Organisations that want to tackle the climate crisis have a duty to ensure that the deeper narratives that their work reinforces, and the values that underpin them, are in service to the world they want to see.
Nudge theory – the beloved strategy of neo-liberal governments, businesses and many NGOs alike – argues that many social and environmental challenges can be dealt with cheaply and effectively by prompting individuals to modify their behaviour through focusing on simple and relatively easy steps, for example; using less plastic, or washing clothes at 30℃. The theory has received much criticism over the years (including from Common Cause) because it bypasses the need to invest in the process of revising the systems in which individuals live, and allows governments and corporations to deflect responsibility for their part in causing the climate crisis; including some of the world’s biggest carbon emitters.
Interestingly, however, two one-time proponents of the approach, Nick Chater and George Loewenstein, have recently published a paper questioning whether ‘nudge’ causes more harm than good. Their argument, in a nutshell, is that framing climate change as a problem to solve through the cumulative effects of shifts in many people’s individual behaviours deflects attention from more systemic solutions. It recognises, as other critics have done, that encouraging people to adopt simple and painless pro-environmental behaviours can lead to positive effects, but that these are frankly pretty negligible in comparison to the scale of systemic change required to prevent catastrophic climate impact.
Chater and Loewenstein’s reflections hit on a fundamental idea that is often overlooked when it comes to public engagement on the climate (and, indeed, other social and environmental issues): the unintended, cumulative consequences of work to solve global challenges. For many reasons, those of us involved in work to tackle the climate crisis tend to get hung up on measuring the direct impact of our activities (e.g. how many people have altered their behaviour and for how long), but rarely, if ever, do we spend time considering what the effect might be of a particular approach over time and the narratives we might be reinforcing.
The message that to adequately address the climate crisis we must each make private-sphere behaviour changes continues to be reinforced again and again and again. From the UN Environment Programme and other big environmental organisations, to Universities and schools, from pop culture and advertising, to local councils and places of worship, individual responsibility is a framing we have become very familiar with in reference to climate action. It was even the focus of the only climate-related question during a recent BBC-televised Conservative leadership debate, where the two prime ministerial candidates were asked to suggest three things that people could change in their lives to help tackle climate change (along with other topics of global significance such as the cost of Truss’ earrings and Sunak’s suit…).
As Chater and Loewenstein point out, an excessive focus on individualised behaviour change draws our collective attention away from systemic solutions, slowing progress towards urgent and ambitious transformation. Although I agree with this assessment, I feel that the effects go even deeper than discussed in their paper.
By having our attention constantly drawn to our own behaviour and that of our fellow citizens we unintentionally strengthen powerful cultural narratives that inhibit our ability to conceive of, let alone implement, different ways of doing things. In fact, these deeply held narratives could be held up as examples of the sort of thinking which has led us to the brink of climate collapse in the first place.
The two authors point out in their paper that the starting point of nudge theory is the idea that many of the world’s challenges are due to “individual-level human failings”. This speaks to the individualistic story underpinning much of Western culture and politics, and a central tenet of neoliberal economics, which affirms that every man (and to some extent, woman) is an island, responsible for his or her own circumstances and achievements. Success in life is seen solely as a product of personal choice and work-ethic, and not the result of systemic factors often completely out of an individual’s control.
The narrative of individualism affects the way we understand many different social and environmental challenges, from drug addiction to racial inequality. By repeatedly emphasising the importance of individual actions in relation to climate action we strengthen this individualistic understanding of society, undermining the prospects for policy responses to a wide range of injustices. We also miss out on the opportunity to strengthen alternative narratives of interconnection, showing people how intertwined our lives are with one another and the living world around us, and building support for more transformative responses to the multiple crises we face.
Simultaneously, by fixating on individual behaviour change over decades we have strengthened the narrative that ordinary people only hold meaningful power over their private sphere behaviour. We have cast the public in the role of ‘concerned consumer’ and not ‘active citizen’ who is able to influence the actions and policies of governments and businesses, consequently eroding our chances of building widespread public pressure, or revolutionary change.
As Chater and Loewenstein point out, we would do well to recognise the secondary effects of our work on systemic transformation. Dominant narratives are powerful because they often go unexamined and untested, existing in the realm of ‘just the way things are’, or ‘common sense’. When we take the time to reflect on the narratives and underlying values that our activities uphold and strengthen, we can design and redesign our work to be better in service to co-creating the cultural conditions necessary for mass public demand for change. Ultimately, it is dominant narratives such as individualism and consumerism which keep the powerful in power, always at the expense of marginalised communities and our living planet. It’s long overdue that our activism builds power for alternative narratives – ones that are in support of equity and the flourishing of all life.