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.