The basic idea is this: all of the greenies, the conservationists, the environmentalists, the reduce/reuse/recyclers, the peak oilers, everybody who wants everybody else to voluntarily change their behaviour in some way, has to understand that their struggle is not primarily with behaviours but with values.
Value decisions drive behaviours. I wrote this about six weeks ago:
It seems to me that the primary driver for personal behaviour must surely be personal values. If so, that would imply that my failure to change behaviour in personal matters (such as limiting my Ice Break consumption as I had committed to do) comes down to a question of my own values. That I value the experience of drinking coffee-flavoured milk more highly than the environmental benefits gained by reducing my consumption. And that would probably be because the benefits of drinking it are personal, immediate and known whereas the benefits of reducing consumption are dispersed, delayed and unknown.There's a famous TV psychologist who nailed the issue with his often-repeated question, "What's in it for you?" People don't just do random things. They tend do the things which they believe will meet the needs or desires which are most pressing within them.
Needs and desires is a tricky subject. Another famous guy by the name of Jeremiah is purported to have written, "The heart is deceitful above all things... who can understand it?" Well, a bloke called Maslov took a good stab at it with A Theory Of Human Motivation (here) from which is derived his Hierarchy of Needs (here with illustration).
We get even more complicated when we consider that we can, with varying degrees of effectiveness, redefine and reprioritise our needs and desires by adopting just about any other moral, ethical or value principle you could possibly conceive of.
The majority of these are older than we are and are imparted to us through our family, friends and broader society. Sometimes a new or derivative principle comes along, like the famous "land rights for gay whales" slogan, which we might see fit to adopt.
Some of these ideas - especially religious ones - become almost as deeply ingrained as the needs which Maslov described, and can take such a high priority that people are literally willing to die for a cause.
Let's get visual here for all you right-brainers with a diagram I just whipped up...
I hope that's making some kind of sense. People do stuff because of what they care about. If you want people to do different stuff you need to either get them to care about the same things you do, or convince them that what you want them to do is somehow aligned with their own most pressing needs and desires.
Now to bring this all back into context and finish up...
I started with a statement about attempts to bring about voluntary changes in behaviour. That's really directed at anybody (myself included) who wishes to inspire "grassroots" or community-based action regarding climate change or sustainability. It's a really tough job and we need to be clear what we're up against.
The other aspect to bringing about widespread change is the use of the law. The law is (supposed to be) a codification of the agreed values of a society and has a couple of unique strengths in regarding to upholding values:
- laws can be designed to counteract our bias towards personal, immediate and known benefits
- any value written into law is reinforced by Maslov's safety needs which incline most people towards civil obedience
Changing laws in a democratic society is generally achieved by demonstrating that a certain set of values is held in common by a majority (or an influential minority) of the people. It's a different fight.
As I think about the year 2050 and what kind of civilisation I hope we will have, I see a society in which the core values associated with environmentally sustainable (or even beneficial!) human society are broadly accepted and expressed in law so as to guide individuals as well as commerce and industry in behaviours which will meet our most important needs not only today but for the very long term.
And maybe a world in which I never ever ever quote the Spice Girls again.