Future generations, rights for nature, and beyond GDP

This blog was originally posted at Identity Campaigning.

I swing, as I’m sure most of us do, between confidence and despair that things are going to change at the level that we need.  Principally, my despair comes when I see the mainstream narrative stuck so firmly in the idea that small changes will add up to a big difference – even Rosemary’s Carbon Conversations seems to be stuck in this narrative to some extent, not to mention 10:10 and DOT – Do One Thing – which seem to be the latest high profile efforts in the UK and USA respectively.  It is 10 years since Donella Meadows published her essay on ‘Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System’, highlighting the necessity of intervening at deeper points; and almost a year since Tom Crompton and John Thogerson published ‘Simple and painless?’, showing the limitations of foot-in-the-door strategies…  and yet still almost everything that achieves conspicuousness is at the level of least effective intervention, at the level of relatively simple steps in personal life (painless or otherwise, looking at Madeline Bunting’s Guardian article).

But I have hope when I see that there are genuine discussions taking place at some of the highest levels of effectiveness on Meadows’ scale, looking at the goals or even at the paradigm of the system.  Three such incidences have come to my attention recently.

The first is the establishment in Hungary of an Ombudsman for Future Generations, the first office of its kind.  The independent but state-funded department, headed by a Parliamentary Commissioner, is made up of a team of scientists and lawyers responsible for holding to account the decisions and strategies of the Hungarian government, representing the voice of future generations in any decision.  This is an extraordinarily creative legal step, and one that in one fell swoop has the potential to shift the mindset of a country, by making an explicit statement that the future matters.

The second, closely associated, is the movement for rights for nature.  Almost a year ago to the day, Ecuador became the first country to write rights for nature into the national constitution.  This intervention works in a fairly similar way to the Hungarian concept, by allowing representation for an otherwise unrepresentable entity.   Any Ecuadorian citizen now has the right to bring a lawsuit on behalf of nature.  This is signficant for its practical implications of course; but again, what a statement, what a shift in mindset!

The final example is perhaps the one we can hope most swiftly to bridge the mainstream.  A nobel-studded commission headed by Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen, and featuring names such as Robert Putnam and Cass Sunstein, has finally reported back on alternatives to GDP, confirming the weaknesses Bobby Kennedy called out as long ago as 1968 (“It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile”).  This is, potentially, an enormous move.  The consumption- and thereby status- driven economy, which according to Crompton and Kasser’s work is the fundamental barrier to proportional change, is intricately tied up with GDP  as the unique measure of success.  GDP is the current paradigm’s Trojan Palladium, the idol that must fall before the city can.   This is a visionary piece of work, which unites environmental sustainability with higher quality of life in the present – the answer to Joe Brewer’s prayers for a positive Green Identity.

These, to me, are the kind of ideas and initiatives that identity campaigning is all about.  Exciting times.

Jon AlexanderFuture generations, rights for nature, and beyond GDP


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  • Graham Game - October 1, 2009 reply

    Jon, I share your despair! However, last weekend more than 150 Psychologists & Analysts came together at the Landscapes of the Mind conference at the Eden Project to discuss how we need to engage people with these issues. They should know what approaches we need, & I am currently putting together the responses from my workshop ‘Will informed awareness save us from climate change’? I’ll post the results next week.

  • Jim Mitchell - October 1, 2009 reply

    I’m shelving dispair for today now I’ve read your article.

  • Alix Cockcroft - October 2, 2009 reply

    This was a most encouraging read. I shout at my radio every time I hear a politician talk about the necessity for increasing GDP, and hadn’t heard of either the Hungarian or Ecuadorian initiatives you describe.

  • Martin Parkinson - October 4, 2009 reply

    [sorry for the length of this post – though this does seem to be a forum where this is ok.]

