Advanced Search

Please click here to take a brief survey

The Problem with Big Green


Do small steps actually lead anywhere? We all know the theory that small steps lead to bigger steps, which lead in turn to real change. And there are certainly a lot of small steps on offer these days, from the latest home energy tracker to the solar bikini. But it's not at all clear that the ready abundance of small steps is actually making any difference. Indeed, between greenwashing and green fatigue, emphasizing little behavioral changes may actually be hurting.

Until recently, suggesting that "going green" in this fashion wasn't a correct path was a quick route to condemnation. But now, some of the world's most prestigious environmental advocates are beginning to call for a whole new approach.

WWF recently published a major report, Weathercocks and Signposts: the environment movement at a crossroads, which launches a major assault on green consumerism and social marketing as avenues to sustainability, and encourages instead a new and more committed values-based approach.

Specifically, the report says:

Pro-environmental behavioural change strategies often stress the importance of small and painless steps – frequently in the expectation that, once they have embarked upon these steps, people will become motivated to engage in more significant behavioural changes. Often, these strategies place particular emphasis on the opportunities offered by 'green consumption' – either using marketing techniques to encourage the purchase of environmentally-friendly products, or applying such techniques more generally to create behavioural change even where there is no product involved.

We talked with Dr. Tom Crompton, the study's author, who shed some interesting light on their conclusion that to create lasting change, groups working for environmental change should be targeting the intrinsic set of values that motivates the public, rather than tantalizing their extrinsic desires.

Social marketers argue that it doesn't matter why people are doing good as long as they're doing good. Crompton's research suggests that the reasons for their actions matter enormously, and in many ways determine how much good they will ultimately do.

The current marketing-based approach is fatally flawed, Crompton says. His work debunks the popularly held "foot-in-the-door" mantra (change your light bulb today, and you'll move to a walkable neighborhood and sell your car before you know it!), with documented psychological research revealing little evidence to support that individuals will continue to move up the sustainability ladder. Instead, actually, "There is some evidence that … individuals rest on their laurels," Crompton says: consumers often make some small steps and stop.

But the report's other findings are even more worrying: small steps, even when they do open the door to greater environmental understanding, are rarely followed by calls for the kinds of profound change that sustainability actually demands. Consumers may be encouraged to change their light bulbs, even to buy a more fuel-efficient car, for instance, but they're rarely then encouraged to support the sort of carbon pricing investments in transit and large-scale urban redesign efforts that curtailing emissions will actually demand. After all, "why should I support price hikes on gasoline if I've been led to believe these problems can be fixed by changing my light bulbs?"

Spending too much energy on relatively marginal changes "is also a diversion from greater acceptance of the need for more radical environmental change in our democracies." The time it takes to think about and keep track of all the little things a person could be doing eats up the time that person could be spending being more effectively an advocate, while the message of privatized responsibility for environmental problems undermines their essentially political nature.

What's worse, he says, is that the over-marketing of small steps can actually backfire, producing rebound effects. Having installed CFL bulbs, a consumer may then plow the money he saves on his power bill into purchasing a new plasma-screen TV, and end up using far more energy that he did in the first place.

To get beyond the small steps and change the fabric of the debate, Crompton says, we need to engage the values that underpin public discussion. For example, appeal to people's sense of connection to the natural world. And he insists that this isn't the same as heartstrings-tugging approaches we've seen before. Asking the public to save the panda out of moral obligation, because we feel guilty, is not the answer. What previous campaigns have missed is that the world we hope to build as we progress towards sustainability is not just a world that offers a better quality of life, it's a world that's more in alignment with the sort of fundamental values (from concern for our children to connection to nature to a sense of duty) that most define us as human beings. When we are at our best, we are capable of extraordinary things.

"I'm not persuaded that humankind at its best is explainable in the limited frame of a social marketing perspective," Crompton says.

There's little argument that "green" is now mainstream: The LOHAS market now claims to represent more than $209 billion in annual sales in the U.S. Bookstore shelves are likely buckling under this year's slew of green titles. And the public rewards green marketing with both trust and approval: consumers surveyed in the U.S., UK, Mexico, Brazil, Germany and France now look to brands, not governments, to solve the climate crisis. Small steps have become big business: green is now Big Green.

But we also know that "green" is not working. Both carbon emissions and ecological footprints continue to increase across the developed world.

The question is, How do we cut through the chatter to reach people with strong values-based messages? That's WWF's next, very big, step. We're eager to see where it leads.

Photo credit: Flickr/the idealist, licensed by Creative Commons.

Bookmark and Share


"But we also know that "green" is not working."

That's the understatement of the year! I've been reading about how we recycle more, but throw away even more garbage, buy more bicycles, but then drive more miles per day, buy organic but still eat more meat and throw away more food. I see Sprawlmart sells a few green items in their massively unsustainable stores and environmentalists roll over and purr. There is just greenwashing everywhere and absolutely meaningless "eco" claims on labels and people getting rich off selling "planet green" ads.

What I have yet to see is a single shred of evidence that green commerce and fashion is doing anything worthwhile for the environment. I think it's a scandal.

