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Morality is missing from debates about behaviour change

Jul 19, 2013 by | 3 Comments

Every now and again, it’s good to remind yourself of the scale of the challenge posed by climate change. Leaving aside the small matter of the rest of the world, the UK has committed to reducing its own carbon emissions by 80% in just over 35 years. This will require an unprecedented reversal of a universal trend among industrialised nations: that as economies grow, so do carbon emissions.

Although reversing this trend will involve many different transformations, underpinning it all is human culture – our attitudes, behaviours and social practices. Our collective decision making is the beginning, the middle, and the end of the story.

Tinkering at the edges of sustainable behaviour is not enough, because even on our own terms – judged by our own decarbonisation targets – we will fail unless we drastically change gear on sustainability. This means we have to find a way to get beyond the plastic bags and low-energy light bulbs. But how?

It’s a cliche, but sometimes it’s easy to miss the wood for the trees. Over the past two decades, a huge amount of time and effort has been expended trying to understand how to nudge, persuade, cajole or regulate people into more sustainable patterns of behaviour. But in our eagerness to understand the drivers of behaviour, and our enthusiasm for measureable behavioural outcomes, we may have overlooked a critical point: that sustained and substantive behavioural transformations come not from gradually ‘reprogramming’ our behaviour but from internalising the reasons for doing so.

A recent paper by Dr Rachel Howell at the University of Aberystwyth illustrates this point well. Instead of asking how the everyday behaviour of the general public could become incrementally more sustainable, Howell started with people who had already made major changes in their lifestyles, and worked backwards from there.

What motivated this group of people to make considerable changes to their lifestyles was not their participation in a programme of social marketing, nor exposure to clever advertisements about climate change. The single biggest motivation for their behavioural changes was a sincerely held conviction that climate change was a matter of social justice – that it was unfair for individuals in industrialised nations to use more than their ‘fair share’ of carbon when poorer people elsewhere would suffer the consequences.

This is not the only evidence that catalysing significant behavioural changes might involve moving away from single behaviours and measurable outcomes, and towards the underlying ethics of the issue. As Professor Andrew Dobson has argued, if a sense of ‘environmental citizenship’ can be fostered in individuals and communities, then their pro-environmental behaviour is rooted in a commitment to the principles and values underlying sustainability, rather than to financial or other types of external stimuli.

However – and in common with Howell’s findings – it is not necessarily ‘the environment’ that motivates environmental citizenship. Rather, it is a sense of fairness, justice, and civic responsibility that plays the most important role. The bottom line is that when people come to see taking action on climate change as simply the right thing to do, a raft of behavioural changes are likely to follow.

So Barack Obama’s recent description of climate change as a moral issue – a matter of right and wrong – is exactly the kind of rhetorical strategy that international leaders should be pursuing. But climate change as a moral issue has faded from British politics.

If children were taught that they would receive a pound coin every time they resisted physically hurting another child, they would not learn that hurting others was wrong – they would learn that restraining themselves was profitable. But it is precisely this logic that runs through major government initiatives such as the Green Deal. Saving energy is presented not as the right thing to do, but as a way of saving money.

To be clear, there is no reason that the cost of a green energy revolution should be met through higher energy bills: the major power companies’ profits contain more than enough surplus to cover the transition. But it should not surprise us that bribing people into acting in an environmentally responsible way doesn’t translate into meaningful engagement with climate change.

Ultimately, it is morals and values, not facts and figures, that inspire public support for policies, and transformative behavioural changes will not follow from superficial methods of engagement. Perhaps it is time we stopped obsessing about behaviour change, and concentrated instead on re-connecting with a straightforward idea: that morally, confronting climate change is simply the right thing to do.

Originally published by Guardian Sustainable Business on 19-07-13

3 Comments + Add Comment

  • You make a good point, but, how do you go about ‘converting’ people to your view of morality? In my experience, people who start off on this basis end up alienating the people they need to talk to.

    I believe you need to respect the interests of your audience and frame sustainability/climate appropriately – an approach I call Green Jujitsu. That way you get their attention and get them involved – getting some momentum going for the deeper transformation of morals and culture.

  • Well, I think one of the ways is to find that common ground, and there is plenty of it. The appeal of (or to) a sense of community, being a part of good and moral thing. A celebration of this great gift called a healthy planet (or creation) that supports us. Concern for children and grandchildren, as well as other vulnerable people.

    Respecting others’ views and life experiences goes a long way to finding these common connections, what you call respecting the interests of your audience.

    I’m interested in learning more about your Green Jujitsu approach.

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