We’re ‘consumers’ or ‘taxpayers’ and we care about things like ‘pay-off’, ‘return on investment’ and ‘growth’: that’s the bottom line. Right?
Well, I’d put my money on it.
But, actually, when did that happen? When did we start to pepper our meetings, our work, and even dinner conversations with such words and phrases? Sometimes, our use of economic framing has an obvious trigger; take ‘credit crunch’. In one of the recent economic crises, journalists repeatedly used it (with a straight face), and then before you knew it, the 2008 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary carried a new definition of the word ‘crunch’, as meaning “a severe shortage of money or credit”. It was always pretty difficult to pass that particular term casually into everyday conversation, but now we officially associate crunch with economic recession, as well as biscuits.
Economic frames easily creep into everyday language via news media, or advertising, or political rhetoric, but we have little awareness of the effect that might have on the way that we think and behave. Psychological research is finally shedding light on this.
Rajesh Makwana came to one of our workshops in January and kindly allowed us to repost this article, originally published at Shareable.
We are all painfully familiar with the plethora of statistics that illustrate how unsustainable modern lifestyles have become and how humanity is already consuming natural resources far faster than the planet can produce or renew them. In a bid to reverse these trends, increasing numbers of people are attempting to consume less, reduce waste and recycle more regularly. The rapid growth of the sharing economy over recent years reflects this growing environmental awareness and commitment to changing unsustainable patterns of consumption. The possibilities for sharing are already endless in many parts of the world, in everything from cars and drills to skills and knowledge. The sharing economy is undeniably taking off – and rightly so.
But can sharing the things we own as individuals really address the environmental threats facing Planet Earth? To some extent the answer is likely to depend on which resources are being shared and how many people are sharing them. However, given the urgent sustainability challenges we face – from climate change to deforestation and resource depletion – it seems unlikely that even well-developed systems of collaborative consumption will, on their own, constitute a sufficient response.
Share, Unite, Cooperate from Share The World’s Resources on Vimeo. Read more
Ralph Underhill worked on planning casework and water policy at the RSPB for seven years, before joining PIRC to work on the Common Cause for Nature project. He would like to hear your thoughts on this piece and would like anyone interested in the project to get in touch.
Conservation is a dam. It tries to hold back a tide of potentially damaging impacts, that, if unleashed, would overrun the natural world and destroy the wildlife we care about.
With the increasing challenges brought on by economic development this dam is reaching its limits. Numerous biological indicators (such as this) are showing that the cracks in it are widening and water is spilling out at a rate not previously seen.
To date, the role of those working in the conservation sector has to been to try to maintain the integrity of the dam. Whenever a new threat emerges (be it a new infrastructure proposal, breeding failure on a particular reserve or a damaging government policy) it creates a fresh crack and we rush to stem the flow. Although some water gets through, it is never as much as would have done if we weren’t there.
We are making a difference, yet somehow things continue to get worse. Read more
This guest blog is by Valerie Mocker, who recently completed her postgraduate degree in Environmental Policy at Oxford University. Here, she describes findings from her dissertation research. They suggest that framing climate change as an ‘economic’ challenge may not be the best way to engage conservative audiences, leading people to externalise responsibility of climate change and express higher degrees of fatalism about the issue. This blog was originally posted on Talking Climate on 22nd November. Read more
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.
In the wake of Tony Juniper’s recent Independent blog on the role of values in environmental and social change campaigning, a number of people in the Common Cause network sent reflections on the points he raises about the “Values Modes” approach – which seeks to accommodate existing values, whatever they may be – and the fundamental challenge to this approach presented in Common Cause, which seeks to promote the values associated with socially and environmentally beneficial attitudes and behaviours.
We’ve split these responses into three categories: vision, experience and evidence. Read more
This is a guest post by environmental campaigner Alex Randall.
What responsibility should rich countries take for their historical carbon emissions? Should consumption by the wealthy have to be curbed to accommodate the growing consumption of the world”s poorest billion people? These are questions that are not quite answered by the Royal Society”s recent People and the Planet report.
