Small changes to the way we live our lives are not enough to tackle the environmental challenges facing the planet, argues Tom Crompton. In this week's Green Room, he says the stark reality is that the only option is to cut the unsustainable consumption of the Earth's finite resources.
Having embraced one simple change, some people then tend to rest on their laurels
Almost daily, it seems, scientists' prognoses about the state of our planet grow evermore dire.
Take climate change, for example. Just last week, a new study suggested that sea levels could rise by up to one-and-a-half metres by the end of this century, with catastrophic impacts for low-lying countries.
This is more than three times as high as the most pessimistic projections of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
Yet some climatologists are suggesting that even this is a huge under-estimate of the likely extent of sea level rise.
In the face of mounting evidence of profound environmental challenges, the insistence that we can tackle these by embracing a few simple and painless changes - switching to low-energy light bulbs or buying a hybrid car - feels increasingly unrealistic.
'Simple and painless'
This is leading to heated debate among environmental organisations about the best response; a debate that WWF believes should be opened up to a wider audience.
Some measures make us feel better but do they make a difference?
Most approaches to encourage behavioural change rely on techniques borrowed from the marketing industry, such as "selling" these changes by linking them to a desirable product.
Those who practise these approaches often insist that, having made simple changes in their purchasing habitats, people will be led up a "virtuous ladder" towards ever more significant behavioural choices.
Marketing approaches may well work for promoting specific changes, where these are small and painless, and where they are the focus of a targeted campaign.
Unfortunately, as a response to problems of the scale that confront us, it seems that they are shot full of holes.
Of course, it's helpful for people to switch to energy-efficient light bulbs, or turn their central heating down; cumulatively, such changes will have a beneficial impact.
However, these sorts of campaigns may well be a poor use of scant communication resources, and may even serve to undermine prospects for generating the more fundamental changes that are needed.
There is little evidence to show that using such an approach increases the probability of people embarking upon more effective - and more difficult - changes.
In fact, some research shows that, for a significant number of people, the opposite is true. Having embraced one simple change, some people then tend to rest on their laurels and be less likely to engage in other more significant changes.
If I save money by repairing my old car rather than buying a new one, I could spend the savings on cheap flights abroad
But there's also another, more fundamental limitation on the usefulness of marketing approaches to creating behavioural change.
Environmental problems can often be traced to our appetite for "stuff", items that demand resources and energy in their manufacture, sale, use and disposal.
The problem is that we seem to have an in-built tendency not just to consume a lot of things, but to consume ever more things.
As a result, "green consumption" can only get us so far. I may buy this year's top-of-the-range hybrid car, only to want to replace it for a newer model next year, and the year after that.
It doesn't necessarily help if I'm encouraged that the best thing to do is to keep my car until it eventually falls apart.
If I save money by repairing my old car rather than buying a new one, I could spend the savings on cheap flights abroad. The net environmental impact will probably be negative.
Even selling my vehicle and joining a car-share scheme may backfire in this way, unless I am careful about how I spend the money that I've saved.
Less is more
As long as campaigns to encourage us to change our behaviour are based on appeals to self-interest or financial incentive, they will be fraught with difficulties.
Endless sales and bargains could be costing the Earth
We need a different approach to motivating people to change; one which stems from a re-examination of the values upon which this change is built.
Studies find that people who engage in behaviour in pursuit of "intrinsic" goals - such as personal growth, community involvement, or a sense of connection with nature - tend to be more highly motivated and more likely to engage in environmentally friendly behaviour than individuals who are motivated by "extrinsic" goals - that is, financial success, image and the acquisition of material goods.
This seems to be the case particularly for more difficult behaviours - those that require greater effort or entail more inconvenience.
There is a lot that governments can do to make environmentally friendly choices easier. But many of these things will cost taxpayers money, and governments will be reluctant to embark on these things without pressure from their electorates.
As in the case of individual behaviour change, if this pressure is to emerge, the values underlying this change in electoral demand will be critically important.
Bringing intrinsic values to the fore in public debate is not going to be easy. So we need to start trying to do so right away.
Environmental organisations might start by unequivocally reflecting the intrinsic values that underpin the environment movement itself.
They should also work with leading businesses and forward-thinking political leaders to think beyond the opportunities offered by green consumerism; preparing for a world where we will inevitably need to consume not just differently, but less.
Environmental organisations can then help to embolden business and political leaders to begin to inject public debate with values that move far beyond self-interest and materialism.
To attempt less is increasingly looking like burying our heads in the sand.