    Of course I accept the possibility that I have completely misunderstood what this blog is about, and although I suspect that what I am about to say runs the risk of being patronisingly dismissed, (or even worse, ignored, on the basis of ‘so wrong it’s not even wrong’) I shall remind myself not to be too identified with my own opinions (that sort of attachment is definitely a cause of suffering!) and say it anyway …

    I think your dismissal of the 10:10 campaign (a pledge to reduce one’s personal carbon emission by 10% in 2010) is unhelpful. And, contrary to what you seem to be saying, this particular campaign seems to be me to be perfectly compatible with the Identity-based approach advocated on this site. I consider 10:10 to be a potentially worthwhile intervention for the following reasons:

    1. it is both quantitative and practical. This opens the door to a deeper understanding of what is necessary – for society as well as individuals. Yes, for most people in the UK a 10% reduction over a year is easy but, for anyone who takes up the challenge properly and does a few sums, it will be immediately clear that it cannot be done by re-using plastic bags or recycling your beer cans. There is an important potential learning point here.

    2. although I am certainly *not* propagating the trivialising discourse of “every little helps – 20 tips to go green – save the planet by turning your TV off at the wall” I do feel it is about time to rehearse the evidence that sometimes, in some limited circumstances, not only do small changes in behaviour lead to bigger ones, they arguably do so by effecting a change in *identity*.

    Can a small change lead to a bigger one?
    The evidence comes from experimental social psychology (the authors of this blog will be aware of it) and basically consists experimental recreations of the ‘escalation of commitments’ sales technique. The experimental set up is: ask a control group of people to make a large commitment to something worthy. Most of them say ‘no’. Also ask a comparable group of people to make a similar but much smaller commitment. Most of them say ‘yes’ (‘hey – glad to help!’). Later on this second group are revisited and asked to make a bigger commitment, the same commitment that was refused by most of the first group. And it turns out that the small commitment has made them more likely to go on to make the larger one. They seem to have been primed by it in some way. This could be because they now see of themselves as ‘the sort of person who does that kind of thing’. Behaviour helps to create identity just as much as identity expresses itself as behaviour.

    However (and it is a big ‘however’) this is not conclusive evidence for the ‘great oaks from little acorns’ argument: extrapolating small experimental studies to the wider world is very tricky. The key difference between this type of study and environmental campaigns is that in the former a real live person is doing the asking – there is a personal relationship involved. The situation of reading something or seeing it on the telly might well be sufficiently different as to negate the effect. However, given the baffling complexity of our motivations, I am very reluctant to dismiss any willingness to make changes no matter how small – it could be setting things up for the near future.

    So is 10:10 trivialising? Is it just more noise?
    That depends. To put it at its best, the request to reduce your carbon footprint by 10% is a different type of request from a mere list of ‘things you can do’. If the challenge is stated and accepted properly, it requires making a *thoughtful* and *active* choice (even if that does involve selecting from a list of ‘things you can do’). This is just the kind of situation where worthwhile change might very well start to take place.

  • Tom Crompton - October 5, 2009 reply

    Hello Martin,

    Thanks for this. I agree with much of what you say about the 10:10 campaign. Indeed, I don’t think that cutting one’s private footprint by 10% is easy. I think it could be quite difficult.

    But I do think that for the campaign to be helpful, it must be found that, by engaging in these private-sphere behavioural changes, participants in the campaign will then be led to become more vocal in their demands for ambitious new government intervention. Is that hope justified?

    The so-called foot-in-the-door experiments that you describe work under some circumstances. Their applicability to more general pro-environmental behavioural change is extremely fraught (See the recent WWF-UK report on this issue – Simple and Painless? The limitations of spillover in environmental campaigning).

    To the extent that this effect may encourage people to move from marginal private-sphere behavioural changes to active demands for radical government intervention, it seems that the reasons that drive people to adopt these initial behavioural changes are very important. Adopting these changes to save money provides a poor basis for ‘spillover’ into other behaviours. So how 10:10 frames its asks is critically important.

    I think you are right to suggest that:
    “If the challenge is stated and accepted properly, it requires making a *thoughtful* and *active* choice (even if that does involve selecting from a list of ‘things you can do’). This is just the kind of situation where worthwhile change might very well start to take place.”

    It must be thoughtful and it must be active. And if it is difficult, then it is likely to require both more thought and more activity!


  • uberVU - social comments - October 23, 2009 reply

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by OsbertL: Can we have an official Ombudsman for Future Generations? Hungary has.

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