life and recent research has indicated that this bias exists at a neural level in our brains. Whilst optimism seems crucial in the context of the apparent hopelessness of our ecological predicament, blind optimism permits us to avoid taking personal responsibility. Hans Rosling, the statistician and population expert, has rejected both optimism and pessimism in favour of ‘possibilism’…

Environmental numbness – as with the ‘compassion fatigue’ that poverty and disaster relief agencies say sometimes curtails our charitable giving, we tend to protect ourselves from an overload of depressing information by disengaging and seeking diversion…

Ignorance - receiving too little or the wrong kinds of information can be just as disempowering to action as overloading with too much. We are only able to make effective decisions when we have the appropriate information at the right level to be relevant to us. We have, for example, become saturated with contradictory information about the single issue of climate change. As a result our responses have become bogged down and polarised by debatable details. Better information about the the bigger picture – a convergence of climate change, energy insecurity, resource depletion, biodiversity loss and the social and economic effects of these – shows unsustainability to be undeniably a man-made problem that requires an urgent and concerted human response…

Appealing to our values:  

In the light of the failure of information campaigns to overcome these types of psychological barriers, some NGOs are focusing on how to appeal to people’s psychological motivations. Chris Rose has advocated using a market segmentation model that categorises populations into motivational groups, ‘Pioneers’, ‘Prospectors’ and ‘Settlers’. The premise is that by identifying the differing psychological motivations of specific population groups, behaviour change campaigns can become much more effectively targeted.

In the context of population-wide campaigns, understanding the values and motivations of different population groups is undoubtedly important. It can also usefully inform local-scale sustainability initiatives in outreaching engagement beyond the already converted.

But a major limitation of social-marketing methodologies generally is that they seek to promote small and easy behaviour changes by targeting the same ‘extrinsic’ psychological drivers – status, glamour, prestige, novelty, diversion from boredom – that impel us to live beyond our ecological means in the first place. People who can afford one might be successfully persuaded to buy a new Prius instead of an SUV. But ultimately they are still influenced by a materialistic impulse and seem unlikely ever to favour a second-hand bicycle over a new car. In order for us to change more than superficially, it seems that a deeper level of psychological engagement is necessary.

In their recent book ‘Meeting Environmental Challenge: The Role of Human Identity’, Tom Crompton and Tim Kasser find little evidence that persuading people to adopt small behaviour changes leads on to their making bigger ones. To the contrary, they report that simple and painless behaviour changes probably militate against the psychological motivations that could lead to pro-environmental behaviour. Their findings strongly indicate that tackling those aspects of our make-up that reinforce our unsustainable behaviours requires engaging our core ‘intrinsic’ values if other more positive aspects of our identity are to come to the fore. The WWF’s on-going Strategies for Change project that published their research is a collaboration between campaigners and educators to discover how to achieve this.

In his book, ‘The Craftsman’, sociologist Richard Sennett has observed that “a stronger jolt to changing how we [use] resources [comes] in imagining ourselves to be like immigrants thrust…onto a territory not our own…  The stranger learns the art of adaptation more searchingly, if more painfully, than people who feel entitled to belong… So great are the changes required to alter humankind’s dealings with the physical world that only this sense of displacement and estrangement can drive the actual practices of change and reduce our consuming desires…”

In my own past work with troubled and anti-social young people, the developmental process entailed exchanging the habits and influences of the home environment with periods of ‘therapy’ in an unfamiliar and uncompromising wilderness setting. When combined with a participant-directed process of experiential learning and groupwork, this dislocation of environment proved a powerful means of facilitating change from old problematic behaviours to more pro-social new ones. It is not coincidental that the proven success of this type of developmental approach (as measured by reduced rates of recidivism) is significantly higher than that of a centralised system of punitive correction that engages only extrinsic motivation (fear of punishment) to address anti-social behaviours.

A similarly unsettling but potentially mind-opening experience of displacement occurs when we encounter people from outside of our usual social circles. Jonathan Balls has noted in a study of Transitions that, although participation may be broadly characterised as ‘white, educated and middle-class’, members still come from surprisingly diverse age and social groupings who would otherwise seem unlikely to gravitate together. If such a purposeful ‘discourse coalition’ could be extended to include more reticent or resistant sections of local communities, the potential for broadening interpersonal exchanges to overcome some entrenched barriers and to expand attitudes and action would seem to be high.

In his book ‘Co-Opportunity’, John Grant has also highlighted the importance of facilitating interpersonal exchanges between diverse groupings of people. From his experience of conducting focus-group research, he observes: “There was something about the actual group discussions themselves… which seemed to be quite compelling.  A deliberately chosen mainstream group would often leave quite engaged and inclined to explore climate change further… Centralised information campaigns won’t on their own create a ‘climate for change’. We need to create forums where people can take it all in, reflect on it and come up with their own plans, trade-offs and ideas.”

Psychotherapist Ro Randall has developed just such a model for guided small group ‘carbon conversations’. Hers is another voice of experience who doubts the efficacy of public behaviour change campaigns alone. She argues that these are rarely concerned with our subjective emotions and feelings but instead target only our behaviour as the ‘problem’ to be solved, thus making us the source of the problem and letting governments and other social institutions off the hook.

She points out that in psychotherapeutic practice “in order to change, we have to talk about what is wrong. We have to accept the painfulness of mixing everything up, questioning our assumptions and letting go of solutions that have seemed…  seductive but have also been damaging. We have to face inner conflict and ambivalence and accept that our rationalisations may hide unconscious destructiveness.…  In making the changes that climate change demands the same holds true. We have to talk. We have to feel safe to talk… Words like empathy, compassion, relationship and respect, that are fundamental to the practice of psychotherapy and which make it possible to face this bigger picture are missing from the language of behaviour change…”

Understanding of the potential for addressing problem behaviours and motivating change through meaningful interpersonal exchange and support is not altogether new – witness the groupwork methods of Alcoholics Anonymous, for example.  As far back as the early 1990s, Cecile Andrews evolved the mutual-help concept of ‘simplicity circles, based on the Nordic popular education tradition of ‘study circles’, to promote and support voluntary frugality. Whilst the efficacy of such approaches in the context of motivating sustainability has yet to be evaluated by formal research studies, they are already showing greater possibilities for bringing about sustained engagement and action than centrally organised population-wide behaviour change campaigns have so far achieved.

This is part one of a two part post. In part two, I will expand on the common features of some initiatives that appear to be achieving and maintaining community-level shifts to sustainability. I will also describe the rationale for a project I am working on that aims to combine an active experiential-learning’ approach to acquiring the skills of ‘sustainability literacy’ with the interpersonal and participant-directed small-group methods of study circles.


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