Blog post

The Conscience Industry:
Tom Crompton at TEDxExeter

Unlike Ed, my polystyrene alter ego, I found this TEDx thing pretty nerve-wracking. There’s a big digital clock at your feet that counts down your allotted time, and then starts flashing admonishment if you overrun. But though Ed may seem rather more chilled out than me, at least I’ve still got more hair than him.

Let me know what you think in the comments below…

Tom Crompton

About Tom Crompton

I'm Change Strategist at WWF-UK. For five years I headed WWF-International's Trade and Investment Programme (working on World Trade Organization issues, for example). While I was (and still am) convinced that international trade policy is crucially important in sustainability terms, I was frustrated by the glacial pace of change on this agenda - and the fact that even those trade negotiators I got to know who were personally quite 'radical' nonetheless felt impotent in a system where there was so little political space to pursue the changes that are needed. This led me to ask how organisations like WWF might begin to work to help create the political space for more ambitious change. What leads to more vocal expressions of public concern about sustainability issues? What motivates people to bring more pressure to bear on their elected leaders? These questions led to work with social psychologists and political scientists, and the publication of a series of reports: "Weathercocks and Signposts: the environment movement at a crossroads" (2008); "Simple and Painless? The limitations of spillover in environmental campaigning" (with John Thogersen, 2008), and "Meeting Environmental Challenges: The Role of Human Identity" (with Tim Kasser, 2009). These pieces of work culminated naturally in our new report, "Common Cause".
  • Iona Stevenson

    This is really interesting; I think it’s a very effective argument gainst appealing to public self interest when campaigning!

    I’m struggling to see how appealing to intrinsic value could be done beyond just using language in a more intentional and nuanced way though. Trying to shape people’s dispositions in a more substantive way veers too close to treating our citizens overly paternalistically for my taste, but I can’t see anything less being able to make a dent in our consumers’ self-interest…

    While a society that placed increased emphasis on raising autonomous individuals would be my best bet for encouraging people to focus more on intrinsic rather than extrinsic value I can’t yet see where charities or campagning groups would fit in…I’m going to have fun pondering though! Thanks for a thought provoking talk!

  • Boudewijn

    Hi Tom. Very interesting to listen to your talk after having read some of your work (and that of Thogersen and Kasser). At the moment I’m writing my MSc thesis and I am actually trying to make a similar point in the field of Industrial Design, where there’s a subfield called ‘Design for Sustainable Behavior’ (DfSB). In your words, many of the efforts within DfSB promote extrinsic values. The focus is mainly on behavior which allows measuring (short term) effects. These behaviors are either physically steered (not addressing people’s values directly) or encouraged via ‘eco-feedback’ (often in monetary terms). But the long
    term effects on who we are or what we value seem neglected. In my eyes many of these efforts are ‘curative’ rather than ‘preventative’ in dealing with sustainability issues (i.e. symptomatic rather than fundamental solutions).

    My approach to this is not coming from social psychology, although I do use social psychology literature to support my thesis. I draw from the field of virtue ethics, which is concerned with building or the cultivation of moral character (i.e. virtues / dispositions), which is closely related to what you call the strengthening of moral values. How can we design objects that promote such cultivation or strengthening? One such way, which I’d like to emphasize here, is ‘critical design’. Such design makes users reflect and act according to this reflection (by for instance offering a choice). This also overcomes the potential ‘paternalism’ which Iona is referring to. I’m not aware of any such measures in environmental campaigning?

    Anyway, thanks for this post. I’m looking forward to hearing more about the progress of you and your colleagues’ research!

  • Ann Finlayson

    I really enjoyed your TED talk Tom!

    Would like to chat this through a bit more with you about the role of NGOs in educational change, not just working in schools with teachers. It seems to me that ESD ( education for sustainability) has been predicated on ‘transformation’ but this has been interpreted either as supplying potentially transformational experiences or supplying the ‘right’ values or information so that people will act rationally on those. This is a common and frequent tension in all we do at SEEd.
    On the transformational experiences there is massive competition on which is the right one e.g. Outdoor learning, youth voice and campaigning, experiential learning ( often turning off lights, growing food, recycling) . But I am cautious about the quality of these and the tendency for people to think one is enough.
    So would like to explore this a bit further if you have some time?
    Meanwhile am encouraging people to consider what might be contained in a sustainability curriculum – and I know values will come up, as well as transformational pedagogies. Building a response or case to encourage more effective practice would be useful then I think
    Hope you are well

    Bet wishes
    Ann Finlayson

  • lelandbug

    Hey Tom,

    Thank you so much for your work.

    I’m a student at Knox College, where I’ve had the chance to work with one of your colleagues, Tim Kasser. I want to say that I am tremendously grateful for your writing and research on working with our basic values. I believe that you are right on the approach we must take in working for a better world.

    One thing in particular that I like about this reality of campaigning is that it means everyone can do something. If strengthening our intrinsic values is the base of all the effort that we have to take in addressing the world’s problems, that means that there is no one who is powerless to help. Everyone has the ability to embody and spread intrinsic values, through their work, their hobbies/passions, and their relationships with other people.

    Recently, in my home state of Minnesota in the US, we fought a hard campaign against a ballot measure that would have made same-sex marriage illegal in our state constitution. We won. That same election season saw the election of a House and Senate that finally granted same-sex couples the right to marry.

    It was a beautiful year. We became the first US state to defeat an anti-same-sex-marriage ballot initiative, in part through a simple change in tactics: previous campaigns had focused the conversation topic on rights for LGBTQ citizens. What they discovered was that talking about rights – the right to marry, to visit one’s partner in the hospital, pay taxes on the same form – resonated with those on our side but caused our opponents to believe that gay and lesbian people are selfish, and only want to be married for the tax money (not that our words implied that – perhaps words like “hospital visit rights” triggered their extrinsic values :P)

    Same-sex marriage campaigns then shifted their focus and began prioritizing love, commitment, and personal stories as conversation points.

    In Minnesota, we became the first US state to defeat an anti-same-sex marriage ballot amendment through one of the largest volunteer turnouts in Minnesota history, and through having one-on-one conversations with Minnesota voters focusing on love, commitment, and personal stories. I remember sharing the MN United literature on how to have an effective conversation with a friend, who said “this seems too simple and, well, dumb.” But while it seemed too simple and obvious, it was actually the result of a careful re-appraisal of what conversation topics actually work.

    And it did work. I have confidence in your assertion that we don’t have time to NOT work with intrinsic values, having seen the success of such a campaign firsthand.