A response to Tony Juniper

There are two questions I would like to put to the proponents of Values Modes or Cultural Dynamics (CD).

Firstly, is systemic change necessary? In other words: in order to minimise the speed and impact of climate change, do we need to alter any of the fundamental workings of the institutions and machinery of our society so that they, collectively, produce markedly different environmental outcomes? If your answer is no, that things are basically fine and some of the outputs just need tweaking, then we can stop right here as we’ve found the point of real and absolute difference with the Common Cause approach that supersedes everything below. I’d suggest people use this difference to judge which of the two more suits them.

If, however, we do think systemic change is necessary, then that requires us to examine certain facts. Firstly, that the global political economy is built in large part around corporate consumerist values of wealth, status and power. As opposed to, say, beauty, equality or caring for loved ones. Countries must acquire ever more material wealth (or GDP growth); individuals are encouraged hundreds or thousands of times every day to dress in a certain way to be attractive, watch TV to be entertained, look younger, drive better cars, go on foreign holidays, and so on. We must look at the fact that to drive these behaviours, consumers – as we’ve become known – must actually want them; that demand is required. To create demand, peoples’ desire for (that is, the degree to which they value) their own wealth, power and status are commonly appealed to. We must circle back round to the fact that to satisfy the demand that they have spent large budgets and endless amounts of human creativity to stimulate, the vast majority of economic actors – what can credibly be called the bulk of the system – use methods of production and distribution that are directly and significantly implicated in changing the climate. Which brings us irrevocably back round to the intense focus we place on the values that drive this type of economic activity. And finally, we must accept that the intensity and self-perpetuating nature of that focus, must, at some level, be addressed if we are interested in anything but treating symptoms.

If you don’t accept the connections made above, then let’s have that debate. Let’s use the scale of challenge as the guiding factor in what scale and nature of response is required. Let’s look at the primacy of short-term shareholder value in driving corporate behaviour, and the reams upon reams of legislation the world over that put short-term financial profit before long-term environmental impact. Let’s look at the increasing amounts of social and political power flowing away from democratic institutions and into the hands of enormous multi-national producers of consumer products, and even ‘producers’ of the entirely immaterial ‘products’ that fuel material production at both ends of the pipe, like the financial sector. Let’s talk about the fact that the profit-obsessed financial system is truly global in scale, with all the advantages that gives them to dominate and manipulate smaller entities like democratically elected governments, whilst what little capacity there is to limit appetites for endless consumption, and thereby protect the planet’s natural resources, is constrained within national jurisdictions, and even then are mostly toothless.[1] Let’s talk about what conclusions that points to about which values dominate in our societies. And then let’s talk about why that has come to be the case: the psychology of human societies, the operations of infinitely complex human systems, and the forces that shape them.  All of these discussions will take us inexorably to the conclusion that the political economy we have now is both a construct of, and a rampant promoter of, a particular value-set. This is not some inevitable or natural state of affairs. It is, however, very profitable, so has many vested interests defending it, and it is inherently self-replicating, so has all the weight of its own existence pushing for more of the same.

But let’s assume they answered yes to the first question; systemic change is necessary. I would then like to ask, what is your theory of change that says that the best and most efficient way to positively affect this system is to feed it with what it most needs to grow in its current form: more consumption? In other words, how will contributing to more of the same produce a different – indeed the opposite – result?

The answer, obviously, is ‘incremental change from within’. Increase the demand for ‘green’ products enough and the leviathan will turn its gaze towards sustainable practices. But any such model relies on three very faulty premises. It requires a belief that incremental change will win the day; it requires a rejection of the weight of evidence; and it requires us to think pretty badly of ourselves.

The argument says, ‘tell people it’s great if they can swap an occasional purchase for one that’s greener because it’s the only way we’ll get any change’. And it does so on the strength of the claim that some change is better than no change because it makes the system start to shift in a positive direction. This might be a credible position, if it could be followed through to a compelling, evidence-based argument as to how this incrementalism will actually lead to larger, systemic changes over time, but it patently can’t. ‘Green’ products – or at least, those marketed and no doubt purchased as such – are more plentiful and fashionable now than they have ever been. The system has fully co-opted them in its own image.  And yet emissions continue to rise almost unabated. Not even the most ardent supporter of the status quo would suggest our activity to date has led to us turning to the corner towards a decarbonised global economy, despite us having passed some critical milestones on the path to a 4+ degree rise in global temperature. However you characterise the strategy we’re following now, it’s failing. And it seems pretty clear to me that the VM/CD approach is a call for more incrementalism; more, essentially, of this strategy.

