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Why aren't green behaviours achieving greater take-up?

Experimental psychology paints a very humbling picture of human motivation. A picture which is quite contrary to the rhetoric of heroic individuality that pervades public discourse (promises of 'choice' alternating with moral exhortation from politicians, 'you make your own life!' and 'you create your own reality!' from the self-help gurus).

When you try and look at it as a social scientist, it looks very much as if we mostly just bumble about, semi-consciously pushed this way and that by our habits, the desire to fit in, the need for status, miscellaneous urges for sex, comfort, novelty, thrills. To a large extent, we just do what the people around us do - it's a pretty safe default option for most purposes.

Furthermore, we are often not very good at articulating why we act in the way we do (which is a reason for not getting too depressed by what people in surveys say about how they couldn't possibly live without their cars) and in any case it's often difficult to discern the direction of causality in human affairs. Do we act on our beliefs, or do we acquire beliefs ('adopt beliefs' is far too conscious and active a verb for what seems to happen) to match our behaviour?

When I say 'we mostly just bumble about..' I am, I must stress, including myself. One of my motivations (errr… insofar as I can articulate them!) in undertaking this research was to answer the question why I, who have had some concern about environmental issues for decades have taken so long to act on it. Why, to choose very simple examples, it took me so long to put up some decently insulating curtains when I know perfectly well about energy conservation, or why it took me so long to get it together to recycle systematically when my local council provide a very good facility at 10 minutes walk. I don't think I failed because I was a morally bad person or exceptionally lazy: it was more like not wanting to feel like a crank, trivial inconvenience, intentions constantly being trumped by more immediate concerns.

I wouldn't want it to be thought that this is some grand philosophical denial of 'free will' or some sort of 'making excuses for people'. Pro-environmental behaviour obviously does have an ethical aspect to it, personal responsibility exists and is important; it's just that the moral choices we are able to make at any given point are much more limited and difficult than we tend to think. So preaching at people is usually counterproductive.

2005


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