Simple and Painless: the limitations of spillover in environmental campaigning

January 2009

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.

this if...

  • You're not convinced that if enough people are successfully persuaded to turn down the temperature of their wash cycles today, then this will usher them onto a virtuous escalator of ever more difficult and environmentally significant behavioural change.
  • You suspect that governments and many mainstream environmental organisations cling to this “positive spillover” strategy because they are fearful of conveying the full scale of change that they know is needed. They worry that it will lose them voters, or financial supporters, respectively.

Key Takeaways

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.

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