As part of a project for Transition Oxford I recently looked again at a WWF report from last spring ('Weathercocks and Signposts', here), which argues that an adequate strategy for tackling climate change demands engagement with the values underlying our decisions. The writers show that the seductive model of consumer choice can never solve so large a problem, but also that there are far more powerful possibilities available to environmental campaign groups: expressing what we actually believe.
I was struck by this account of why consumerism is so powerful:
‘Grant McCracken argues that consumer goods serve as bridges to our hopes and ideals. He suggests that, both as communities and as individuals, we must develop strategies to cope with the discrepancy between how we find society in reality and our hope than an alternative society is possible. One such strategy, he argues, is the displacement of these ideals - allowing us to sustain hope that we might at some point, achieve the ideal social life we seek.’
The displacement may be onto a society in the future, in the past or in another place, or onto the lives of others (celebrities, for example). We need these ideals to give us hope, so we also need to be able to access them without risking close scrutiny of their meaning. The prospect of ownership of goods is a bridge between ourselves and our ideal life, so a car is sold to us as conferring freedom, sex appeal and adulation. If you buy the car and little changes, there’s always a better car, a higher level of consumption, so the ideal is deferred. It’s a familiar, wretched situation, but what I find interesting about this account is the consideration of the contradiction between our hopes and experiences, and the ways we need to bridge this. Like many people, I probably use work in a similar way (though with less environmental consequences).
Rather than displacing our ideals, the writers invite us to ask what are the values motivating us in the environmental movement, then to be clear and confident in expressing them. This is, after all, how American presidential elections are won (the situation is closely comparable: the voter knows their individual vote won’t win the election but still matters). The result can be a powerful and empowering conversation, one with hope but also recognising the scale of the issue.
This kind of campaigning would not ask us to change our lightbulbs (although that’s a good thing to do), but instead to look at what’s going on and think about what we care about. ‘It may be better to avoid focus on ‘things you can do’ at all (whether these be things small or large). Better, perhaps, to urge the audience for a particular communication to begin to think for themselves about what they can do. Prompting such reflection may facilitate integration of these external regulations into a person’s sense of self. Individuals may then be more motivated in the behaviour choices they make, and engage in these changes more persistently.’ Pragmatically, the fear is that this kind of cultural shift would just take too long, but then, perhaps it’s already underway.