Friday 28 January 2011

‘How to encourage people to be sustainable’

Below is a rough transcript of what I talked about at the LEEF event last night in London, which was really excellent. Includes links to the images I didn't manage to show. There were 5 speakers in all, all of them gave great answers to questions that had been sent to us by Anna Portch, hopefully some of the other talks will appear online too. The question I volunteered to talk about was:

‘How to encourage people to be sustainable’

– crikey why did I pick this topic?! Maybe I was having one of those supremely arrogant ‘Eureka’ moments that us Environmentalists have occasionally, where we suddenly think ‘Yes that’s it, this is how the world works, this is how people think and behave, this is what we need to tell them – take me to the lectern, I’m going to save the world!!’ Hmmm. These moments of self confidence are short lived, quickly I revert to despondency and self-doubt.... why am I doing this? I can’t change the world, I have enough trouble changing my energy supplier.

So, don’t expect that at the end of my fifteen minutes you will have been given the definitive answer to the question of how to encourage people to be sustainable, it ain’t going to happen, sorry!

What I am going to do is this. I’m going to explore a dilemma that currently exists between two different approaches to encouraging people to be sustainable.

John F. Kennedy famously said in his inauguration speech:

Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.

We can paraphrase this by saying:

Ask not what sustainability can do for you; ask what you can do for sustainability.

This advice highlights two very different mindsets: those with an interest in enhancing themselves versus those more concerned with solving problems that are bigger than themselves.

The reality is that most of us sit somewhere between these two extremes of selfishness and altruism. But asking what you can do for sustainability rather than what sustainability can do for you is what I want to discuss. Part of us of course thinks argh, climate change is a really bad thing, what can I do about it? But somewhere within us we are also thinking what are the costs and benefits of adopting new behaviours? Will it impact positively or negatively on our pursuit of our other life goals?

So we’re interested here in the ways we go about encouraging people to be sustainable. By sustainable I also mean green, eco or environmentally friendly. I am also talking about how to encourage people to give time, money and effort to causes that deal with other ‘bigger-than-self’ issues like: global poverty, child cruelty, homelessness, illiteracy, racial prejudice, HIV/AIDS, animal cruelty, care for the elderly, care for those with mental and physical disabilities and so on.

In the UK today the major trend seems to be that people look at ‘sustainable’ or ‘green’ behaviours and ask themselves what the benefits to themselves will be, if they engage in these behaviours. It is the ‘what’s in it for me?’ mindset. This mindset has come to be embedded in our society. And the campaigns of charities and approaches of environmental educators have adapted to it, they work within this culture. Increasingly, as educators, we focus on highlighting the benefits you will get from being green, from volunteering, from giving and so on. This reinforces that self enhancing mindset.

This is true not just for individuals; it is true for other social actors as well. Businesses, governments, charities, clubs, institutions, political parties as well as individuals, assess the costs and benefits of adopting a ‘green’ behaviour (or of giving to a cause) based largely on the impact it will have on them. Their concerns are with their image, their status, their brand and their nice warm feeling inside.

So new behaviours and products are promoted to us and it is usually quite obvious what we need to give; exactly what we get back is often far less clear cut. So let’s look at the new Toyota Auris Hybrid Car. This is what their website says about it:

The world's most advanced, innovative, compact family car brings low emissions, £0 road tax and stunning fuel economy with over 700 miles on one tank of petrol. Introducing the New Auris Hybrid - a car that defies convention at every turn - the first Toyota hybrid built in Britain, more environmentally friendly than ever before and the latest member of a forward-thinking family.

So, you buy this car, what do you get? You get monetary savings on your fuel consumption (that presumably you can spend on something else), you get a flashy new status symbol, you get an approving, maybe jealous, look from your eco-conscious neighbour, you spot flashing glimpses of the envious eyes of cyclists and pedestrians as they see you glide by. You might even get approving glances from potential future spouses on the lookout for someone mature and caring, maybe someone who wants to start a family. Or if you are already in a relationship, you are saying to your partner that you are ready to leave behind the hedonism of your Golf GTi, you now need a family car and you care about the future, your children’s future and Britain!

So, by buying this car, you are ever so slightly changing your identity and the way other people see you. You're a bit unconventional, you're intelligent, you're a proper grown up!

And it is not just eco-cars. You might have seen the latest campaign by the charity Action Aid. It stars ‘Silvia’ who also appears on their website exclaiming this: I didn’t just change the world, I changed myself. And what a feeling!’ Action Aid are going really heavy on this approach, their homepage shouts ‘What a feeling! Get yours today!’

In pushing the Big Society, the government are advocating this approach really strongly, this theme runs right through this ‘Giving Green Paper’ where they have picked out evidence of how by appealing to people’s self-enhancing values – their desires for power, image, status, happy feelings, career enhancement etc you can get them to ‘give’ time and money to charity.

