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Living our multi-issue lives

12/10/21

Living our multi-issue lives

How could an understanding of shared values transform the way we, as civil society actors, understand our work?
This is a blog by Tom Crompton
Tom is the Founder and Director of the Common Cause Foundation.

That the challenges which we collectively confront are deeply interlinked becomes ever more apparent. Empirical evidence for these interconnections continues to accumulate. We know that speciesism (the objectification of non-human animals) predicts more racist attitudes; we know that when people self-objectify their bodies, their intention to engage in pro-environmental behaviours is diminished; we know that construing national identity in terms of a country’s celebration of fame and wealth undermines both citizens’ wellbeing and their concern about climate change; we know that thinking about the financial value of nature can undermine support for disability rights…  Such striking interconnections remind us of Audre Lorde’s assertion that “there is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives”.

But the reality of these interconnections is also something that we grasp intuitively. We can feel in our bones that a hostile immigration policy will help to create a culture in which there is little public appetite for ambitious and unilateral climate action; or that the erosion of the principles underlying a national health service – that health care should be free at point of delivery, regardless of ability to pay – will diminish public support for policies aimed at redressing widening inequality.

Yet the way that most responses to social and environmental challenges are developed – whether through the work of third sector organisations, businesses or government departments – tends to overlook these interconnections. All-too-often, we break off an “issue” from this matrix of concern and seek to address it in isolation. 

This tendency is compounded by the way that charities compete with one another on their issue area, or in which government departments defend their policy briefs against interference by other teams. This happens because we have come to think about social and environmental challenges in a reductionist way, through the lens of discrete “policies” or “behaviours”.

Where we do recognise that different issues are interconnected, we tend to view these connections through the lens of shared policy aims. For example, regardless of whether you work for an organisation focused on food security in the Global South or are part of a network campaigning to protect coral reefs, you will want to see bold collective action for the reduction of greenhouse gases agreed at COP26 next month. Of course, such synergies at the level of policy are not inevitable, and tensions often emerge – for example, between the designation of areas of land or sea set aside for nature and protecting livelihoods in rural communities.

What is often missed is the opportunity to explore connections at a deeper, psychological level.  This entails asking questions about the kind of society that would support ambitious action on multiple challenges and the kind of changes that would be needed to support the emergence of such a society. Thinking in this way won’t magic away tensions at the level of policy and practice, but it provides a more productive basis for exploring areas of difference (rather than starting the discussion from polarised policy positions it offers the prospect of starting out by recognising shared values).

There are other key benefits to drawing on an understanding of values. 

First, this way of working can highlight areas of shared concern that may have been overlooked (for example, there are deep interconnections between ending patriarchy and ending the abuse of non-human animals). Thinking in this way, we can begin to situate our single-issue campaigns in the context of an understanding of the broader fabric of public concern. We might then ask not just “does this approach optimise outcomes for the issue on which I have chosen to focus?”, but rather: “alongside my specific campaign objectives, does this approach contribute to strengthening the kind of society in which public demand for ambitious social and environmental action will be the norm?”

Second, this approach requires us to recognise the profound importance of many institutions that seemingly have little material relevance for our particular causes. You work on climate change and you’re particularly focused on the fossil fuel industry. That’s crucially important, but is the environmental impact of the fossil fuel industry greater than that of the marketing industry? (And anyway, is it really meaningful to try to compare the impacts of both in this way?) The impact of the marketing industry on public demand for ambitious action on climate extends far beyond the marketing of carbon-intensive goods and services (SUVs, burgers and flights). All marketing, regardless of the good or service being marketed, contributes to shaping the kind of society in which we live, the kind of things that we value. The evidence is that the impact of marketing, operating at this systemic cultural level, is overwhelmingly bad.

Common Cause Foundation is a tiny organisation with an enormous mission. We want to breakdown the compartmentalisation of social and environmental issues, show how any source of influence on mainstream cultural values is important, and support new ways of thinking and responding to an understanding of human values.

We do not lead single-issue lives. Until we work in explicit awareness of this, we will not build systemic and durable responses to today’s profound challenges – from climate change to racism, from inequality to ecocide.

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