A Whiff of Social Engineering?

This blog was originally posted on Identity Campaigning.

There’s a whiff of social engineering to identity campaigning, says Justin Rowlatt, BBC’s ‘ethical man’ on last night’s Analysis.

The piece opens with Soli from Futerra recounting her ‘magic wand’ experiment: she asked a group of environmentalists how many of them would magic away climate change if people were left unchanged after its disappearance. Apparently, precious few people showed any enthusiasm for her offers of magic.

The experiment is taken as evidence that environmentalists are more interested in social engineering than in addressing environmental challenges.  The environmental challenges are simply a cover for the social engineering.

What isn’t, apparently,  investigated is whether Soli’s audience were really wedded to using climate change as leverage for mass “social engineering”, or whether it was because they realised that their new fairy would have to produce a load more magic wands for all those other problems, and keep on producing them ad infinitum, ad nauseum.

The charge of social engineering is now one that contributors to this site are well-rehearsed in rebutting. It has been thoroughly explored in other posts – here, for example.

(Our response in a nutshell: what you call social engineering, we call cultural influence. Are we ”engineered” by ad men and politicians? Maybe.  They are certainly, by their own admission, shaping culture in a way that has profound effects on our identity – and therefore, by extension, on our motivation to engage ethical problems like climate change or developing world poverty. If you think we are socially engineered by them, then maybe you’re right to call any approach to redress the balance “social engineering”, too: but don’t tar what we’re doing with the ‘social engineering’ brush unless you’re prepared to tar most other public discourse in the same way.  Whether we are all participating in a struggle for dominant values, or for the upper hand in a grand  “social engineering” project,  we are all implicated in that debate – one that is as old as civilisation.)

But at his most dangerous, Rowlatt goes further.

He comes very close to dismissing any approach to tackling environmental problems that looks beyond the technofix (to the more systemic social and cultural drivers of environmental problems) as evidence of evangelicals for a new religion whipping up, and then preying on, people’s fear of an (environmental) apocalypse. It’s a theme that Justin’s producer, Helen Grady, also takes up enthusiastically here.

I don’t deny that this is a theme that does percolate through some environmentalism. (It’s one that identity campaigning goes to lengths to highlight as unhelpful – see for example, the discussion of the use of fear in Meeting Environmental Challenges).

But to imply that this is the necessary alternative to focussing our efforts exclusively on the technological responses to climate change is dangerous. It leads to the off-hand condemnation of anyone who begins to highlight the social and environmental impacts of a society dominated by consumerism, or the demonstrable  social and environmental benefits of a closer relationship to nature, as necessarily motivated by pseudo-religious zealotry.

And that’s just disingenuous.

Tom CromptonA Whiff of Social Engineering?


Join the conversation
  • Ciaran Mundy - January 27, 2010 reply

    How Ridiculous! So it’s ok to market/advertise relentlessly at people and make them feel insecure but appealing to their better natures is scary and manipulative. Bizarre!

    The consumer culture paradigm reigns supreme! It’s normal so it must be OK.

    It’s good old fashioned journo trick. Set up the straw man, conflate lots of ideas and different people’s work behind it and deliver your own value laden conclusions as if you were taking the only rational position possible. Front it with apparently concerned and objective people to sum it all up.

    At no point does he approach the issue, that the huge changes required and many changes we cannot avoid, require political response and many of us are just honestly trying to address that rather than pretending it’s about individual shopping choices.

    His narrow thinking is frustrating but of no surprise when you see his conclusion for the lowest carbon form of transport. . . . the car! And that planes are equatable to forms of transport such as buses and trains.

    Justin Rowlatt suffers the same blinkered way of seeing everything through the eyes of the individual consumer, rather than the need for collective agreement and demand for the best available choices and restrictions on those which are unsustainable. We need the latter and it seems fanciful in the extreme to believe we can ‘sell’ those changes on the basis of self esteem and greed AND insulting to suggest that we all need to be changed into different types of people to want to act in such a manner.

    Yes disingenuous but that’s the way this type of journalism works.

  • GreyCells - January 27, 2010 reply

    “Are we ”engineered” by ad men…?”

    Why else would the ‘easily led’ be making fools of themselves in SUVs?

    BuyLease a bigger, wider, higher more expensive car and you’ll feel like the king of the road, looking down on your fellow man.”. Appeals to the shallow base instincts that inspires the ‘white van man’ behaviour.

    Poor sops bought the marketing wholesale and now are laughed at by those who are able to think for themselves.

