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Response from Wesley Schultz

This blog was originally posted on the website Valuing Nature.

I asked Wesley Schultz to comment on the accuracy of my reflections on his work in an earlier post. Here is the subsequent email exchange that we had, which he is happy for me to post up.

Tom: Wes, I’d be interested to know whether you feel that the short post I wrote on your work accurately reflects the questions that your studies raise?

Wes: I think that the material you’ve got posted is generally accurate. I do have a couple of points, but nothing major.

1. In the first section, you state that “He also shows that people with this connectivity are more likely to make behavioral choices that help the environment.” While we do have some data to support this, the results are not particularly strong for implicit connectedness. In a 2007 publication, I describe it this way:

“To use a metaphor, the primitive belief is an aquifer for these more surface-level constructs. But (continuing the metaphor), the surface springs fed from an aquifer often can emerge in locations quite distant from the original source.”

2. In the middle section, you raise the issue of “moral ought.” This connection is unclear to me, and needs further elaboration. I don’t agree that an appeal to egoistic reasons (e.g., do it to save money, or do it because it’s more convenient) equate to a moral ought.

3.Toward the end it seems that you are arguing in favor of appealing to ecocentric motives. As you say, “Making things appeal to other peoples’ ecocentric concerns in this way will lead, by its very nature, to a more systemic set of interventions.” While I agree with this statement, I don’t believe that such appeals will ultimately be effective at changing behavior. The problem is that not everyone has this strong sense of connectedness and they won’t find the ecocentric messages motivational. So, do we change the message to fit the audience (the egoistic approach you discount earlier in the message) or do we try to change the audience so that they resonate with ecocentric messages.

Tom: Thank you, Wes. This is very clear. I am particularly interested by your third point. I had the impression from your presentation in WWF-UK that you were indeed advocating an appeal to peoples’ ecocentric concerns.

You write: “The problem is that not everyone has this strong sense of connectedness and they won’t find the ecocentric messages motivational.” And yet, I understood you to be arguing that, although today’s predominant strategies (appealing to egotistic interests) work in a piece-meal fashion, they will not lead to the systemic changes we need, either. How, then, should we respond to your work?

You raise the question: “So, do we change the message to fit the audience… or do we try to change the audience so that they resonate with ecocentric messages?” I understood you to argue that whilst the former might work for effecting specific pieces of change, systemic change was best pursued through the latter.

Have I got hold of the wrong end of the stick here?

Wes: That’s the tricky part. Both can work. Creating programs or messages that appeal to the egoistic motive CAN change behavior, but as you note the changes are “piecemeal” and unlikely to generalize across context or behavior.

But if we use ecocentric messages, not everyone will find them motivational. Such messages are likely to be motivational for people who already have a sense of connectedness, but not everyone does. I think this is the current state of affairs. Most environmental organizations are creating ecocentric-based messages (or trying a “new” approach of appealing to egoistic motives).

The third option–and one that is perhaps more controversial–is to try and change the audience. That is, to promote a sense of connectedness among people who don’t already have it. This is what I’m currently researching. Is this feasible? What do we know about the origins of connectedness? And how can the findings from this research inform our efforts to promote change.

So, I agree with you that creating egoistically-based messages are short sighted. The problem is that they might work for changing specific behaviors. Thus, they are a tempting tool for environmental organizations, but I think the results are likely to be narrowly confined and context specific.

Tom CromptonResponse from Wesley Schultz
  • Tom, I came here after following a link you included in a post on the Conservation Psychology email list. I really hope the blog takes off as the questions you are raising absolutely need broader public discussion.

    I did some work related to your discussion with Wes, a fellow academic with whom I’ve crossed paths, focused on the integration of nature into the self-concept of deep ecologists. In short, my research found that even among deep ecologists (i.e., those practising a philosophy of environmentalism that explicitly calls for the expansion of the self-concept to include nature), maintaining an “ecological identity” is challenging.

    This is because we live in a society, as you have pointed out in various posts, where individuals communicate information about the self through consumer goods. Anyone trying to maintain an ecological identity is forced to communicate this part of themselves to others primarily through their actions (e.g., not owning a car, working with on environmental campaigns, etc.).

    The catch is that we all need affirmation that others understand who we are. But most of the actions that one takes to communicate an ecological identity fail to elicit affirmative responses from others.

    All of this is a roundabout way of saying that I think you may be creating a bit of a false trichotomoy in reducing the options to egoisitic or ecocentric approaches, or changing the audience so that ecoistic approaches are appealing. Yet another option is for environmental organizations to create coalitions with social movement organizations working on other issues. Labor, human rights, women’s, and even religious organizations, for example, have their own ways of motivating their constituents to action.

    So an environmental campaign does not necessarily need to figure out how to frame the environmental message, it needs to figure out what sorts of organizations the target population is committed to and utilize relationships with those organizations to affect change.

