It’s (not just) the environment stupid!
This guest post by Dr Rachel Howell of Aberystwyth University was originally published at Values & Frames.
People who cut their carbon footprint because they’re worried about climate
change are ‘environmental’ types, right? They love ‘nature’ and get fired
up by those photos of polar bears stranded on melting ice. They might even
rate ‘protecting the environment’ or ‘respecting the earth’ as their number
Well, no; not necessarily.
As part of a research project on promoting lower-carbon lifestyles, I
interviewed people who have cut their carbon footprint because they’re
worried about climate change, to try and understand more about what
motivates them. Concern about ‘the environment’ for its own sake is not
generally their main reason for action. They tend to be more bothered about
the effects of climate change on poorer people in developing countries.
They’re often motivated by a deep sense of the injustice of a situation
where those who will suffer most are those who have contributed least to
the problem, and they talked in terms of trying to live with a fairer –
therefore smaller – share of the world’s resources.
When I asked them to imagine that we live in a different kind of world, one in which climate change would threaten polar bears with extinction but would somehow have little effect on humans, several interviewees said they would probably not be so anxious about the issue, and would not be trying so hard to address it.
Moreover, their stories about how they’d got engaged in climate change
action were about human rights groups and issues as often as environmental
ones. Sally said that because she believed that all the gains she’d worked
for in terms of women’s rights in developing countries were threatened, “it
was probably actually feminism which brought me into climate change.”
Deepta explained that many of her friends in her university Amnesty
International group were also involved in environmental campaigns so she
joined in with them too. David talked about growing up in South Africa,
where “you really had to have a view about what you thought of race
discrimination and so on.” This led to political and social awareness that
developed into concerns about many issues, including climate change.
It seemed to me that these were people who cared about the environment but
who cared even more about people and social justice. To check this, I asked
interviewees to answer a short questionnaire testing the strength of
‘biospheric’ (environment-centred), ‘altruistic’ (people-centred), and
‘egoistic’ (self-centred) values as guiding principles for their lives. The
top-rated value was ‘social justice’, with ‘equality’ second. ‘Protecting
the environment’ came third, and ‘respecting the earth’ was only sixth
(after being ‘helpful’ and ‘a world at peace’). The majority of
interviewees scored higher on the altruistic values scale than the
biospheric one. Not surprisingly, they scored egoistic values low.
I also asked interviewees “what images come to mind with the phrase ‘a
low-carbon lifestyle’?” Although many gave a list of things to do (or to do
without), some offered quite different ideas:
“For me it’s more local living, stronger communities, more time for each
other […] a less materialistic lifestyle where we don’t need to have so
much and hopefully meaning that we don’t need to work so much and have more
free time.” (Paul)
“Somehow I see sunshine. Yeah, lightness actually. Brightness and a sort of
small place to live. Gre
en grass and everything bright. There’s something
healthy about that. Healthy and wholesome I suppose.” (Aileen)
“Living really close to nature. I think that is the most dominant one.
That’s the one that makes me happy and that’s the one that makes me
inspired […] I think communities is another one. Connections with nature
and community living” (Deepta)
These aren’t images that would translate into ‘carbon reductions per year’.
They show that lower-carbon lifestyles are associated, at least for some
people, with a much broader vision of the good life’, and benefits such as
health, happiness, and community. This also seemed to be true for some of
the people who answered with the more typical list. For example, Claire
thought fewer cars on the streets would be “lovely” because people would
interact and not have to worry about traffic. Prue repeatedly stressed the
satisfaction she gains from cycling (“it’s not only that you are not using
resources, but you see a neighbour and you stop and say hello in a way you
don’t when you use the car”) and buying local produce (“you are eating
healthily, and you’re saving money”).
To me, perhaps the most remarkable finding was that some of these highly
motivated people weren’t even that keen to talk about climate change. They
thought the phrase was off-putting, or they were irritated by it because
it’s overused, or they were simply not that interested in climate change.
One person said she didn’t think you even have to believe in climate change
to want to live a lower-carbon lifestyle, because of the benefits you’d
gain from it.
These findings have important implications.
For example, appealing to altruistic values and to desires for things like
quieter streets and stronger local communities may be more effective ways
of encouraging people to change their behaviour than focussing on
information about climate change impacts on the natural world.
People who want to promote lower-carbon lifestyles might find it worth
working with human rights and development groups, and with organisations
that place emphasis on altruistic values, like many religious groups.
Development charities such as Oxfam and Christian Aid are already
campaigning on climate change, but more could be done to make links between
the concerns of organisations promoting women’s, children’s, and refugees’
rights and welfare and the potential impacts of climate change on these
The wide-ranging positive visions of what ‘a low-carbon lifestyle’ means to
people, and the fact that ‘climate change’ is not necessarily seen as
interesting suggests that action campaigns should promote a much broader,
more holistic view of a lower-carbon future, not just a ‘to do’ list to
‘combat climate change’. People do need information and advice about what
action they can take, but “Ten Tips to Save the Planet” type messages may
not be the best way of framing it – or not for everyone.
Obviously, these interviewees are not typical of the general population,
but if “It’s the environment, stupid!” is not a catchphrase that really
captures the range of motivations of even these committed people, the
approach it represents is probably even less likely to inspire widespread
behaviour change among the general public. Climate change is a complex
problem with social, economic, political and ecological dimensions. This
research suggests that it shouldn’t be framed merely as an ‘environmental’
issue by those who hope to engage the public in dealing with it.
All names used in this post have been changed.
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