Dr Tom Crompton is a change strategist for conservation charity WWF-UK
WWF's new report Weathercocks and Signposts: The Environment Movement at a Cross Roads can be downloaded from the WWF website
The Green Room is a series of opinion pieces on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website
Do you agree with Dr Tom Crompton? Do we need to reduce the amount we consume? Is the problem facing us too big just to be solved by small behavioural changes? Or does every little help when it comes to saving the planet?
About time people started focusing on excessive and unnecessary consumption. Do we need a new wardrobe every time the fasion industry dictates when our wardrobes have perfectly good clothes still in them. Do we need a new mobile phone wehn the old one is still in perfect order. Do we need 2, three TVs in the house? Do we need more and more flights?
We have to admit that we are greedy and wasteful. They are many things we can do small and big to improve median (not average) quality of life for all human.
House : Part of USA I am living 4 bedroom house is a norm (2400+ sq ft). I still believe 3 bedroom (1500 sq ft) is good enough for family of 4 (please retrict your family size to 4 for better sustaince of world in days to come).
Food : Do not buy the food you do not need. Avoid buy food travelled long distance (I am culpable for not strictly follwoing this).
Dress: You do not have to dress to kill. You do not need 50 pairs of shoes (do you?).
Government also along with businesses also have to cut down execessive greed.
There is not public transport around my neiborhood that can be relied upon. We commute 100 miles everyday for our job. With a good, reliable transport we never need a second car.
Or does our govenment want all of us to move to NYC or other big cities, where you have good public transport.
NS, West Chester, OH, expat India
While I agree with the thrust of the article, Crompton's distinction between "intrinsic" and "extrinsic" goals is not valid. Both environment-friendly and non-enviroment-friendly behaviours can have both intrinsic (I feel good) and extrinsic (other people think I'm great) rewards. Ultimately ALL our behaviour can be explained by "selfish" drives (seeking to feel good) - including altruistic and environmental action, and "spiritual growth" activities.
Crompton doesn't mention overpopulation, which is the basic problem. No species lives "sustainably" once it gets too successful - humanity isn't uniquely bad, just uniquely successful! "Sustainability" is mostly a question of appropriate population level. Behaviour modification can help a bit, but not much.
"Almost daily, it seems, scientists' prognoses about the state of our planet grow evermore dire"
And none of it based on anything as substantial as evidence, of course. Like many other people, I've lost interest in these plainly exaggerated claims, as I know full well that NONE of the data supports the discredited climate models on which the alarmists rely. It's been a stupid and unscientific approach that has now become counter productive.
Jon Anderson, Guildford
So, environmentalists need to work with business leaders and politicians to persuade us to consume less and to encourage us to put pressure on governments so that they will make environmentally choices easier - if more expensive - for us.
Sounds like chicken and egg to me. Governments won't move unless they get pressurised by the people. People won't act unless the government insists that they do.
The trouble is that we are all hooked into the more growth, more consumption, more profit way of life - and damn the social and environmental consequences.
If we actually started consuming less (perhaps because we realised we had enough, heaven forbid!) business leaders and governments would wet themselves and would cut interest rates to get 'the economy' going again.
Peter Jenner, OTLEY, West Yorkshire.
Using less resources per person, while admirable, will only work in the very short term, in the face of a rapidly increasing global population.
We need fewer people. which is an uncomfortable thought, I know, but that doesn't stop it from being true. We have to have fewer children.
Else we will expand till we have outstripped our resouces, like yeast in a jar. And nature will reduce our numbers for us.
The basic nature of man is to want enough and then to want more. Until we stop this unstoppable instinct we will not succeed in our efforts to reverse the damage to the planet. No government will stay in power by suggesting or imposing effective limits to our greed. Only a totalitarian global ruling power could possible succeed in doing this, something which, I fear, is not achievable. My partner and I were reduced to tears at the end of the film "I Robot", when the computer that had nearly achieved global domination explained that it had taken over to save mankind from itself. 'Nuff said.
richard hunt, Southampton
I totally agree with 'Red' of Maidstone that we've got to stop talking about "Saving the Planet"! This makes it seem as though we've got a choice: either doing the 'noble thing' (ie. 'saving the planet') or the 'selfish thing' (carrying on as we are doing).
In fact our selfish behaviour is putting the human race at risk and if we don't change our species will render itself extinct - that's the real choice!
After we've gone the planet will, after a few million years, repair itself - as it has done before.
