A lament for the Earth

Yesterday, I flew over a beautiful, wild landscape – the snow-capped ranges of central Norway. Barren rocky plateaus and melting icy lakes gave way to impossibly deep gorges filled with improbably blue water. It was breathtaking. Yet today I am sad. I am sad that so few wild places remain, where the untouched beauty can […]

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The ethics of climate change

Last night at the Australian Museum, Clive Hamilton gave a blistering speech¬†on the ethics of climate change. Hamilton has little time for those who deny the scientific evidence of climate change. In a particularly memorable part of his speech, he said that: To turn away from enormous suffering in order to avoid having to re-examine […]

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Change the message or change the people?

My presentation at the Integral Theory Conference 2010 in Pleasant Hill, California grappled with two possible strategies that change agents can employ to facilitate large-scale behaviour change in response to climate change. First, translation is the strategy of designing messages to motivate people just as they are, by resonating with their existing values and worldviews. Second, transformative strategies try to shift values by triggering personal development and growth. My paper is here and the Powerpoint presentation is here.



I wrote this paper because of Tom Crompton’s critiques of social marketing approaches, which you can find here. He points out some of the limitations of behaviour change strategies that work with existing values. Most notably, they tend to deliver only small behaviour changes, not the radical changes we are likely to need to respond to climate change. And by affirming existing materialistic values, they may work against the establishment of ecological values.

So, concerned about these limitations, I began to wonder what role transformative approaches can play in large-scale behaviour change. Writing the paper and participating in the Integral Theory Conference really helped to clarify my thinking about these issues. I think my thinking has shifted even since writing the paper and preparing the presentation. I’m now much more convinced that we need to work with translation strategies but be much more creative in how we apply these strategies. I don’t think pursuing developmental strategies as a way to bring about specific behaviour changes is ethical or practical.

First, the conference helped me to realise that later developmental stages, while they may include more perspectives, are not necessarily better or more likely to be right. As Zach Stein pointed out at the conference, people operating from more complex developmental stages can be just as wrong: he calls this ‘the Darth Vader move’ – high level of development but high level of pathology. So change agents might bring about development but this might not lead to more people taking action on climate change.

Second, every individual has a unique set of developmental challenges that may have nothing at all to do with climate change. If we want to help individuals to grow and develop we have a duty of care to work with the developmental challenges that are actually important for them, not a set of challenges that we impose on them.

Finally, transformative development is not something that can be imposed. An individual must embrace this growth for themselves voluntarily, and this limits the potential for change agents to use transformative approaches as a large-scale strategy.

While I still think Crompton’s critique of translative approaches such as social marketing is important, I also think we can be much more creative with how we design motivational messages to both appeal to existing values and draw out more ecological values. We can also work to shift the systemic and cultural context for household behaviour to make a wider range of pro-environmental behaviours consistent with the values that people hold. This will be a key area of focus for me going forward.

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