“If it makes you happy, it can’t be that bad” – intrinsic values as drivers for social change and tools to escape consumerism

One of the debates that has regularly reared its head in the environmental movement is how best to achieve change to more environmentally friendly behaviour. Small specific steps often seem the most direct and effective way to achieve practical change now, and yet there is intuitively a disquieting gap between the scale of social change needed and such small, non-challenging steps as changing to more efficient light-bulbs.

About a year ago, WWF-UK came out with a report, titled Weathercocks & Signposts, that addresses this precisely question.

After examining a wide range of evidence, they conclude that we need a “radically different approach” to product-marketing style campaigns that begin with the assumption of the sovereignty of consumer choice. Instead, they say, “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” (p.5)

Marketing style campaigns usually seek to “go with what works”, which may well result in campaigns based on appeals to status and self-interest rather than environmental values. They may seem to be the most effective way of achieving change in the short-run.

“But the evidence presented in this report suggests that such approaches may actually serve to defer, or even undermine, prospects for the more far-reaching and systemic behavioural changes that are needed.” (p.5)

The evidence shows that:

* Marketing does teach us the value of communicating with different people in different ways, but:
* It is not clear that motivating people to take small painless steps initiates a process where individuals begin to undertake more significant changes. It does, however, take resources away from campaigns using alternative approaches.
* Emphasising “green consumerism” distracts from the need to expose and deal with the deeper problems inherent in consumerism itself. There may little environmental gain in persuading people to switch to car-sharing if they spend the savings on a holiday abroad.
* The reasons for adopting changes are significant: they matter for the “energy and persistence” with which the changed behaviours are adopted. Extrinsic motivations of status and self-interest are fair-weather motivations that may dissipate easily. Intrinsic motivations such as pro-environmental values are more likely to persist.

I found Chapter Three: Towards an alternative approach, particularly interesting, especially on the question of consumerism and its role in helping people to create a sense of identity in what for many is an increasingly chaotic social context.

If we accept that no adequate response to the environmental challenges we face can fail to address current patterns of consumption, then we must consider how best to respond to the control that marketers exert over the significance that we attach to these symbolic resources – the things that we buy. Three possibilities present themselves:
* Play marketers at their own game – using symbolic meanings to encourage us to buy products with lower environmental impact.
* Restrict the freedom that marketers currently enjoy in shaping the symbolic significance that we attach to material possessions.
* Strengthen alternative narratives that are used to develop a sense of identity. (p.29)

They quote Tim Jackson:

the transition to a sustainable society cannot hope to proceed without the emergence or re-emergence of some kinds of meaning structures that lie outside the consumer realm: ‘communities of meaning’ that can support the kind of essential social, psychological, and spiritual functioning that has been handed over almost entirely in modern society to the symbolic role of consumer goods. (p.29)

For those, like myself, who tend to view advertising (taken as a whole) as a systematic attempt to generate a permanent itch and sell you a lotion that offers only temporary relief, there is some interesting commentary on the relationship between materialistic values and well-being:

Studies have shown that individuals reporting higher subjective well-being…also exhibit more pro-environmental behaviour, and that this compatibility of subjective well-being and pro-environmental behaviour is mediated by ‘intrinsic’ values (which are oriented towards personal growth, relationships, and community involvement). (p.30)

Conversely, more materialistic individuals exhibit lower subjective well-being, are more likely to exhibit a range of psychological ills…They care less for other people and are less empathetic and more manipulative, less cooperative and more competitive. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that they also tend to care less about protecting the environment. (p.30)

In other words, by promoting intrinsic values we can promote a society which is more caring, happier, and more environmentally sustainable. Materialistic values and motivations, on the other hand, cannot take us to sustainability.

Looked at like this, it seems clear that the green/environmental movement needs to understand, without equivocation, that we are engaged in a vital struggle with those – such as right wing political parties – who advocate for competitive, materialistic values and goals. Hopefully the struggle will be non-violent (at least here in our democratic society),  but make no mistake: it is a struggle with life or death consequences for many of the planet’s human poor, and for many non-human species.


Some of you will have remembered the second line to the chorus Sheryl Crow’s fabulous song, which makes such a perfect commmentary on many self-destructive behaviours:

…If it makes you happy, then why the hell are you so sad?

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