  • Patrick Kirk - January 27, 2010 reply

    While I agree with you in principle, I think you have to concede that the ‘consumer/culture’ paradigm cannot be removed just because we demand that it should be. Unfortunately, that is the way most individuals (in the rich countries) do see the world now – and they also see themselves as individuals first and members of society second. They are willing participants – it’s not just a vast corporate conspiracy. I didn’t agree with the angle and conclusions of the Analysis programme, but I think it’s a debate worth having – most people are resistant if not downright hostile to any response that will entail making radical changes to their comfortable lifestyles (beyond a bit of recycling and a few new lightbulbs), and you have to acknowledge that. ‘Hard-line’ environmental arguments generally only work on the those who are already converts. On the programme Porritt suggested starting with a market-led approach (e.g. cap and trade), though he didn’t think it would ultimately be enough. A pragmatic compromise, but I think he might be right.

  • Shilpa - January 28, 2010 reply

    Futerra’s whole business model is built on the continuing success of current unhappy world order. As long as we can consume our way out of climate change, their clients – a list which includes Shell, Toyota and E-on – will continue to pay them handsomely.

    There’s no magic wand! It’s too big to take on? Head under the duvet? Easier to concentrate on marginal, tinkering, yet money – making solutions within the current mad paradigm? OK. But lashing out at Identity campaigning won’t help.

    To the writers on this site and to everyone who recognises that we need to be a bit cleverer and work a bit deeper than we have been doing, can I suggest something? If we let ourselves, we can work together in better and better ways – we have the potential to be transformational.
    Let’s focus our energy on the positive work we do getting out and engaging with people. On being non-judgemental, honest, creative and alive. On bringing joy and magic into our work. On being in the present moment. On talking about happiness and quality of life, not just x% by 2020/2050. On being more effective and strong as a movement.

    Let’s side step the kind of criticisms above and get on with it?

  • Joe Brewer - February 1, 2010 reply

    I agree with Shilpa that we can avoid the Reaction Trap by going strongly on the positive and letting the criticisms either (a) fall to the wayside, or (b) help them to look as small and petty as they actually are compared to the aspirational work we are doing here.

    We are engaging in some of the most fundamentally important work confronting humanity. By seeking to understand human behavior at a systemic level, our hope is to help align the institutions of society (including marketing and media) with the needs of human beings in a time of great strife. While the people at Futerra continue to disingenuously paint us in false colors to advance their agenda, we’ll continue developing the tools and insights that are needed to create solutions.

    But this will only work, as Shilpa suggests, if we collaborate with one another and create synergies among us.



  • Ian CHRISTIE - February 3, 2010 reply

    The Analysis programme highlighted a set of issues that the environmental and sustainability movements need to confront in their dealings with the mass media. It is almost impossible for the editors, reporters and commissioners in broadcast mass media to step outside an individualist, liberal-economic, consumerist worldview. Any set of proposals that involve other values is inevitably presented as ideology (as if the default consumer model is not ideology itself) and counter-cultural. There is no point complaining about this failing of programmes such as Justin Rowlatt’s. What can and should be done by those appearing on such programmes is , I think, as follows: a) challenge the idea that technofixes can leave present consumptions patterns intact while dealing with unsustainable trends ; and b) point out that the values underpinning modern consumerism are recent developments and were vigorously promoted by anti-establishment campaigners in the 70s and early 80s – Mrs Thatcher, for example. Proposals for any kind of radical change in society and economy involve challenges to existing dominant values, and that is true whether one is aiming to promote Futerra-style eco-consumerism or a fundamental reassessment of capitalism and social relations.

  • Tom Crompton - February 7, 2010 reply

    Radio 4 “Feedback” picked up on this, and Roger Bolton gave the Analysis editor a hard time – listen again (at least for another week) at:

  • Jody Boehnert - March 2, 2010 reply

    BBC’s ‘Ethical Man’ Justin Rowlatt ‘Are Environmentalists Bad for the Planet?’ fails to recognize that a certain set of values are deeply embedded into the content of his radio show, the BBC, and all media/communications. In fact, Rowlatt himself plays as a particularly strong role as a social engineer / cultural influencer, reinforcing a set of values (i.e. the status quo in this case), by misrepresenting discourses in environmental ethics and using his platform as a public intellectual (‘the ethical man’) to mock environmentalists with a social conscience.

    The BBC could hardly have made a more shallow attempt to engage with contemporary environmental crises. It does led one to wonder if in the upper echelons of the BBC they make strategic decisions to circumvent important public debate by putting the least sympathetic individuals into important roles. From a perspective that acknowledges that all media is political, the show certainly does a good job of reinforcing conservative and elitist politics.

    Justin Rowlatt can ignore his own role in perpetuating a deeply unsustainable practice because his is the dominant ideology – so it seems ‘natural’. Nevertheless, these hegemonic ideological assumptions are deeply problematic – environmentally and socially. Individuals such as Rowlatt can carve out a good career for themselves by aligning themselves with elites against all those troublesome environments who want social change as well as lower carbon emissions. What is shocking is that this is given a platform on public radio. It strikes me that the ‘ethical man’ is some kind of ironic joke, that’s not funny.

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