Blog post

It’s (not just) the environment stupid!

May 1, 2013 by | 1 Comment

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
one value.

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.

1 Comment + Add Comment

  • Rachel, This is enorm­ously helpful. A really great piece of research. Thank you!

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