Getting the green message across

General news0

Among environmentalists the preoccupation has shifted away from scare tactics (although it was shock advertising which helped change attitudes to smoking) to trying to find ways to seduce consumers into dramatically changing their behaviour.

Caroline Lucas of the Green party talks of an urgent need to describe a low carbon future which is not about sitting around flickering candles in caves. What results from this kind of discussion is what the Sustainability Development Commission calls “alternative hedonism”. It amounts to a kind of green communitarianism of shared local vegetable plots. It’s homely, collaborative, local – very appealing if you are that way inclined and have always had a sneaking affection for patchouli and flower power.

One environmentalist described the low-carbon future as the 1950s standard of living but with better healthcare and the internet. Forget cars, foreign holidays, much less advertising (if any). That could be appealing if you have a puritanical, ascetic streak.

These options for the future are helpful – they give us hints of where we might be going. But still the gulf between now – the Jeremy Clarkson mentality of petrol guzzling glamour and Paris Hilton obsessive consumer disorder – and there seems to yawn even wider. And the rhetoric reflects that. We need a “mass epiphany” or a “moral renaissance” said different speakers in the course of a conference by Surrey University’s Resolve programme of research on environmental attitudes. This is a huge task – when in history have values changed dramatically? And how did it happen? And if there is a feedback system so deeply entrenched – advertising encouraging, stimulating consumer behaviour which is environmentally damaging – how do you break through its insistent messaging with a radical challenge?

Increasingly, the environmental movement seem to be looking to social psychology to provide insight into how you change a value system. What are the levers in a personal psyche which can be pulled which could prompt this revolution in values? What comes out of the research of people like Tim Kasser is that the more materialistic you are, the less happy you are. But the task to persuade millions of people that they might be happy – perhaps even happier – in a 50s-style economy is a tall order.

Where it ends in deadlock is that the politicians – for example Ed Miliband – say they need a mass climate change movement to help provide the political space for them to introduce radical policy. While on the other hand, the environmental organisations feel the politicians are passing the buck, refusing to take leadership on the difficult decisions which might restrict consumer choice or even challenge the assumptions of a consumer economy.

The priority of the government is getting the economy back on track – getting everyone back in the shopping malls, spending and piling up the debt. There seems no other model for economic growth on offer from Westminster. So while the government can take some credit for pioneering a Climate Change Act, carbon budgets and demanding targets for cutting carbon, those actions are undermined by their preoccupation with getting out of the recession as quickly as possible. The value shift required is not going to be led from Westminster.