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Saturday, April 26, 2008

Tom Crompton: Begging for More Than "Small" Changes

Tom Crompton (Image: WWF-UK)
Tom Crompton

BBC Online: Small changes to the way we live our lives are not enough to tackle the environmental challenges facing the planet, argues Tom Crompton. In this week's Green Room, he says the stark reality is that the only option is to cut the unsustainable consumption of the Earth's finite resources.

Reusable shopping bag (Getty Images)
Having embraced one simple change, some people then tend to rest on their laurels

Almost daily, it seems, scientists' prognoses about the state of our planet grow evermore dire.

Take climate change, for example. Just last week, a new study suggested that sea levels could rise by up to one-and-a-half metres by the end of this century, with catastrophic impacts for low-lying countries.

This is more than three times as high as the most pessimistic projections of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Yet some climatologists are suggesting that even this is a huge under-estimate of the likely extent of sea level rise.

In the face of mounting evidence of profound environmental challenges, the insistence that we can tackle these by embracing a few simple and painless changes - switching to low-energy light bulbs or buying a hybrid car - feels increasingly unrealistic.

'Simple and painless'

This is leading to heated debate among environmental organisations about the best response; a debate that WWF believes should be opened up to a wider audience.

Micro-wind turbine (Image:PA)
Some measures make us feel better but do they make a difference?

Most approaches to encourage behavioural change rely on techniques borrowed from the marketing industry, such as "selling" these changes by linking them to a desirable product.

Those who practise these approaches often insist that, having made simple changes in their purchasing habitats, people will be led up a "virtuous ladder" towards ever more significant behavioural choices.

Marketing approaches may well work for promoting specific changes, where these are small and painless, and where they are the focus of a targeted campaign.

Unfortunately, as a response to problems of the scale that confront us, it seems that they are shot full of holes.

Of course, it's helpful for people to switch to energy-efficient light bulbs, or turn their central heating down; cumulatively, such changes will have a beneficial impact.

However, these sorts of campaigns may well be a poor use of scant communication resources, and may even serve to undermine prospects for generating the more fundamental changes that are needed.

There is little evidence to show that using such an approach increases the probability of people embarking upon more effective - and more difficult - changes.

In fact, some research shows that, for a significant number of people, the opposite is true. Having embraced one simple change, some people then tend to rest on their laurels and be less likely to engage in other more significant changes.

Mechanic repairing a car (Image: AP)
If I save money by repairing my old car rather than buying a new one, I could spend the savings on cheap flights abroad

But there's also another, more fundamental limitation on the usefulness of marketing approaches to creating behavioural change.

Environmental problems can often be traced to our appetite for "stuff", items that demand resources and energy in their manufacture, sale, use and disposal.

The problem is that we seem to have an in-built tendency not just to consume a lot of things, but to consume ever more things.

As a result, "green consumption" can only get us so far. I may buy this year's top-of-the-range hybrid car, only to want to replace it for a newer model next year, and the year after that.

It doesn't necessarily help if I'm encouraged that the best thing to do is to keep my car until it eventually falls apart.

If I save money by repairing my old car rather than buying a new one, I could spend the savings on cheap flights abroad. The net environmental impact will probably be negative.

Even selling my vehicle and joining a car-share scheme may backfire in this way, unless I am careful about how I spend the money that I've saved.

Less is more

As long as campaigns to encourage us to change our behaviour are based on appeals to self-interest or financial incentive, they will be fraught with difficulties.

High Street sale (Getty Images)
Endless sales and bargains could be costing the Earth

We need a different approach to motivating people to change; one which stems from a re-examination of the values upon which this change is built.

Studies find that people who engage in behaviour in pursuit of "intrinsic" goals - such as personal growth, community involvement, or a sense of connection with nature - tend to be more highly motivated and more likely to engage in environmentally friendly behaviour than individuals who are motivated by "extrinsic" goals - that is, financial success, image and the acquisition of material goods.

This seems to be the case particularly for more difficult behaviours - those that require greater effort or entail more inconvenience.

There is a lot that governments can do to make environmentally friendly choices easier. But many of these things will cost taxpayers money, and governments will be reluctant to embark on these things without pressure from their electorates.

As in the case of individual behaviour change, if this pressure is to emerge, the values underlying this change in electoral demand will be critically important.

Bringing intrinsic values to the fore in public debate is not going to be easy. So we need to start trying to do so right away.

Environmental organisations might start by unequivocally reflecting the intrinsic values that underpin the environment movement itself.

They should also work with leading businesses and forward-thinking political leaders to think beyond the opportunities offered by green consumerism; preparing for a world where we will inevitably need to consume not just differently, but less.

Environmental organisations can then help to embolden business and political leaders to begin to inject public debate with values that move far beyond self-interest and materialism.

To attempt less is increasingly looking like burying our heads in the sand.

Dr Tom Crompton is a change strategist for conservation charity WWF-UK

WWF's new report Weathercocks and Signposts: The Environment Movement at a Cross Roads can be downloaded from the WWF website

The Green Room is a series of opinion pieces on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website.

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