The ideology of simple painless steps

This blog was originally posted on the website Valuing Nature.

I’ve spent the last two days at a conference for environmental communicators, Communicate 08. There was a recurrent issue which ran through the whole conference – about the strategies that the environment movement deploys to create change.

We heard disparate inputs from (on the one hand) Tesco’s (‘Every Little Helps’ – let’s focus on successes in cutting carrier bag use, rather than the problem of consumerism) to Renee Lertzman‘s suggestion that public ‘apathy’ may be an emotional coping strategy which we deploy when confronted with the environmental problems we face.

Some of the discussion focussed on the evidence from social-psychology. There is little empirical evidence for the effectiveness of ‘foot-in-the-door’ approaches, as applied to more difficult environmental behaviours. (Foot-in-the-door is the idea that, by starting people off on simple painless steps like using fewer carrier bags, we will lead them up a virtuous escalator towards more ambitious and significant bahavioural changes. The evidence for this – at best thin – is reviewed in WWF’s report Weathercocks and Signposts).

There was also some discussion of the inherent antagonism between materialistic values and pro-environmental attitudes and behaviour, which has also been revealed by empirical studies. This should lead us to recognise the problems inherent to consumptive approaches to addressing environmental problems (the prescription that we should consume more CFLs, hybrid cars etc.). The green consumerism approach was written large by an exercise Pat Dade ran that encouraged participants to design desirable bathroom furniture for status-driven people. Learn how to change someone’s buying behaviour, the message ran, and you have learned how to motivate them to make the necessary pro-environmental choices.

As the conference ran on, I realised that empirical arguments based on social psychological research are never going to hold sway over green consumerism and the ‘simple and painless steps’ approach: simply because they don’t fit ideologically. The enthusiasm of companies like Tesco’s, and of government, for these approaches fits with the dominant ideology of decoupling economic growth and environmental impact. For this reason, it will take more than empirical studies in the social sciences to dislodge the dominance of this perspective.

Empirically-based arguments from social psychology may not displace these approaches, but they may at least help to expose them as being driven more by ideology than empirical evidence.

That in itself is perhaps helpful: particularly in a context where those of us critical of green consumerism are so often portrayed ourselves as being motivated more by ideology than by a pragmatic assessment of what is needed to get us out of the hole we are all in.

Tom CromptonThe ideology of simple painless steps

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  • One of the problems with the ’simple, painless-steps approach’ is that it assumes there will be sufficient enough a reward at the end of each step to motivate aspiration for the next level.

    More often than not, achieving total success at the small level (e.g. cutting out plastic bags) is rare if it happens at all; I still find I have to resort to using a new plastic bag – rather than one of the many jute bags that have begun to pile up at home – because of a spontaneous purchase decision. Yes, it happens. So any pride at improvement can be mixed with smidgeons of guilt. And this mixed result compromises any gung-ho urge for the next level (whatever that might be in Tesco’s hierarchy of green behavioural change – if they have such a hierarchy) that could be generated.

    The simple (and small) painless-steps approach, for Joe and Jane the Consumer, can be hampered by a lack of emotional, psychological and cognitive preparation that is required if society is to address the immensity of the ‘higher’ levels up the hierarchy. The ‘higher’ levels, where sustainability will be made or broken, are bigger, more complex, and messier (in terms of the constituencies involved and the negotiations needed to take things forward).

    [As an aside, I would suggest, though, that some of the dots are beginning to be joined up at governmental levels. E.g. inclusion of aviation and shipping, and the 80% target for CO2 reduction, in the UK climate change bill; and, to shift focus to the secondary drama of the day – the US election – Obama has recently become convinced that an Apollo Project for renewable energy is where his priorities will lie as president, despite having had to focus his campaign on economy issues. See the excellent article by Joe Klein, ‘Why He’s Winning’:,8599,1853025,00.html%5D

    What your average consumer needs is the sense of being swept up in a veritable tidal surge of a green initiative enthusiasm – e.g. like the T.Boone Pickens wind energy plan in the US – and to hear the positive news of a big technological breakthrough when it happens – e.g. cheap, super-efficient, non-toxic photovoltaic products – which would incentivise people to get caught up in a bigger, brighter picture, and story, that is much more enticing than an anodyne ’simple, painless step’. Regardless of whether the specific examples just cited are ultimately ‘the right thing to do’, an important underlying message in them is this: you’re not alone, we’re in this together, yes we can. Such initiatives will also inevitably, and eventually, reorient the choices available to consumers, to become greener and cost-competitive.

    Which suggests the question, what story are people being invited into when a behaviour change programme is initiated? Is it a story of preventing a lemming-like shuffle to the cliff edge? Or does it usher in a colourful, luxuriant, long-lived future? Which story would you prefer to participate in and contribute to?

    I can’t see a way for wholescale change ** based on a theory-driven, evidence-based, social-engineering-oriented blueprint plan, that is unreflective about the bigger narrative ** being effective in addressing the higher/fundamental levels of the behavioural change required for sustainability. That said, yes; in terms of effecting people’s daily ‘habitus’ (cf. Bourdieu) – every little helps.

  • admin

    Thanks Francis.

    I agree with most of this – especially your identification of the need for an inspiring vision of an alternative future.

    I’m not as sanguine as you are, though, about the scope for achieving the fundamental changes to our economies that are needed, through appeals to today’s demands for economic growth and job creation. Sometimes sustainable development needs and economic growth needs coincide, other times they diverge (consider the pressure from several European Member States to back-pedal on European climate change negotiations as a result of the recession – ‘we can’t afford it’, they squeal).

    As long as economic growth is the lens through which we view government success, we can never hope to achieve the changes that are needed.


  • Hi Tom. I’m not sure(!) that I was necessarily implying that fundamental changes would come from economic growth and job creation. Which, I agree, have been trotted out un-intelligently as necessary goods. I think(!) my main point was about the scale and level at which one designs interventions in ‘the’ system: ‘simple, painless steps’ are appropriate for simple, pain-free situations.