Today’s publication of the first instalment of the new IPCC report is a vital moment to be seized upon.  It presents a fresh chance to put the issue of climate change back where it should be as one of the most fundamental modern global challenges: at the top of the political and social agenda.  As has happened before, it will provoke a round of inquiry into why nothing (or at least nothing commensurate with the scale of the problem) has been done, and why we continue to run still further off the edge of a very high cliff.

In the recent past, the primary revision to the strategy of environmentalists has been to say we need to change the story.  We have talked too much doom and gloom, and we need to paint a positive vision to motivate Consumers to change the world.

This change of story has moved things on a little (as per my previous post on Martin Luther King), but we now need to take the next step.  The story is better; we have improved WHAT is said.  Now we need to change the audience; WHO we are talking to.  We have to face the fact that Consumers will never solve climate change.  Only Citizens can do it.  Here are the four big reasons.

#1: Consumers will always buy what is easy over what is true

The headline of the new IPCC report is that scientists are now 95% certain that climate change is happening, and is caused by us.  Certainty in science is a tricky concept (as the National Physical Laboratory’s Jane Burston reflects here); in anyone else’s language, this means it’s utterly beyond doubt.

But despite this, the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication reports that while scientists know climate change is happening and is caused by humans, only 41% of American citizens believe them; lest we think we are better, a recent YouGov poll put the figure in the United Kingdom at 43%.

This is because we talking to Consumers not Citizens.  We are trying to sell a truth that is difficult to perceive and would be difficult to act upon (though ultimately deeply rewarding) to people in a role that does not incentivise comprehension.  The scientific conception of certainty means that a tiny iota of doubt is available for other parties to sell an alternative view, many of them in the pay of the fossil fuel industry and exactly the same people who fought for many years to persuade us that tobacco was safe (as revealed in the excellent book Merchants of Doubt).

In Consumer terms, we have a market stall selling expensive, prickly, difficult to peel, but ultimately nutritious fruit whose taste we would acquire but only if we persist; the sceptics have chocolate.

#2: We need big actions – Consumers only ever take small actions

Arguably the most successful element of the environmental movement over the last decade has been the increased engagement with businesses.  Some astounding shifts forward have been made with companies like Walmart and Unilever.  This is one of the positive results of changing the story.

But there is a limit to what can be achieved by this.

At the end of the day, strategies like Unilever’s “Small Action Big Difference” will only ever put a tiny dent in the change that is required, and often not even that, as Consumers tend to think that doing one small action entails ‘doing their bit’ and subsequently incur far greater damage in other behaviours, a phenomenon explained in depth by the seminal WWF report ‘Weathercocks and Signposts’ but perhaps best expressed in this Tesco ad from a few years back.

The only value of these small actions – and to be fair to Unilever et al it is a significant value if it can be made to follow – is if they do genuinely lead first to the big Consumer actions (like, for example, deciding not to fly long haul); but ultimately and more importantly to actions that step beyond the role of the Consumer and into the realm of the Citizen (like voting for the party with environmentally positive policies).

Unfortunately, the evidence as gathered by the WWF and others would suggest talking to people as Consumers is fundamentally opposed to both these shifts, because the values endorsed and normalised in talking to people as Consumers directly undermine the motivations that would be required to do more.  This brings me on to Reason #3.

#3: Consumer values are fundamentally opposed to the values we need

Perhaps the key advance in our understanding of the change we need to make in the last 5 years has come in the field of social psychology, with the work to popularise the academic literature on cultural values.  This began with the WWF report mentioned above, and has now spawned an organisation of its own, the aptly named Common Cause group.

Dr Tom Crompton’s TEDx talk is probably the best quick introduction, but the vital fact for current purposes is this: the strategy of appealing to what is called extrinsic values reinforces the importance and vailidity of those values in people’s minds, and those values are opposed to action on things like climate change.  Let’s make that concrete.  If I persuade you to buy an environmentally friendly car by appeals to status (for example by encouraging celebrities I know you admire to drive them), I may achieve my goal of encouraging that purchase, but because I have normalised the belief that status matters, I have actually made you less likely to do more.  The empirical evidence here backs up the common sense argument that, to the extent that people value status, they are more interested in promoting themselves at the expense of others, and less interested in (or even actively ill-disposed to) the wellbeing of those they consider separate to them – which includes of course the distant ‘global environment’.  The impact is so pronounced that even changing one word on the title of a survey (from ‘Citizen Response Study’ to ‘Consumer Response Study’) has a dramatically negative impact on pro-environmental motivation.

