We shouldn’t simply try to change people’s values when it comes to the environment

For more than four decades the front lines of environmental campaigning have been located in the worlds of politics and technology. New laws driving cleaner and more efficient ways of doing things have been at the core of the environmental agenda, and up to a point it has worked.

But now we are reaching the limits to what politics and technology can deliver. To make progress on environmental challenges at the scale needed it is necessary to have more public participation, for example in changing consumption patterns and in visibly backing more sustainable lifestyles.

But how should the green agenda be put to people for greatest effect? Repeating statistics, imploring people to change their ways and warning of doom if they don’t hasn’t worked to the extent needed. It seems that something else is necessary.

Many of those close to finding answers to this question would say that it is important to move beyond giving people more information and telling them they are wrong, and instead to engage at the level of their values. While most thoughtful people agree with this, a fundamental difference of opinion has emerged on how best to do it.

On the one hand are those who subscribe to the ideas presented by a group who promote a thesis contained in a report called Common Cause. This group criticizes campaigns that seek to engage people via non-threatening and easy steps, for example unplugging their phone chargers or turning down the washing machine temperature.

Instead of encouraging such modest shifts the Common Cause group urges that what they regard as commonly held values must be strengthened and brought to the fore, including “empathy towards those who are facing the effects of humanitarian and environmental crises, concern for future generations, and recognition that human prosperity resides in relationships – both with one another and with the natural world”.

The Common Cause report, backed by some of the UK’s largest environmental organisations including Friends of the Earth and WWF, argues that modest behavioral change is limited in its positive effect and at worst is counter productive, in so far as such advice encourages people to wrongly believe that simple and easy steps are sufficient, when in reality they won’t make the difference needed.

Far better, they say, to focus on shifting people’s underlying values so that they will buy into solving the bigger challenges that are beyond the power of each of us as individuals to solve. This can be achieved by changing the frames of reference through which environmental ideas are communicated, they argue.

It sounds logical, but this view is not shared by a different group who argue that trying to shift values is a pointless and doomed project. They point to quite a lot of evidence that suggests it can’t actually be done, at least not without changing peoples’ life experiences (an option generally not open to campaigners in their dealings with the public).  This is why they say that in the end it will be far more effective to work with the values people already hold, rather than trying to convince them to adopt new ones.

Proponents in this group include an organization called Cultural Dynamics, Chris Rose’scampaginstrategy.org and a brand research company called KSBR.

They base their view on the mapping of so called values modes. This basically involves describing populations on the basis of fundamental psychological needs that are in turn linked to the values that underpin how we react to ideas and behave. By understanding these broad values modes it is possible to take people on journeys starting from where they are at, rather than where environmental advocates might like them to be, they argue.

Backers of the values modes approach point out how a mass of real data (collected annually by Cultural Dynamics) lies behind the mapping of psychological needs and how these reflect reality, rather than a version of the world that appeals to those already convinced about the need for environmental action. The data identifies three broad values clusters.

There are the so-called Settlers. People in this values mode need safety, security and belonging. Tradition and family structure are important. They prefer things to be “normal” and are very wary of crime, violence and terrorism. They are comfortable with regular and routine situations and generally concerned about what the future holds.

Another group are called Prospectors. People in this group need the esteem of others. They are success-oriented and always want to “be the best” and make things bigger and better. They like to show their abilities and take pleasure from recognition and reward, they are trend and fashion conscious and like new things and new ways of being successful.

The third group is dubbed Pioneers. They are more interested in ideas than things, are attracted to ‘issues’ and are interested in the big picture. They like to make ethical choices and tend to be the people who dominate most campaigns about the environment and world poverty.  The Prospectors are self-assured with a sense of agency. They have a strong internal sense of right and wrong and desire fairness, justice and equality.

Chris Rose’s book What makes people tick – the three hidden worlds of Settlers, Prospectors and Pioneers, sets out the implications of all this, including for campaigners who are trying tochange behavior. And the implications are very considerable, because by understanding the clusters of values that are held by these different groups it is possible to present environmental ideas that resonate with people where they are already at.

For example, in promoting green cars to esteem-hungry prospectors will it be best to tell them about carbon dioxide and their responsibility to future generations, or would it be more effective to emphasize how these are the latest, most modern and best vehicles? This group is more interested in the benefits of a product than its ethical credentials and so the latter message is more likely to work.

And in advocating solar panels to Settlers, would it be best to talk about taking personal action to reduce sea level rise to benefit the Maldives, or to highlight energy security benefits and reduced reliance on Russian gas?

Having spent 30 years as a campaigner and among other things seeking to change behavior, I am very clear as to where I think we are most likely to get positive change, and it is in the second approach, whereby campaigns are designed to work with the grain of the fundamental psychological needs that people have, rather than trying to persuade people who are not environmentalists to adopt the values that would cause them to become so.

Part of the challenge of course arises from the fact that environmentalists are mainly Pioneers. By offering Pioneer perspectives it has been possible to grow the body of people seeking action for the environment, by convincing more Pioneers to join in with campaigns and behavior change. If there is to be a sufficiently large critical mass of people to bring about the fundamental shifts needed it will, however, be necessary to appeal to more groups in ways that make sense to them.

This is not least necessary in terms of politics. In the UK about 39 per cent of people fall into the Pioneer cluster with about 30 per cent each for the other two. So if the environmental agenda is to move forward as it must do then change needs to be embraced by more than the Pioneers.

Green groups need to be careful that they don’t waste their precious resources in backing the wrong strategy. Time is now short and the approaches adopted in the coming few years need to be the right ones.

Originally published by The Independent.