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The Carbon Detox: How far will materialism get us?

This blog was originally posted on the website Valuing Nature.

I spent Saturday at a meeting on the psychological and political challenge of facing climate change at UWE.

George Marshall delivered the opening lecture – in witty and thought-provoking style. He guided us through the evidence for the deployment of ‘emotional management strategies’ or ‘psychological coping mechanisms’ that people use when confronted with a threat that they can’t actually physically remove: the most obvious of these strategies, perhaps, is retreat into denial.

I was impressed enough to buy his book, Carbon Detox, at the coffee break – and I read it that same evening. There’s so much here that is commendable – his no-holds-barred dismissal of ‘simple and painless’ steps as a response to climate change (someone at the meeting suggested that the advocacy of small steps is perhaps itself a form of denial), and his insistence that if we are to begin to engage the problem of climate change, then we’d better first recognise the ways in which all of us – environmentalists and Michael O’Leary alike – deploy these emotional management strategies.

George’s response to the problem he frames is the best attempt to use the techniques of the marketer to motivate behavioural change that I have seen. In his book, he draws on the work of Chris Rose and Pat Dade to segment the population into four personality types, and then sets about showing how to appeal to each of these identities in order to motivate behavioural change.

Unfortunately, precisely because George is more interested in persuading people to stop flying than to stop leaving their phone charger plugged in, the limitations of this approach seem all the more stark. The problem is that many of these approaches, as applied to today’s most enthusiastic consumers (the all-important ‘Winners’) don’t seem very compelling.

In his book, George suggests that when you embrace the ‘carbon detox’, you “are sending out a strong message to the world: ‘I am smart, modern and living in the 21st century’.” (p.48) But as we know, this isn’t yet an aspirational message for most people. He warns Winners that “[p]eople may stop seeing your lifestyle as smart and sexy and start to see it as something sad and ugly” (p.48). But if I was a Winner, I think I’d look for the evidence amongst my friends, and in the media, and feel that there was little danger of this situation arising any time soon. If and when it does, I’ll change then, thanks.

George goes on “[p]eople who are alert to the new opportunities presented by climate change could do very well. After all, once you know about climate change it is like being given an insider tip on the options for the future, and there are fame and fortune for the people who listen to that tip” (p.48). Well, as a Winner, I’d be all for fame and fortune. I accept, of course, that more far-sighted entrepreneurs will factor climate change and peak oil into their business plans. But the famous and the rich don’t often seem to give a damn about climate change. And those that do have often had to contort themselves to feel good about the money they are making (consider lucrative carbon offset or biofuels businesses for example).

The contrast between George’s talk and those that followed arose because others acknowledged that at the root of the problem we face is the dominance of a particular set of societal values. As Paul Hoggert and Mary-Jayne Rust both argued, until we begin to tackle these values, it is difficult to foresee any systemic response to climate change emerging.

I’ve been working with Tim Kasser at Knox College, Illinois recently. Tim has collated a very substantial body of empirical evidence which shows that more materialistic people have higher foot prints (as you’d expect – they strive to consume more), but they are also more antagonistic to pro-environmental behaviour and policies per se. Tim argues that it is perfectly possible to engage these values – and he has developed a series of proposals on how to begin to do so. Of course, none of this is to deny the importance of social norms in driving change. It is rather to ask: what social norms will we ultimately need, and how can they best be shaped?

We need critical re-appraisals of the current reliance upon simple and painless steps, and public debate about our deployment of emotional management strategies. And for its crucial role in helping in this, we should be grateful for George’s clear thinking. But we will not shoe-horn the pursuit of self-interest into creating the motivation that is needed to properly engage the problem of climate change.

Appealing to materialistic values is simply not a credible response to the scale of the challenge we confront.

Tom CromptonThe Carbon Detox: How far will materialism get us?

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