Tag Archives: green consumerism

Greed Stinks: why using self-interest to motivate environmental change backfires

This bee isn't actually greedy, he just looks like it.

If you go to enough environmental activist group meetings, you are bound to hear, at some point, “What we need is more education”; the assumption being that the general public is too ill-informed to know that their behaviours are causing Issue X (biodiversity loss, climate change, smog, ozone depletion, mountain-top removal, whatever), and that if only they knew better, true and correct behaviours would flow forth naturally from their hands and hearts forevermore.

This is bunk.

It’s interest and passion that drive the need to be well-informed, not vice-versa. Pouring knowledge, statistics and information into the cranium of an otherwise unmotivated person is precisely like pouring boiling water into a candle-mold: it won’t stick, and you’ll get them all steamed up.

More importantly, education does not transform behaviour without a great deal of forethought, planning, audience-targeting, message-crafting and follow-up–and even then, Dear Readers, it’s a tough slog. The general public is already overwhelmed with information that they perceive to be irrelevant to their lives, overly complicated or technical, outside of their control, or too frightening to be entertained. Your educational efforts on Issue X when directed towards someone who is uninterested or frightened will almost certainly go to waste, and may be perceived as harassing or worse.

Environmental psychologists have been puzzling over the interesting quandary of what exactly gets people to adopt pro-environmental behaviours (PEB–I do love good jargon) with increasing alarm over the past several decades. Are you ready? It’s not what you think.

It’s values.

OK, it’s not just values; but values count.

Researchers have divided value systemsinto three broad categories: egoistic (concerned mostly with the self), altruistic (concerned mostly with humanity) and biospheric (concerned with living things generally). Those with biospheric values were the ones most likely to adopt PEB even when it cost them in time or money; those with altruistic values could adopt PEB when they learned about how it affected human beings, and preferably human beings close to home; those with egoistic value systems would only adopt PEB when a specific environmental issue threatened them personally.*

But! Researchers also learned that they could manipulate a person’s value system: for example, by “priming” someone with exposure to nature, either through images or through going to natural settings, a person’s value system notably shifted towards biospheric orientations. Whereas priming someone with a message about how adopting PEB X–let’s say, compact-fluorescent lightbulbs, programmable thermostats and fuel-efficient cars–benefited them, their values shifted towards egoistic and they became less likely to adopt PEB in other areas, where it might cost them.

Your kindergarten teacher was right, and the geniuses in charge of Wall Street are wrong: greed is not good. Sharing is good. Greed is bad. Greed is the end of human civilization: the rampant and uncaring destruction of any ecosystem we personally can’t live in where we can derive temporary and short-term economic benefit by such destruction; the devil-may-care extinction of 50-150 species per day on the basis that we personally can’t miss what we never knew; the theft of a viable future from our grandchildren by wanton disregard for atmospheric physics today; the insatiable modern consumer appetite for stuff over any thing that might actually matter (more on that one next time); greed kills. Those who promote greed as an answer to any significant problem ought to be tarred, feathered, and lit on fire in a public square.

OK, not really (I’m too nice for that–I have a biospheric values orientation). But greed is not the answer. When you appeal to people on the basis of greed, you teach them to be greedy. I’m not claiming that greed has never motivated the development of a system or technology with the capacity to be a solution to our environmental problems; it has. But greed prevents us from adopting those systems and technologies in any useful way by encouraging us to spend our savings instead of saving it, as per the Rebound Effect. The Rebound Effect is greed in action.

Selling pro-environmental behaviours on the basis of perceived self-interest backfires, and it backfires spectacularly. Stop doing it.

If you want to save the world–or, if you’d like to move the general public a little bit closer towards a sustainable society on Issue X–move your audience closer to a biospheric values orientation.** The farther they shift towards caring about living things in a global sense, the more receptive they will be to your educational efforts and the more likely they are to adopt pro-environmental behaviours even when expensive or inconvenient.

Whereas when you sell the public on a pro-environmental behaviour on the basis of self-interest, that is exactly what they will do. And that is all they will do. When it’s easy. When it’s cheap. When it affects them personally. And nothing else.


Next up: why modern greed is the biggest shill ever devised, and how shifting towards biospheric values not only opens up space for rainforests, endangered species of frogs and impoverished third-world villages, but for happiness too.


