What campaigners need to know about human nature

Meeting Environmental Challenges
A new book by WWF 'Meeting Environmental Challenges: The Role of Human Identity' makes the case for a new kind of campaigning that sees the person behind the behaviour. Pat Thomas is impressed

In the last few years the Ecologist has published many articles that sought to shed light on the psychological aspects of environmentalism. We've looked at climate change denial as a kind of addiction.  We've looked at decoupling our identity from what we own and what we can buy, encouraging the notion that we are citizens rather than consumers.

For those of us who have been seeking to make sense of the human response to the environmental challenges we face and how it can either help to engage individuals in change, or push them further into inactivity and denial, this new book by WWF, Meeting Environmental Challenges is most welcome.

Written by Dr Tom Crompton, a specialist in evolutionary biology and change strategist at WWF and Tim Kasser Professor of Psychology, Knox College, Galesburg, Illinois USA, this work, provides a solid foundation for understanding on what motivates behaviour change and what the social context of change might look like.

It provides compelling arguments that we must see the person behind the behaviour and strive to understand the values, the fears and the need for belonging that provide the framework for how each of us responds to environmental challenges.

The authors highlight the inadequacies of current methods. Engaging organisations and making a ‘business case for sustainability’, they argue, can produce some changes such as the development of new efficiency standards, but overall the change produced is small and slow because of the insistence that it must be compatible with economic growth, maintaining profits and protecting the sacred cow of ‘consumer choice’.

Engaging behaviour at the level of simple painless choices that often end up feeding niche green consumerism but which don’t necessarily translate into more meaningful action, is also problematic.

A third way, called ‘identity campaigning’ is proposed here. Drawing on both theoretical and empirical research Meeting Environmental Challenges builds a compelling case for getting environmentalist and others, to go back to the drawing board, and see people not as consumers, or voters or demographics of various shades of green but as human beings who must have a personal and social context in which to make sense of, identify with and become a part of change.

In so doing it shows how campaigners can unwittingly end up provoking, even deepening the kind of unsustainable behaviour they seek to change. It is essential reading likely to be as helpful in understanding ourselves as it is in understanding others.

WWF has been at the leading edge of examining such thinking. 2008's Weathercocks and Signposts report critically  and radically reassessed current approaches to motivating environmentally-friendly behaviour change and  presented evidence that any adequate strategy for tackling environmental challenges will demand engagement with the values that underlie the decisions we make – and, indeed, with our sense of who we are.

Earlier this year the Simple and Painless report highlighted the ongoing problems with the “10 things you can do to save the planet” approach and how this rarely spills over into other.

This latest book takes these works even further and is an intelligent response to those of us wondering why necessary and widespread change has been so frustratingly slow and piecemeal. It reminds us that, as campaigners, we fall short if we reserve our compassion and  understanding for Nature whilst ignoring the fundamentals of  human nature. We must understand the people who inhabit the planet – what moves them and what motivates them – in order to be effective communicators.

Meeting Environmental Challenges: The Role of Human Identity by Tom Crompton and Tim Kasser is available from Green Books or as a free download

• WWF has developed a website  (www.identitycampaigning.org) which it will use to develop these ideas further and which will serve as a platform for debate. Log on to find our more.


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