The comfortable perception that global environmental challenges can be met through marginal lifestyle changes does not bear scrutiny. We live at a time when we need urgent and ambitious changes, yet the cumulative impact of large numbers of people making marginal improvements in their environmental impact will be a marginal collective improvement in environmental impact. Despite this arithmetical truism, many environmental organisations and governments continue to insist that progress will only be achieved by encouraging simple and painless pro-environmental lifestyle changes. They make this insistence while blithely relying on “spillover” to extend these environmentally insignificant changes to more ambitious and environmentally relevant changes. Yet the evidence for pro-environmental spillover is at best ropey.
Environmental campaigners should be clear with themselves about whether a campaign is aimed at delivering a specific behavioural change (the actual focus of the campaign – e.g. reduced carrier bag use) or whether it is aimed at helping to elicit a wider set of behavioural changes (through positive spillover effects). This discipline would oblige campaigners to be clear about two things: first, the inadequacy of responses to environmental problems that rely upon widespread adoption of marginal reductions in individual carbon footprint; and second, the challenges facing them if they are to use such campaigns as vehicles for promoting more ambitious changes.
Exploring some of the challenges posed by the pressures of short-term fundraising
More information on the two values surveys that Common Cause draws on in its work
Further information on the texts used in the study with WWF and Scope