By Common Cause
The prioritisation of ‘compassionate’ values by most people provides a powerful opportunity for building public support for positive action.
It’s ten years since the publication of Weathercocks and Signposts: The Environment Movement at a Crossroads. This report raised probing questions about whether the strategies deployed by the mainstream environmental movement in the UK were proportional to the scale of challenges we confront. It argued that there were fundamental reasons why these strategies were unlikely to deliver the scale of change needed. Indeed, it went further, advancing the case that these strategies might be inadvertently undermining the very basis of public support and engagement upon which we rely to drive transformational change. These arguments are as pertinent today as they were a decade ago, while the evidence base underpinning them is now even more compelling. On the one hand, the scale and urgency of environmental challenges is now known on many counts to be even greater than previously thought; on the other, the inextricable links between the environmental crisis and wider political change have become ever more obvious.
Where is environmentalism now?
The birth of modern environmentalism is often traced to the publication, in 1962, of Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring. This was a book that led US President John F Kennedy to order his Science Advisory Committee to examine pesticide misuse, and to subsequently launch the Environmental Protection Agency. Carson’s mass appeal, and therefore the political influence of her work, was built upon an expression of ‘deep and imperative’ meaning. She mobilised popular concern about the impacts of pesticide around people’s love for the more-than human world.
Despite its successes, premising environmental concern on deep and imperative meaning left environmentalists vulnerable to the charge that we were motivated by a high-minded idealism, expressed through various forms of self-denial that only educationally-privileged and economically secure people could be expected to embrace. It was a charge that picked at an existential insecurity that many of us, myself included, experienced – as folk with university educations and (fairly) stable jobs.
This insecurity could be lessened by aligning environmentalism with what were seen as more universal concerns. The presumed primacy of selfish desires – a view of human nature grossly exaggerated by the neoliberal, or free-market capitalist, worldview – came to colonise mainstream environmental thinking. As one consultant, contracted by a consortium of environmental NGOs to review their communication strategies, wrote in 2006:
An accurate basic assumption might be that most people are essentially selfish… Any benefits from environmental behaviour, and there should be benefits from every environmental behaviour, must be tangible, immediate and specific to the person carrying out the behaviour.
Although decades of social psychology show this perspective to be fundamentally flawed, in embracing it we found a route to freeing ourselves from accusations of middle-class elitism: public support for environmental action could now be pursued obliquely, by creating new opportunities for ‘sustainable consumption’.
At the time that Weathercocks and Signposts was published, a few months after the subprime mortgage crisis in the US, but before the banking crisis really took hold, it may have seemed plausible that public environmental concern could be grafted onto the pursuit of self-interest. Green was heralded as ‘the new black’, simple and painless behaviours were promoted as conferring social status, you could ‘have it all’ through ‘fractional ownership’ of holiday homes or performance cars, and rich people were looked up to in expectation that they could lead new consumer trends by embracing ‘deeper luxury’.
And if appeals to self-interest didn’t lead to mass public demand for political action, that could also be accommodated. Public support for political change was pursued by highlighting the economic value of the natural world and the ‘services’ that it provides. Many of us working in mainstream environmental NGOs joined in with efforts to help put a ‘price on nature’.
Weathercocks and Signposts argued that there was a danger, implicit in this new environmental ‘pragmatism’, of our misunderstanding the basis for people’s environmental concern.
Download the rest of the report below.