Knowing what I do now, there would be no future peace for me if I kept silent.
Rachel Carson: author, conservationist.
Global heating and the climatic changes associated with it may be scientific phenomena but ‘the Climate Crisis’ isn’t: it’s cultural. The science is clear: we know what global heating is, we know what causes it, and we know of systems that we can change to reduce its effect and mitigate our risks. Science says react to climate change, logic says react to climate change, yet we don’t. (Perhaps unfortunately) we are not completely rational beings and our societal systems do not respond to the demands of logic alone. There is an extra step before we turn knowledge into action: understanding how the information provided affects something we care about, and choosing to respond to it as a result.
Information + Inspiration = Action.
Effective environmental appeals target our values and our emotions, not our brains. ‘I have a dream’ is one of the most famous speeches ever made. No one seems to remember the ‘I have a plan’ speech.
How to incorporate emotion into environmental rhetoric will be covered soon.
Appealing to values.
Values are the beliefs we hold about what is important, and they form the basis for our broadest motivations and influence our attitudes and decisions. You may value the beauty of the Earth, social justice, the security of your family, your freedom, pleasure, success, wealth, spirituality etc.
One of the hardest things for an environmentalist to understand is why another person, presented with the same information about the state of our climate, simply doesn’t seem to care in the same way.
Does that make them a worse person? No. It means that they do not hold a certain value to be as important as you do. In trying to convince people to care about something greatly that they don’t already, we are asking them to reprioritise their values and to hold a certain belief as more important to them than they previously did.
The first important takeaway from this is that attacks on the character of those who don’t seem to care as much are completely counterproductive. They alienate and provoke a defensive reaction when the reason they don’t seem to care is actually because they are prioritising another value: something else is more important to them. The job of an environmentalist is to understand what that value is, and to encourage the person to value environmental concerns above that. As we know, the problems associated with global heating are wide-reaching, which means that whatever a person does care most about, there’s probably a way that climate issues relate to it.
To appeal to individuals, therefore, we must choose carefully through what frame we present environmental problems.
Is climate change an issue because it threatens our security? (Think floods, losing our homes, and extinction)
Are climate issues a threat to our health? (Air pollution, water contamination)
Are they an issue because the natural world is beautiful and we don’t want to see it changed?
The same issue is presented each time but through a different rhetorical frame.
There are two ways to appeal effectively to someone’s values:
1) Find a way of framing environmental issues that links one of their values with environmental problems
2) Encourage them to prioritise a value that they currently don’t.
1. It is easy to appeal to those who appreciate and cherish the natural world, as climate issues currently affect that most obviously. However, to those who feel strongly about global equality and social justice, it is effective to frame the Climate Crisis as a great injustice. Climate issues are intersectional (which means the effects of climatic change overlap with dynamics of privilege and oppression such as race, gender, wealth etc), and so it is easy and effective to appeal to people in this way. By contrast, to those who care more about the health and happiness of their families, a frame of social justice may not be as effective. Of course, we know that the health of our environment is vital to our health, freedom, security and happiness - it’s about making the right link to the right person.
However, an important distinction needs to be made between ‘intrinsic’ and ‘extrinsic’ values.
Extrinsic values are centred on external approval or rewards (eg. wealth, authority, respect) whereas intrinsic values focus on internal beliefs. We must be careful about appealing to extrinsic values, even though that is sometimes the quickest way to encourage a person to act, as the change they make will only be in their habit rather than their attitude: the behaviour change is unsustainable. To use a trivial example, if we encourage people to cycle rather than drive to work because cycling is cheaper, they may start cycling, but only for as long as cycling is the cheapest option and they won’t change anything else in their life to live more sustainably.
2. This is when we should encourage them to prioritise a value that they currently don’t. A more effective way to change the behaviour of the above cyclist is to encourage them to value the beauty of the natural world, perhaps their health or happiness above their finances so that they choose to cycle to work not because it is cheaper but because they want to live a more sustainable life. You will see that they will also change other habits to be more sustainable too. Of course this example is simplified as there is privilege behind choosing to prioritise another value above economic cost that not all enjoy, but it demonstrates how we can encourage people to reprioritise their values rather than making decisions within a value system they already hold.
It is important to understand that not everyone does, and not everyone will hold the same values and give them the same comparative importance.
If we want to see effective and sustainable behaviour change, we must not encourage behavioural change at all, we must encourage value change.
By encouraging intrinsic values that prioritise sustainability and harmony with the natural world, we can cultivate organic changes in habits throughout the person's way of life. As well as this, we should make sure we frame environmental issues to target values that people already hold important to them.
So next time you’re trying to change someone’s behaviour, don’t tell them what to do differently, encourage them to think differently and they will change their behaviour by themselves.
Written by Louder Than The Storm founder, George Jeffreys