This bridges into the massive issue with Consumerism as a wider social mode, as I explored in an earlier post.  Stepping outside communications that actually aim to create positive change (which are of course very much in the minority), almost all advertising talks to people as Consumers and embeds these unhelpful values and the validity of narrow self-interest.  When we expose ourselves to these messages 3000 times a day, we make commensurate individual action on climate change (and a number of other issues) fundamentally impossible.

#4: Climate Change is a collective action problem; Consumer states will only ever have a mandate to act as individuals

This is not just a problem at the level of the individual, however.  These cultural values, and the primacy of individual self-interest to which they add up, mean we will never solve climate change at an international scale while we see ourselves, as individuals, as Consumers.

Climate change is no one individual’s fault, either at the level of the person or the state.  Nor is it any one individual’s problem.  It is what philosophers call a tragedy of the commons.  In a system where a number of people own sheep and the right to graze them on common land, all is well until each shepherd, acting in her own rational self-interest, maximises her herd.  When they all do this, the common land can no longer cope.  It is not any individual shepherd’s fault, nor is it any individual shepherd’s problem – even if one backed down, others would only expand into the space, so why should she?

The only way the shepherds can solve their problem is to perceive and act upon their collective interest.  In practical terms, this usually means the appointment of an independent third party mediator, and a willingness to concede ground on all sides – what is in this case being attempted by the UN process.

The problem is that the political mandates of the negotiating states – their opportunity to concede ground and thus achieve a compromise – are dictated by their publics.  When those publics are Consumers, it is only to be expected that nothing is achieved.  We have seen the truth of this not just on climate change, with its most famous public failure in Copenhagen in 2009, but on trade, aid and all number of other global situations.

There is hope.  The idea of the Consumer, while it has been around for some time, has only been dominant for a very short period, I would argue the last 30 years at most.  The Consumer has his place in a healthy society – we do not need to eradicate him.  What we do need to do is put him back in his place, and encourage the Citizen to step up, a role whose core elements include membership of a community, a sense of collective interest, and an understanding of duties as well as rights.  It will however require us to fundamentally change our political and social discourse, led by key public service institutions such as the BBC and the NHS.  It might require restrictions on advertising, particularly to children and possibly beyond, such that we create the space to think of ourselves in different ways.

These can be creative opportunities, not just limitations.  The society we create can and will be more participative, more enjoyable, and more deeply fulfilling.  We will no longer belittle the potential societal contribution of “mere consumers”, to use Pope Francis’ words.  The prickly fruit is worth the peeling.  But this is a truth we can only engage people in as Citizens.  We will never sell it to them as Consumers.

13 thoughts on “The four reasons why Consumers will never solve climate change

  1. Brilliant post Jon, totally nails it and very well articulated. Thanks for sharing.

    As I think you already know, I believe there is a really important narrative about human needs and happiness/wellbeing that holds most hope for a solution here (and of course is the reason I put all my energy into http://www.actionforhappiness.org). The driver of pretty much all our Consumer behaviour is that people believe (and are constantly told, albeit implicitly) that consuming these products and services will meet their fundamental desires, i.e. to be happy and feel valued. The fundamental shift I believe we need is about helping people realise/wake up to what really makes for a happy and fulfilling life.

    This “waking up” is helpful on two vitally important counts. Firstly, we discover that consumption isn’t actually a great contributor to lasting happiness – e.g. things like good relationships and doing things that we find meaningful are far more important. (As an example, since I switched my life from stuff/status-focused to happiness-focused my material consumption, and therefore climate change contribution, has fallen dramatically). Secondly, we find that perhaps the greatest of all contributors to a fulfilling life – and one where you feel valued (i.e. having “real” status rather than empty, brand-based status) is to contribute to the wider social good: in your language to be a Citizen – or as we describe it, to care about/contribute to the happiness of others.