This critical failure in logic is possible only if you reject evidence on one of two fronts. Firstly, the evidence of a link between what a person and a society values and its behaviour. Secondly, that appealing to values reinforces them.

We can discount the first of these, as the entire CD model is predicated on that link being strong (wherein a sad irony, but more on that below). So that leaves the second claim.

CD suggest that appealing to and activating values ultimately satisfies them. In this case, appealing to social status would allow people to begin a journey towards other, more environmentally beneficial values and behaviour. The problem is, they cite no credible evidence to support that claim. The Common Cause report and several subsequent publications, on the other hand, have demonstrated a weight of peer-reviewed evidence verging on academic consensus to show that activating values, far from satisfying them, actually strengthens them and makes them more powerful. Indeed, the evidence is extremely strong that these extrinsic values of wealth, status and power are, in effect, insatiable.

Yet despite repeated requests and attempts to engage at the level of honest debate, no credible counter-evidence has been forthcoming from the proponents of CD. All they will cite is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and say that it shows that satisfying one set of needs leads us to focus on the next set up. When psychologists have pointed out the fact that Maslow’s needs are needs, not values, and that most evidence about values points to the opposite effect, silence ensues. It is starting to have the feel of those conversations we all love with climate ‘sceptics’, in which empirical evidence is important right up to the moment it gets in the way of a business or economic model.

And finally, the CD case requires us to believe that large numbers of people (‘prospectors’) are so entranced by a particular set of their values – wealth, power and status – that appealing to any other value is going to fail to resonate with them. This not only requires the – now familiar – rejection of evidence, but it should feel quite insulting to most people. The idea is reductive in the extreme, and assumes there are large swathes of the population with practically no workable social or environmental conscience. Decades’ worth of evidence from over 70 countries shows time and again that people have all the values all of the time. Just as even the most hardcore environmentalist cares about her social status, so even the most rampant financial wizard has some concern for other people and the environment. Yes, there are differences in the balance between people but there is no reason to believe that most people – even prospectors – are insensitive and closed to appeals to universalism and benevolence. Indeed, the evidence shows the opposite: appeals using strong, well-considered frames, that appeal to universalist and benevolence values will not only shift how people reflect on and understand issues but will make appealing to them in future more likely to succeed, by activating and strengthening them in the present.

With these faulty assumptions forming the basis of CD’s case, we are left with a model that validates – even celebrates – the one side of us that has insatiable desires for material wealth, status and power. Even though everyone (with the possible exception of psychopaths and sociopaths) does, to a meaningful degree, value things like justice, fairness, and a world of beauty, CD would encourage us to focus on looking better, getting richer, and acquiring more power for ourselves in order to care about other things, like the environment. It believes this is a plausible weapon in the fight to tackle climate change. If you accept the evidence, then the CD model is exposed as little more than the case for appeasement: in the face of danger, do what is immediately easiest and hope, against all evidence and common sense, that it will add up to what is necessary. It is crass shortsightedness.

The truth, unfortunately, seems to be that the proponents of CD do not actually want to debate the points above or wrestle with the weight of evidence. Instead, they deploy misleading and erroneous statements about the CC evidence. They keep trying to suggest – no matter how many times evidence is published to the contrary – that CC is arguing for ‘changing’ people’s values in some Orwellian, social engineering sense. It doesn’t ‘meet people where they are’ but rather tries to tell them they are wrong. The CC case could not be clearer in calling for validating and strengthening values that have been shown to trigger more environmentally helpful attitudes and behaviour, not ‘changing’ values per se or being sanctimonious about right and wrong.  As such, the course of action it suggests is, in effect, no different from any other agent of communication – be that CD themselves, or every politician, advertiser, schoolteacher, doctor, indeed every individual on the planet whenever they express an opinion. There’s no such thing as value-free communication; every inter-personal interaction does something to affect the recipient’s values. The difference is that Common Cause asks us to do so with our eyes open, with a view to understanding cumulative effects and to challenge those that lead to negative social and environmental outcomes.

Originally posted on Common Cause – read 7 comments there.

  1. [1]I discount the UNFCC process here as it has so far failed to mount anything like a commensurate response to the threat. As one respected commentator recently put it, it has turned out to be ‘the world’s number one multilateral zombie.

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