    Just some thoughts stimulated by the great dialogue here at valuingnature. Thanks. Keep up the good work.

  • admin

    Thanks for these thoughts, Stephen. I’d love to see the work you did on the integration of nature into the self-concept in deep ecologists – is it published?

    I want to be quite clear about what you are advocating here. You say (and I agree, of course) that “most of the actions that one takes to communicate an ecological identity fail to elicit affirmative responses from others.” You continue, “[y]et another option is for environmental organizations to create coalitions with social movement organizations working on other issues.”

    Are you suggesting that our focus should be working to shift this response – and that the best way to do so may be by working with particular social movement organisations?

    I guess this is the ‘Death of Environmentalism’ approach, which seeks to make (what have been hitherto thought of as environmental) concerns of importance to other constituencies – by working with the dominant values expressed by these constituencies. If this can be done whilst talking about ‘economic growth’ or ‘full employment’ or ‘security’, without mentioning the word ‘environment’, then so much the better…

    This approach has been achieved with fantastic success with one constituency: business people. The business case for sustainable development is now well made in many sectors. But will this really get us far enough, fast enough? Environmental organisations are now pretty redundant in making this case – it’s being done better by business themselves. Should environment organisations now look to repeating this with other constituencies, until they have ruled themselves redundant?

    Schellenberger and Nordhaus suggest in ‘Death Warmed Over’ that the fact “[t]hat the environmental community has chosen to sit on the sidelines is probably a good thing. It will make for a much better politics if developers, unions, doctors, and relief organisations take the lead in demanding investments in things like stronger levees as well as clean energy”.

    My fear is simply that the convergence of interests between these other constituencies and those demanding radical and urgent action on climate change will prove inadequate: that the ensuing changes will be too marginal. If this is the case, we need to bring new values to the debate – and, far from ruling themselves irrelevant, this is what environmental organisations should be championing.

  • Stephen Zavestoski

    As a sociologist what I am advocating is an approach, which should be one of many approaches employed by the environmental movement, that leverages existing social organizations to create material changes in the human-environment relationship. If in the process there are also ideological or value changes, so be it. But the environmental movement should not put all of its eggs in the “value change” basket.

    Just as we need biological diversity to maintain the health of ecosystems, I believe we need methodological and strategical diversity among environmental organizations to maintain the health of the movement.

    Lastly, I believe that those who have developed an ecological identity ought to work to create social environments in which those identities can be nurtured and passed on to others. But ultimately what I would like to see (and, again, this is the sociologist in me), is a society so structured that regardless of one’s beliefs about climate change or environmental destruction the range of consumer and lifestyle choices available guarantee that all actions taken sustain rather than degrade the environment,

  • As a newcomer to the site, I feel it’s a little premature for me to comment. But it’s too enticing to hold back! So, not wanting to wade presumptuously in, I’d just like to touch on something that sparked my interest when reading this post. Namely, how the connection between communication on the one hand, and systemic change on the other, is conceptualised.

    Stephen Zaphestoski’s comment on collaborating with other movements is interesting – not because of the relative values of environmental + non-environmental organisations, I think (though these are fascinating) – but because it represents a more conversational dynamic…

    My understanding of systemic change is that it tends to emerge from communication that is invitational and open-ended. Whilst intrigued with the possibility of gearing messages towards egotistical and/or ecocentric dispositions, at root I doubt an audience can be changed in a unilateral fashion through a one-way process of communication alone. Maybe I’ve misunderstood something, or have read the correspondence incorrectly, but I wondered whether there may have been the assumption that systemic change could arise from this kind of unilateral communication. More likely, both speaker and audience are going to change, together, through processes of conversing.

    Collaborations between environmental and non-environmental movements can, no doubt, lead to a watering down or obfuscation of deep green values, as your fear seems to imply. But I wonder whether they necessarily entail inadequate behaviour change. For one thing, the information age of the internet, blogosphere, corporate scrutiny etc make the civic eye that much more demanding and quick. And taking an analysis of conversational dynamics as my cue, collaboration can mean, yes, compromise, but compromise that is negotiable and that can also open up possibilities, for example, possibilities of invitation.

    A rigorous look at some of the assumptions underlying understandings of communication and the systemic facilitation of change could lead to gratifying possibilities. Without having to compromise values or vision, I suspect there is more ‘hunger’ amongst the citizenry than ever before for well thought-out invitations into new possibilities. And such possibilities could be devised by collaborations between environmental and non-environmental organisations.

    My hope being that there may well be ecocentric initiatives that are enticing to both those with egoistic and ecocentric dispositions that lead to the kinds of systemic change I understand you to be referring to – and that could be arrived at with good conversation, not a little imagination, robust systemic facilitation, and a sprinkling of good fortune!