    The challenge with the notion of Citizenship is that comes across as worthy or at-best ‘necessary’ to solve our collective problems. So, like much climate-related campaigning, its a “must-do” rather than a “want to do”. Unless we’re facing immediate disaster then this isn’t a great motivator for change (and the effects of climate change are too far decoupled from the causes – so by the time this eventually becomes a good motivator it will be too late to do much about it). So to tap into human energy and enthusiasm we need to help people see that actively contributing to the wider social good is just about the most rewarding and fulfilling thing we can do in life. (Back to my example, I am substantially happier doing a lower paid, pro-social job than I was doing a higher-paid commercial job).

    So I’m totally with you on the journey from Consumers to Citizens but for me this journey is much more powerful (and intrinsically motivating) if we’re clear that the destination is truly happy and fulfilling lives, i.e. where the short-lived happiness from shallow consumption is replaced by the long-lived happiness from meaningful contribution.

    • Thanks Mark – I think I agree with you at the level of public-facing communication, but what I am more worried about is two things: firstly the use of the language of the Consumer as opposed to the Citizen in public discourse (think of the Consumer Confidence Index that is reported so often), and secondly the thought patterns that we have inside marketing agencies and departments as a result of thinking of people as Consumers. We never offer people the opportunity for greater involvement because we’re not thinking of them as anything other than buying machines. So I suppose the language point I’m making is more on the inside than the outside if that makes sense?
      I must admit though I do also have a bit of a problem with happiness as language… have you come across Nozick’s Happiness Machine thought experiment, or read Brave New World?!

  2. Excellent piece of thinking and writing, Jon. My biggest concern here is time: I felt somewhat like this when my colleague Paul Clarke, a professor of education, set about persuading me that the vital route to ‘enough change, soon enough’ was through redesigning the curriculum for small children from the time they started school. I felt frustrated that it would take so long before these children became society’s influential adults but had to admit that attempts to change current adults’ thinking, speaking and acting were patently failing to achieve the scale and speed of change we need. Obviously there isn’t a magic bullet solution – that kind of simplistic, non-sytemic thinking is a large part of the problem – so what other elements are needed? I suspect that another significant variable in this equation is going to public-private-third-academic sector partnerships. Not an easy many-headed hydra to tame but it might be one of the guardians of the gates to heaven. The problem seems to be not only conflicting agendas but the lack of a shared language. The pieces of the solution-jigsaw seem, now to be available but we have to find a means to fit them together. The gap between the near-unanimity of the climate scientists behind today’s IPCC report and the individual citizen’s – or consumer’s – belief is, as you say, critical. But at least we know academia is more or less onside. Interestingly, PwC responded to the IPCC report today saying “Business understands the concept of dealing with risk, and climate change is the mother of all risks that we’ll face this century.” So business is getting there, as you say, pretty rapidly and is extremely potent. Governments may act at the level of national interest but they employ specialists who understand the key issues – however well or badly they listen to them – and these specialists now have increasingly powerful arguments to put before their employers. Third sector bodies can tend to be both under-resourced and somewhat single-issue focused but work such as that by WWF et al, cited in your post, is transcending the silo-driven restraints at last. So I believe you are right in saying of the tragedy of the commons that “The only way the shepherds can solve their problem is to perceive and act upon their collective interest. In practical terms, this usually means the appointment of an independent third party mediator, and a willingness to concede ground on all sides – what is in this case being attempted by the UN process.” My questions on this pivotal point, though would be: 1. IS there in fact a need for anyone to concede ground or can we explore a means to frame and articulate an agenda to which every participant group would want to say ‘YES!’ as opposed to endless discussion of matters to which each party wants to say ‘NO!’? (I suggest that this approach might speed up the usually glacial progress of supra-governmental bodies’ procedures!) 2. Might there be a role here for what Margaret Heffernan in her excellent book ‘Wilful Blindness’ calls ‘cultural translators’? It may sound obvious but there seem to be few places where effective communications are taking place by means of which to render comprehensible, compelling and actionable the best thinking of academia, for instance, among business and government leaders, civic society groups and individuals. The impact of the IPCC is a classic case in point, as you so cogently explain. If we were able to develop an effective body of inter-sectoral communication – or ‘cultural translation’ – I believe we might make much more progress much more quickly towards collaborative and mutually compounding beneficial actions in the interests of all. And when you’re stuck in the middle of a herd racing towards that high clifftop, it might make all the difference!