*I’ve posted an annotated bibliography on my favourite papers on this subspecies of environmental psychology for the viewing pleasure of anyone interested in where to go for more information or to track down sources and statistics. Enjoy.

**What that means and how it works is a post for another day, but as a first step: encourage connections and identifications with non-human nature; talk about values–the kind of people we want to be, the kind of world we want to live in, the dreams we have for our children.

The Rebound Effect

Topsy-turvy and upside-down

Aren’t sales great? I wait all year for the hardcover sale at Chapters, book geek that I am. For one glorious week after Christmas, I can get hardcovers for less than the price of a trade paperback. So I do. I buy several. It takes me months to get through them all, but then they look so pretty on my bookshelves and the thought of being able to read them whenever I want (and cheap!) is a continual source of happiness.

I’ll bet you have a few sales you like to wait for, too. The grand opening at the newest electronics boutique so you can get the latest iPod half-price, so long as you show up before six a.m. Or your favourite clothing store with the perfect blue jeans that are thirty per cent off for one week in late April. And the best part is you saved so much money on the books/iPod/blue jeans that now you can also get a ______!

You know what I mean. Most of the time, if you’re anything like me or most of the other people I know, the extra thrill of a sale is not in being able to put the money you saved into a savings account. It’s in being able to spend that money on something else you want. It’s in this way that savings fuel more consumption rather than more savings, and this extends to other forms of savings, including energy and material use.

We don’t save it. We spend it. And this is the Rebound Effect in action.

You’ve saved so much money on your electricity bill by installing CFLs and energy-efficient appliances that NOW you can afford that huge flat-screen TV you’ve always wanted! Furnaces are now so efficient that NOW you can get a bigger house and heat it at the same cost! Car engines are so efficient (and gas still so cheap) that NOW you can get that truck! The net impact is that technological efficiences and advances that could save our environmental bacon don’t, and instead our per-capita energy and material consumption continues to go up.

I suppose I don’t need to point out that this is unsustainable.

And since you’re all bright people who have figured out on your own that this is unsustainable, I can skip over the middle arguments and leap right to the conclusion: technology is not the answer.

I’m not saying technology is a bad thing, or the devil, or that it can’t be part of the answer, as in using wind and solar to replace coal or replacing regular irrigation with drip irrigation to reduce water use; but, on its own, it is not the answer. On its own, given our cultural impulses, it fuels exactly the thing we need to avoid.

(Well done, everyone! Let’s pat ourselves on the back.)

This, in a nutshell, is why I don’t do product reviews here, except for very occasionally pointing you to something more energy- or materials-efficient when you actually need the thing in question. (In other words, no thneeds! But that is a Dr. Seuss post for another day.) When you don’t need the thing in question, the earth is definitively better off if you don’t buy it, no matter how eco-friendly “it” is.

In order for technology to be part of the solution, we need to start saving our savings instead of spending it. My theory about what that entails (not to put it too simply, but a basic cultural overhaul) is probably not going to fit into the epilogue of this post, so I’ll get to that another day. When I do, it’ll involve biospheric value systems, nature deficit disorder, pro-environmental behaviours, positive psychology and personal change. Maybe make that two or three posts.

In the meantime, when confronting a consumer decision in whatever brick-and-mortor or online venue you favour, instead of asking yourself whether you can afford the item in question, ask yourself: Do I need this? If I don’t need it, but only want it, what do I want it for? What do I expect it to do? Is it likely that this product or service can do for me what I want it to? How happy will it make me to have this thing in a week, a month, a year? When I’m done with it, how will I dispose of it?

Ask yourself, in other words, how well this thneed truly fits in to the life you have and the life you want.

I read a lot of books, so for me, books are almost always a good bet. They make me just as happy to read, mark up, reread, post about, review, read again, stroke lovingly on the bookshelf, and so on, as I think they are going to when I first flip them over to read the jacket copy in the bookstore. Books are a big part of the life I have and the life I want. Clothes, on the other hand–and new cars, big living spaces, fancy dinnerware, purses, jewelry, and what have you–aren’t. On those, I save my savings.

As a result, my ecological footprint is much lower than the average Canadian’s. Plus, I have no debt and a fairly healthy savings account balance.

Next up in this series: why that sentence is exactly the wrong way to end this post.