How to tackle green apathy

Coming back from a holiday, loaded with the usual environmental guilt, I found a 14-page (free) report on my digital door mat from EcoAlign. Called Visibility, Ambivalence and Trust: Cultural Stumbling Blocks to Greater Household Efficiency, it was written by Dr Pippa Chevenix Trench, a natural scientist from Oxford University with a PhD in biological anthropology. It seemed to me that this could be an interesting take on why people (like me) still act in defiance of the environmental movement.

And, do you know what? To play a part in our society, you can’t actually get through life without impacting the planet to some extent. Try turning up at a business meeting wearing rabbit skins or bring a bottle of home-made wine to a dinner party. You get my drift.

Environmentalists want to change us into socially-motivated consumers. According to Dr Trench, they focus on, "regulatory mandates or actions and a campaign of information and education." The assumption is that consumers will see the light and alter their behaviour. But, certainly in the USA, this alienates as many people as it encourages. Dr Trench points out, "this backlash is a predictable response within a culture that values freedom of choice and independence."

But something has to change, somehow. And the only way to bring this about is to understand what drives consumers in the first place. The report looks at three principal areas: visibility; ambivalence and trust.

On visibility: if we turn down our thermostats, drive more fuel efficiently, lag our lofts or put in an energy-efficient fridge, no-one notices. If we buy a hybrid car (no matter how questionable the environmental economics IMHO), people notice and may be influenced. They might not notice that you drive your hybrid more miles because you can for the same amount of fuel – green life is full of these ’rebound’ paradoxes. Visibility is an important, but usually unacknowledged, driver. (Look at my bungalow. Look at my old car. Look at me walking to the station. Smug. Moi? Maybe. But I shouldn’t be.)

On ambivalence: it’s incredibly difficult, without guidance, to decide what balance of purchases and actions are for the best. Here’s another bit straight from the report:

"Many believe that the popularity of recycling as a green behavior is that it in some way justifies greater levels of consumption, since consumers are not faced with highly visible accumulated goods. The culture of accumulation, while deeply individualistic is also intergenerational, with each generation aspiring to ensure their offspring will have all the opportunities that they had, and more, to achieve the American Dream."

Accordingly, in order to justify our consumption practices, we each construct a baseline of ’needs’ appropriate to the social context in which we live. Then we can continue relatively complacently. But that completely dodges the issue.

The trust element relates to who’s advocating what measures. Taking energy companies as a prime example, if they suggest measures for cutting energy use, they’re less likely to be adopted than if a government agency suggested the same measures. During the last major energy crunch the figures were government 17 percent adoption, energy companies zero.

The report acknowledges that many countries are ahead of the USA in terms of environmental awareness. But, wherever there’s resistance, social belonging and culture are the places to start working. As Dr Trench says, "start from a basis that the current culture is something to be worked with and understood, rather than repressed and denied."

As ever with these reports, it finishes with a call for more research. It suggests that "focus groups may be identified through membership of institutions such as churches, schools, universities, mosques, etc." And, while this is a good idea, especially for studying the spread of influence, I’d be inclined to look inside companies as well. Judging from what I’ve seen in organisations such as Hewlett Packard, IBM, Kyocera, Microsoft and Sun, companies contain social groupings among which the environmental word is being increasingly well articulated and shared.

Interesting report. It’ll give you a lot more food for thought than I’ve provided here.

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