David Bishop, Manchester
I agree with Crompton, but even radical changes will not fix this problem for humanity, not at our present rate. The small changes we make now will only sooth individual consciousness. I'm inclined to agree with Red in Maidstone and I'm bracing myself. The saddest part of this whole situation is that it seems the most destitute of our global population will endure the worst suffering in the future.
Doug, Budoia, Italy
I think there are some valid arguments made here but there are some fundamental issues that need to be addressed first. Both DEFRA and MORI have, in the past year, come up with similar findings - the vast majority of the population actually do have an environmental conscience but do not know what to do about it. They are finding the available information too confusing. Until we have some consensus about the issue then this reluctance to take action amongst the bulk of the population will continue. No matter what hypotheses are proffered at what changes behaviour at an individual level it is at a macro level that we first need consensus.
Leo Pruneau, Dorset
The official line from the WWF tends to be more hard-core, and while the argument may be based on sound principles, it will not resonate with the majority of the population. I believe a phased approach based on incentives can work, but government will have to get involved. In addition, we have to look at both short-term as well as long-term solutions. The long term is making our children aware of the problem and get them engaged in the educational system. The short-term is to force businesses to be more accountable, such as switching off lights at night. The small steps will make a difference, but we have to start now and there has to be a clearer, more consistent message that everybody understands and buys into.
Christopher Bristow, London
I agree. And governments should make green values more visible. Meny people do not know how to act more green. For example, I was surprised to hear that throwing foodwaste to drywaste will be more farmfull to environment than using a pivate car. And there must be meny more things that common people do not know.
Teemu, Tampere, Finland
The article raises an interesting point about what saved money is spent on. Perhaps the least environmentally costly products are those that require nothing more than human effort and time. Implying that the more expenditure on high quality handmade goods/art, service, live entertainment, learning, etc. the better.
I follow Ged's line of thinking. There are two aspects at play here, one is population growth the other is per capita resource demand. You can't fix the problem without adressing both issues. A "one child" policy looks distinctly attractive.
Colin Hamp, Marlborough, Wiltshire.
I agree on the whole with this article - we do need to make significant changes to our lifestyles. But how? I'm quite willing to give up driving to work every day for example - I hate it, but if I want a job that will pay my mortgage etc I have to drive to work every day. The actions we take now will not bother our planet one way or the other. It will continue to exist and support life. The problem is that life will become extremely difficult for humanity as we attempt to adjust to new coastlines, changing climate etc. Where will all of the refugees who currently live in low lying countries go? How will they integrate with their new neighbours. What will we all eat when crop yields continue to fall due to adverse weather? We are able to produce enough food on this planet for it's current population because of our farming techniques, but these are still largely at the mercy of local weather conditions.
I've been arguing for years that Government policy in this area is mis-guided. They've tried to palm off any responsibility to change behaviour onto the public by concentrating on such distractions at carrier bags and alternate bin collections, whilst avoiding making big business take on its responsibility. It seems absurd that luxury car makers are allowed to sell environmentally damaging vehicles whilst people are being fined and given a criminal record for not shutting their bin lid properly.
I agree with the comment that too much effort is being focussed on getting individuals to make the smaller efforts - they can help, but alone, they won't be enough.
We need more done by buiness and governments. For example, my office leaves the lights on overnight burning more electricity in one night than I do in a year - why should I save if they don't?
Big cultural decisions need to be made too - the biggest one is that no-one should have more than one child until our population is sustainable.
Nic Brough, London, UK
I agree with Tom's article, we need to focus on consuming less. The problem is that you don't realise that the pursuit of material gain is not fulfilling until you stop it and start doing more with your life. I hope more people can discover this, we'd all be happier.
What we need is a new concept to create a level global playing field - the "World Edict", with every country that doesn't comply being ostracised in trading terms. The first 2 edicts should be 1) That within 3 years, all new private motor vehicles should be able to travel 60 miles on a gallon of fuel. 2) Within 2 years, all packaging must be 100% recyclable.
Colin Bell, Cockermouth, England
We absolutely need to reduce the amount the we consume in the interests of future sustainability. Even if population growth were to halt overnight, there are still serious consequences to our everyday actions that cannot continue long term. The problem then lies in convincing people that we can be just as happy when consuming less. We only have one life to live, so why shouldn't we take advantage of all the opportunities to enjoy it? The advertising industry has tentacles into every facet of modern existence and persuasively suggests that our lives would be inconsequential without the purchase of said product. We still base social prominence on the amount or expense of goods someone has rather than their contributions to society. Even our busy modern lifestyle encourages us to consume more disposable products rather than recycling and re-using. The problem facing us is simply too big to rely on people making small voluntary behavioral changes. What we need is long term s!
ocial change accomplished by a clever mixture of legislation, education, and personal responsibility.