In this way, green products and behaviours, as well as the giving of time or money, are sold to us just like any other product or service. Be green, it can save you money, it can make you look cool, it can make you look wealthy and so on. Volunteer, it will make you feel better about yourself, it’ll look good on your CV. Obviously they dont just say that, they do tell you about the problems you're helping to solve. But the emphasis is on you and what you will get out of it. This is quite a big problem.

But, why is it such a big problem? If the result is giving and volunteering, or is sustainable behaviour, don’t the ends justify the means? The responses needed to some of the world’s biggest current problems appear so enormous and so urgent that many in the sustainability movement say we can’t be fussy about how we change behaviour, the need to change behaviour is so pressing, we should use any means necessary! Right now! And, just get on with it!

And it works, well at least in the short term it does, it brings in donations and volunteers and creates observable green behaviour. By focusing mostly on the benefit to the giver with only a passing mention of the benefit to the environment or society the charity or environmental educator or green business can achieve some success.

But what it is not very good at doing is changing the really damaging behaviours associated with high consumption of disposable goods and services. And it is these behaviours that are causing and perpetuating most of the worlds environmental and social problems. If we look at the issues that most major environmental NGOs are dealing with, the problems are getting worse not better.

And there is a long-term danger, which is pointed out in Common Cause, a report published last year by WWF in association with Friends of the Earth, Oxfam, COIN and CPRE. This report argues that if charities, green businesses and environmental educators use the same techniques as the multinational corporations who are trying to flog their products and services, they are ultimately, in the long run, contributing to a process that thrives on creating and sustaining a population of individualistic, infantilised, anxiety ridden, status and image obsessed, selfish consumers.

Charities, environmental educators and truly green businesses should be doing the exact opposite; encouraging people to lead fulfilling and meaningful lives, characterised by generosity, benevolence, community spirit, stable levels of self esteem and a natural instinct to care for and then act on issues that are ‘bigger than themselves’.

But, it is very hard for charities to make that switch, even those who contributed to the Common Cause report like WWF, Oxfam and Friends of the Earth recognise that appealing to people’s self interest works, it brings in the money, their fundraisers ask if it ain’t broken why fix it? And you can certainly see their point, as organisations they are in a highly competitive marketplace and they need to survive, this is why Common Cause argues that they all need to move together on this. But the fundraisers and the sustainability comms people argue that the appealing to people's selflessness, generosity, kindness and universalism just does not work. Are people just too selfish now?

To finish I just want to tell you about a man called Greg Mortenson, some of you may have read his book ‘Three Cups of Tea’. This guy is incredible. He was a mountaineer who after climbing some amazingly high mountain in the Himalayas above one of the remotest parts of Pakistan lost his way hiking back down to civilisation, he was separated from his team and his guide and on the verge of starvation and exhaustion stumbled into a small mountain village. Over the course of a few weeks those villagers nursed him back to health. While he recovered he spent time with some of the children who had no school, a teacher who visited them just once a week, no books, pencils, nothing, they were teaching themselves basic numeracy and literacy by scratching lines in the dirt. It transformed him from being a self-obsessed mountaineer to the man he now is. On leaving that village he vowed to return one day with enough money to build a school for the children and to employ a full time teacher.

He returned to America, to his job as a hospital porter, decided to save as much money of his own as he could and to try to raise the rest from others. He moved his most essential possessions into a storage box and lived in his car, spending all his spare time telling people his story and persuading them to donate money to his cause. He worked incredibly hard and eventually raised enough to go back to Pakistan to fulfil his promise.

But he didn’t stop there, he recognised that the people in those remote parts of Pakistan needed so much more, more schools, hospitals, bridges, roads etc, etc. He has dedicated his life to raising the funds needed to make this happen, he has even crossed the border into Afghanistan where he is building secular schools for boys and girls. He is an incredibly selfless man.

The book ‘Three Cups of Tea’ has been in the top 50 of the bestsellers list in the USA for over 5 years, he now regularly talks about his work to audiences in arenas to up to 30,000 people all paying $20 per ticket. His generosity, courage and selflessness is massively inspiring, his story inspires these values in others and his charity is incredibly successful at raising money.

OK, we can’t all be like Greg Mortenson, but we can all tell stories like his. Who here knows the story of how Oxfam started, or Friends of the Earth, or WWF, or Greenpeace, or the NSPCC? Who started them and why, what were their stories? I bet they are powerful stories too and I bet there are people still working for those organisations who are generous, selfless and concerned almost entirely with 'bigger than self' issues (if there aren't we're in big trouble). We need to be telling these stories, they inspire people and create much need role models.

So in encouraging people to be sustainable can we get them to follow that advice?

Ask not what sustainability can do for you; ask what you can do for sustainability.

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