The report acknowledges that consumption is a problem. If we do not want to run up against various ecological limits, or planetary boundaries, the richest countries will have to reduce the amount they consume. This needs to happen to make space for the 1 billion people living on less than $1.25 a day to consume more. Because of various ecological limits – including climate change – it is not possible for the wealthy countries to continue on their consumption trajectory, as well as allowing for the world”s poorest to consume more too.
This is fairly controversial, especially coming from an organisation like the Royal Society. The great hope of many governments across the world is that consumption by rich countries can continue and possibly expand, while at the same time, consumption by the world”s poorest (and everyone in between) can expand as well. The aim is that through new technology and market mechanisms the ecological impact of consumption can be reduced so that we do not run up against the planet”s ecological limits.
The authors of People and the Planet are clear that this isn”t possible: “The combined effects of market forces and new technologies are not able to overcome planetary boundaries on the scale necessary to avoid unsustainable pressure on the planet and much human suffering.” Because economic growth (measured in GDP) and consumption are so closely linked, this will mean GDP growth might no longer be possible. What needs to be done instead is almost too controversial for the report to go into. The possibility of steady-state and circular economies are discussed, but the report stops short of really making the case for either: “This report is not the place to pursue these highly contested strands, but they cannot be ignored.” It seems the Royal Society are not completely comfortable with their new stance. We still need to try and de-couple economic growth and resource use, they argue. But they then argue that in the long run this won”t be possible.
Where the report doesn”t venture is interesting. The authors stop short of exploring the ethical dimension of rich countries” historical consumption. They seem happy to accept that the world”s richest must consume less to allow the world”s poorest to consume more. What they don”t argue is that there is an ethical obligation to do this because historically the wealthy nations have enjoyed the benefits of high consumption. Where the report dares not tread is to suggest that high consumption in rich countries might have caused poverty in other countries. The authors do not draw a connection between how rich countries got rich and why poor countries are still poor. This is important because exploring these arguments adds force to arguments that wealthy countries should sharply reduce the amount they consume. Saying that rich countries should reduce consumption to redress an unequal situation is one thing. Saying that this unjust situation has been persistent for centuries is quite another. Suggesting that high consumption by the rich might have contributed to the desperate situation of the world”s poorest is more powerful still.
Still, we should be pleased that the Royal Society have made the leap of accepting consumption in developed countries has to be addressed. Their tentative forays into questioning economic growth are also interesting. Even though the report does not fully explore the ethical implications of wealthy nation”s historical consumption the report will hopefully make space for these debates to enter the mainstream.
Working with leading animator Leo Murray and acclaimed journalist George Monbiot, PIRC is putting together a short, snappy animation to explain the scandal of the UK”s outsourced emissions. The animation forms part of an ongoing project by PIRC to ensure the UK’s outsourced emissions are properly tackled by the Government.
Leo Murray is a leading British animator and climate activist. Besides being heavily involved in environmental activism over the past decade, he was lead animator on climate blockbuster The Age of Stupid, and writer and director of acclaimed animated short on the threat of runaway warming, Wake Up, Freak Out – Then Get a Grip (www.wakeupfreakout.org).
PIRC are delighted to have been granted funding by Artists” Project Earth (APE) and a number of other foundations to produce the animation. Watch this space for more details as we get closer to completion and launch!
THIS EVENT HAS NOW PASSED
As part of Bristol Big Green Week, PIRC are co-organising a workshop on The Ethics of Advertising.
Date & time: 4.00pm – 5.30pm, 13th June 2012
Venue: Arnolfini, Light Studio – Bristol
Advertising is everywhere, yet few questions are asked about its effects on our consumption, our freedom of choice, or our cultural values. This workshop will examine the deep ethical dilemmas advertising raises – and explore some ways in which we can start tackling them, both locally and nationally. With Jon Alexander, former adman turned industry whistleblower and co-author of Think of Me as Evil?; Agnes Nairn, co-author of Consumer Kids; and Guy Shrubsole, Director of PIRC.
Buy tickets here.