Human identity and environmental challenges

Meeting Environmental Challenges: The Role of Human Identity – Tom Crompton & Tim Kasser (WWF-UK, 2009)

“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results” (definition by Albert Einstein)

This excellent report argues that much environmental  campaigning has been ineffective because it is focused on changing organisations and behaviours – and fails to engage with the critical role of human identity – how we understand ourselves as human beings.

There is a concise overview document (8 pages of body text) as well as the book-length full report – both available for download at the link above.  For those for whom even that is too long, some brief notes follow as a taster that will hopefully motivate you to go and read it yourself  🙂

  1. The attempt to change organisations typically involves developing policy ideas &  lobbying for their introduction. It fall short because of insufficient grassroots support and a failure of political leadership. This often leads to a move towards approaches trying to show convergence between commerical and environmental interests. But this can lead to a reluctance to espuose propsals that challenge business interests and economic orthodxy.
  2. The attempt to change behaviours is focused on individuals, and seeks to avoid the political challenges of engaging organsiations. It is often based on  marketing techniques, and isn’t fussy about the reasons for change. The evidence seems to suggest that while they may be successul at times in achieving ‘simple & painless’ changes, these campaigns don’t lead to deeper change and, worse, may even hinder it.
  3. Given the scale of the environmental challenges we face, and that the first two strategies aren’t making the changes that need to happen, we need another strategy. And that’s what the report is about: a new approach called Identity Campaigning.
  4. “we argue that certain aspects of the human psyche create proclivities for unsustainable beaviour, and that these procilivities are often reinforced, or enabled, by social norms and structures, and even sometimes by the actions of environmental organisations themselves.” (p.2 Overview Document)
  5. But there are also more positive aspects of human identity too, so the report aims to show how our social context serves to accentuate the negative proclivities; to show how identity campaigning might enhance the effectiveness of the environmental movement’s work; and to suggest new strategies.
  6. The report identifies three aspect of human identity that seem to be important in determining how people will make decisons and whether or not they will make environmentally positive decisions: “people’s values and life-goals; their differentiation of others into in-groups and out-groups; and the ways they cope with fear and threats. (p.2 Overview Document)
  7. Bluntly, research shows that people who place greater emphasis on wealth, status, and achievement are less likely to engage in pro-environmental behaviours.
  8. Research also shows that the more people consider themselves part of nature (and the less they define non-human nature as an out-group), the more pro-environmental their attitudes and behaviours.
  9. Awareness of our huge environmental challeneges can be quite upsetting and feel quite threatening. To deal with such feelings, people have an extensive array of strategies. Again the key thing is that while some people will deal with the sense of threat by getting involved with environmental campaigns and trying to minimise their ecological impact, others will use cope with the feeling of threat with strategies that are evironmentally negative or unhelpful.
  10. In response, the authors suggest the environmenl movement needs to: a) remove the self-defeating aspects of some of its campaigns, b) disable the ways that society encourages problematic aspects of human identity, and c) activate healthier aspects of human identity (Yes, they DO exist!)

So what does all that mean in practice? Here is the summary of suggested identity-based campaign strategies for environmental challenges:

  • Avoid language and campaigns that reinforce materialistic, self-enhancing values.
  • Frame environmental messages to connect with intrinsic values, rather than extrinsic or materialistic values.
  • Address the societal influence of advertising, for example by supporting: (i) media literacy programmes; (ii) the removal of advertising from public spaces (especially natural settings); (iii) bans on marketing to children; and (iv) policies to tax advertising at higher rates.
  • Promote the development and use of alternative indicators of national progress that include work values other than materialism.
  • Create community groups to support the adoption of materially simple and ecologically sustainable lifestyles. Creating a safe environment where participants are given permission to openly express their deepest fears about environmental issues will be important here.
  • Help people create implementation intentions to increase the likelihood of behaving in ways that are consistent with intrinsic, self-transcendent values.
  • Avoid messages suggesting that the lives of individual animals are of little significance.
  • Build an awareness that humans are themselves part of nature, and confront society’s stories that legitimise prejudice towards non-human nature.
  • Develop programmes to activate an awareness of the inherent value of nature and empathy for non-human nature (perhaps initially addressing gardeners, ramblers or pet owners).
  • Develop means of increasing optimal contact between humans and non-human nature, including indirect contact, environmental education programmes that promote an experiential sense of connection to nature, and by drawing on the techniques of ecopsychology.
  • Gently point out when society and individual people use coping strategies to avoid confronting environmental concerns, and acknowledge the emotions that underlie these strategies.
  • Help people express their fear, sadness, angst and anger about environmental destruction, rather than provoking such feelings. Group work will be important here.
  • Help people activate intrinsic and self-transcendent values when they feel threatened by environmental challenges.
  • Promote problem-focused coping strategies and the emotion-focused coping strategy of mindfulness to help people cope with environmental threats.
  • Design environmental campaigns to minimise the risk that people will be led to deploy environmentally problematic coping strategies.

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One response to “Human identity and environmental challenges

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