  3. Nice entry, nice comments. I’m just working on a presentation on this topic for a couple of international conferences and will certainly want to cite you.

    One thing that tends to get lost in the debate is that cultural change is never linear. If we look at the theory of diffusion of innovations, for instance, we learn that engaging 10-12% of a population in new behaviour can be enough to shift the norm (under certain circumstances). So if 43% of Brits are already mentally prepared, it shouldn’t take long!!

    We experimented with this a decade or so ago, and found that we were able to shift the norm in one city suburb by engaging only 3% of the population. It’s still the case that many fewer people than ‘normal’ shop at an out-of-town hypermarket, many more shop locally – to take just one example. From this perspective, even the WWF report was far too narrow.

    Re falling back on working with kindergartens and giving up on adults: sorry but it doesn’t work. Yes it’s good to engage people of all ages. Engaging children up to about 12 is the easiest. But then comes puberty… If you don’t have the friends and the families engaged too, almost all your work is lost. Last year, for instance, we had about 60,000 pupils engaged in our programs through schools in Ukraine – AND, the parents were also indirectly engaged. So it could work.

    One thing working against us is ‘the path of least resistance’ – not consumers’ or citizens’ but funders. They like loud, short-lived campaigns and hate to invest in systematic long-term behaviour-change programs. But maybe the current swing in corporate consciousness will change that.

  4. Good piece, John. And as passionate as ever.

    Your argument for Intrinsic Citizenship over Extrinsic Consumerism remains compelling for me – reinforcing my fascination with the idea of some kind of obligatory National/Social Service for all global citizens.

    I just wanted to flag a couple of things you might want to look at that are relevant (they might already be on your radar):

    A book called Blood Rites by Barbra Ehrenreich (Granta books). The first half of the book focuses on how man is hard-wired by his early experiences as prey (not predator) and how this translates into his perception of and response to (driven by highly communal instincts) threats. Basically if the threat acts or is made to feel like a predator – like a wild animal – the better we will instinctively respond to it. It sounds daft but there is something in it that I think is very relevant to your mission. In short how do you trigger a Herculean response where no blood is shed? The book has lots of clues.

    Your analogy about the shepherds and their common interests got me thinking about Rwanda, somewhere I’ve spent a bit of time recently. Post-genocide, President Kigame reinstated an ancient community-level network called Umuganda. Citizens are legally obliged to attend regular meetings and participate in communal activities. It is an excellent mechanism for getting shit done but is also has a broader impact in terms of collective spirit and interdependency: it fosters an intrinsic values system very powerfully. Obviously Rwanda is pretty unique and the success of Umuganda is partly driven by the very real predatory threat that looms large in the collective Rwandan memory bank. Anyway, worth a look as an example of how Citizenship can be mobilised for the common good.

    Keep fighting cleverly.


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  7. Another reason consumers will never solve climate change is because the problem is one of infrastructure. i.e. individual consumers don’t decide which power stations get built to provide them with power, or how green the cars are that companies put onto the market, or how what levels of tax are levied on dirty industries. If individuals are to influence these decisions – they must act together as citizens. That’s why I think your point about collective citizen action is the most important one.

    • ‘Consumers’ are people, just like ‘politicians’ and ‘journalists’. Or even more so, since we’re all consumers. If we can’t bring about change, also in infrastructure, who will? It would be so good if we could get beyond the labels; the power of the individual, not least the power to cooperate, is key to change. In its undiluted sense, ’empowerment’ is about helping individuals realize and use the power they – we – have.

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