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The Number One Thing

This blog was originally posted on the website Valuing Nature.

I was approached recently at the Bristol Festival of Nature by someone conducting a survey for the Environment Agency, on the occasion of World Environment Day (5th June, 2007). I was asked; “What is the number one thing you are doing to help tackle climate change?”, and “What one extra thing could you do to tackle climate change?” (The surveyor told me that most people she had asked that morning said that they were recycling more of their household waste, although it was unclear how this helps tackle climate-change.)

You can participate in the survey at http://www.mendoftheworld.org. It seems to me to be an example of a campaign for behavioural change that is constrained by focussing on the small steps, perhaps for fear of bothering people too much, and turning them away.

The question that it raises in my mind is this: Is it sufficient to get people to do something which doesn’t entail too much bother, in the expectation that this will lead to bigger things?

My first port of call in trying to answer such questions is Chris Rose‘s book, “How to Win Campaigns”. “Engagement,” he writes, “often seems to fit a four-stage pattern: Do nothing; do one thing; systemic change; and, lastly, wholesale change.” If this is right, we perhaps should start with the little things, in expectation that people will then be led to doing more.

But is it right? Intuitively, it may seem as likely that doing one, simple, thing leaves people feeling, firstly, that the environmental problems we are confronting can be tackled through minor life-style changes, and, secondly, that they have already done their bit, and don’t need to do more.

Rose himself seems unsure. He concedes, in a footnote, that: “It would be interesting to know if this hypothesis is borne out by more academic study, but it does seem to apply in many cases, and may be useful in designing campaigns.” And then he goes on to cite Thomas Roszak approvingly: “It’s not enough to find 50 simple things you can do to save the Earth, we need 50 difficult things”.

Perhaps we should be aiming higher; and in the course of doing so, focus less on the specific bits of change we want, and more on why people are, or are not, motivated to engage in change?

“Like all political activists busy with their mission,” Roszak writes, “environmentalists often work from poor and short-sighted ideas about human motivation. What are we connecting with in people that is generous, joyous, freely given; perhaps heroic?”

Where is the joy in today’s environmentalism? Have we worked so hard to rid it of self-denial that we’ve ended up with something that is as uninspiring as an exhortation to buy a hemp shopping bag?


Tom CromptonThe Number One Thing
  • Justin Woolford

    With reference to the appropriateness and appeal of different scales of solution, apparently size is important! Research by The Frameworks Institute in the US suggests one (and only one) prerequisite for motivating people to take action is matching the size of the solution you offer to the magnitude of the problem you pose.

    This is particularly relevant to climate change given the likely common “what can I do that could possibly make a difference?” response factor. Asking people to change their light bulbs to energy efficient types (an “easy” step) to tackle climate change may sound useless to many people given the seeming scale of the problem unless the solution and problem are framed in a way that matches them and makes the solution appear meaningful.