Anonymous, Philadelphia, PA, USA
Stop major shop trading on sunday, save for garages and small local shops. Ensure all lights are turned off when business' close. There is a "Powerhouse" in Chester which has been closed for 2-3 years, all that time the huge sign has been lit day and night! Why?. Or I walked past an estate agents in Chester at 6.30pm, it was closed, but all the the internal lights were on, showing nothing but desks and chairs to passers by? Do we really need 24 hour shopping? Did fine without it most of our lives!
We can do our bit, but government(especially local) and business need to be the main instigators of change.
Gareth Symons, Mancot Wales
Small changes can add up a big effect if someone chooses to make these changes to every aspect of there life. However as many people simply can't be bothered to make even the simplest changes, let alone anything that might actually cost money or cause inconvenience it seems a change of approach will be needed.
As unpleasant as it sounds some pretty draconian measures are likely to be needed in our lifetimes to make a real effect. Otherwise these changes will end up being forced upon us, probably by famine and war and possibly by extinction (ours this time).
Absolutely agree. No 'small' changes will make sufficient impact. We need to think and buy locally, necessities rather than luxuries, and teenage (and parents) peer pressure to 'keep up with the Jones' needs to be changed (how, I don't know). Perhaps a shortage of oil for transport will force people to grow their own food, and farmers be able to charge more realistic prices to people who shop on their doorstep.
Pam Lukeman, Rockchapel, County Cork, Republic of Ireland
What constitutes the elusive abstract noun "sustainability"? Chimpanzees in the wild are probably living sustainable lives but humans seem driven by their genes to consume, acquire, despoil and discard.
It is hardly surprising. Our genes have given us a unique ability to imagine possible futures and the ability to make them happen, in a way that no other species can. Our primal strivings for food, warmth, comfort and procreation have encouraged a default behaviour which has mutated into capitalism - a philosophy of human society predicated on the assumption that things will get better and better as we all get wealthier and wealthier.
But the stuff of capitalism - the wealth that it holds so dear - is just that; stuff. And there is only a finite amount of stuff to go round. What matters is how much of that stuff is used by any one individual, how much is available for the community of humankind as a whole - and how much is off-limits for our purposes, better left to other species - with our only involvement as observers, guardians and conservators.
Jonny Holt, Buntingford, UK
A really good article. Common sense from an umlikely source.
Resource intensity in modern lifestyles is more important than CO2. Similarly people will need to change their lifestyles very quickly as energy (electricity, gas and petrol)become expensive. These have been very cheap for so long that people no longer value them, so make no effort to conserve them. Once energy costs go up people will struggle to meet those costs; energy (and resource) poverty will be a real issue.
Dr.M.W.Pharaoh, Cov. UK
I agree. And the solution is not to use biofuels. If this food crisis follows through over here we're going to need the space to grow our own food, and we don't have space to support the 60 million inhabitants we have. I have to say I agree with Lovelock - open the nuclear power stations. We have to make drastic changes. The earth is being continually degraded. The glaciers and still melting; the rainforest is still being destroyed; 4x4s are still being sold; airports are still being built.
There is absolutely no desire amongst the majority to change their way of life and until something drastic happens, I don't foresee any change happening. Kyoto was 10 years ago. Show me something effective it has resulted in.
Too much talk.
The only way we can get out of this mess is to reduce the population. As a starting point we should be looking at fifty percent.
If we don't do it ourselves, it will be done for us.
That will be very painful indeed.
Ged Haywood, Alfreton, England.
I would have thought that in the current climate any money saved goes onto paying off the mortgage... and once that's paid off, saving for retirement/nursing in old age.
Nadine Hengen, Luxembourg
What's the best way to reduce consumption of goods and energy, reduce waste for landfill, reduce pollution, reduce traffic congestion, etc.? Simple, really: Reduce the population. Every country should have a maximum limit of two children per family. True, that will result in steady growth of the population, but nothing like the growth we'd suffer from if we all followed the example of green hypocrites like Blair.
Save the planet? Seriously? Stop being so arrogant. The planet will be fine. Humans may be in trouble, but the planet isn't. It's a selfish desire yo save your home, so stop pretending to working towards something noble.
Add to that the fact that 500 years ago it was so hot they were growing grapes in Scotland, and 30 years ago everyone was terrified about the impending ice age, and you might see that climate change is normal. You'd think that science and history would have quietened the voices that through history have always proclaimed "The end is nigh!"