I want to believe that we have time to change, and make the kind of "bright" green world WorldChanging is about. But I think when real ideas for systems change and political activism are lost in a sea of green noise coming from Tv and Vanity Fair and shopping sites like TreeHugger and Green Guide, we're done for. I feel so demoralized by the popularity of eco-nonsense and the obscurity of groups like this one and Forum for the Future and IISD and even the IPCC.

In some way we need to show the public that unless we change everything, really soon, it won't mean a damn thing to have had good intentions and bought some sustainable furniture and green detergents.

I worry we're happily shopping ourselves into oblivion.

Posted by: Ned on 24 Jun 08

We act upon the difference between what we perceive things to be, and what we want things to be. When that difference is small, tepid and watered down, we do little. When the gap is large, our motivation is greater - generally. But there are paradoxes.

First, when we take the "baby steps," that shrinks the gap, and therefore our determination, as the essay notes.

But the other paradox is if we view the gulf as huge, we're overwhelmed, and stop trying.

So we need to point out how large the difference really is between what we're doing, and what we need to do - but we have to keep showing positive examples of successfully bridging that gap. And the results we show need to appeal to something fundamental and familiar within us: the search for genuine happiness, contentment, security and meaning. We won't do that through "green consumerism," because the fundamental premise of consumerism is that nothing can make you happy for long, and there's no such thing as enough.

Posted by: David Foley on 24 Jun 08

I do think that 'going green' is a necessary (if woefully insufficient) step in tackling the climate crisis because, unless folk are sufficiently aware of the backstory, then there is *no* likelihood that they will take the next step.

I suppose this article is a variation on what you describe elsewhere as the 'oh s**t! Now what?!' reaction.

I don't know what the next few steps might be, but I can see the next one. It, too, is a small but necessary one. As James Hansen says, it will need to be taken next November!

Posted by: Tony Fisk on 24 Jun 08

I think the larger problem of "greening markets" is that there is no way for producers to distinguish between shifted and expanded consumption. In the absence of strong regulatory pressures, success for "green" producers is measured solely by increased sales. This could come from drawing sales away from "brown" producers, but just as likely from increased demand. When producers talk about finding market niches, the truth is, they may just as well be creating new markets, with new things to consume.

Of course, what we need is to reduce aggregate demand, and to transform production, distribution and consumption infrastructures (and practices) to have lower negative impacts. But neither can be achieved by following laissez-faire, "the market knows best" strategies.

Posted by: Ken on 24 Jun 08

"But we also know that "green" is not working."

Logical error here.

We know that "green" is NOT SUFFICIENT. It may well be working to some extent, just not as much as we want. Or it may be that we don't know how to make full use of it.

The mental models presented seem rather limited. Either "green" leads directly to true sustainability, or it is opposed to it.

I think it's more complicated. Small actions are very powerful, IF they are incorporated in a worldview and social setting. Daily prayers as part of a religion. Military rituals.

I buy Fairtrade coffee and other green consumer goods not because I think it's going to change the world, but because this is a small action that is within my control. This is my responsibility. It's a small affirmation of what I believe in.

I agree with the main points of the essay, though - the need to go beyond superficial marketing approach and to delve into values.

Posted by: Bart Anderson on 25 Jun 08

Ahh Values or should that be VALUES.
By that I am going to assume Bart that you are talking about, morality and spirituality and frankly, the way we either 'live on' or 'live off' the Earth. As a species we can not sustain our way of life and it is values that guide us that way. To guide us in another way, that is living 'on' instead of 'off' the Earth, then we need another completely divergent set of values. They must be based on opposite values to the ones we have that are causing us to kill the enviroment. They must take thier que and direction from nature instead over-riding nature and demanding that nature 'supply' us. Instead of taking what we want, we must take what we are given. Instead of fighting nature in every building we build and street we pave and food we grow, we must ask nature for guidance in what we build and eat and travel in.
It's not as hard as it sounds unless you believe nature is your enemy like most religions have done for two thousand years.
Here is a short dissertation I gave to an architect as to why spirituality was important to the values inherent in the building. Its insights can be applied directly to what i am talking about here.

Church architecture by definition is about the religious redirection of spiritual focus away from the Earth and towards the heavens. Banister Fletcher says (p307 7th edition) “Churches were places of congregation for the people in contrast to pagan temples which sheltered the statue of a deity”.

This remolding of religious purpose was primarily carried out by the conquest of one people by another and the consequent destruction of the original place of religious focus and the confiscation of the land on which it stood. However in Pagan society the congregation of people was not necessary because religious devotion was incumbent upon an understanding of belonging to the land in the same way that a tree belongs to the land on which it grows. Stealing the piece of land at which a previous religious devotion was carried out, could not remove to religious devotion of the people because the religious focus was in fact all the land and not just that one place.

The religious significance of a particular place was primarily bound up in its power to speak of all places and to all people who might come there. It was not in itself unique in that and so its loss could easily be replaced by another just as powerful place of religious sacristy. The focus, though localized, was in essence the fecundity of the entire Earth and this was something that Pagan societies understood as the fundamentally ‘shared’ nature of existence. Religious devotion was therefore primarily bound up in strengthening the understanding of ones connectedness to all things and everyone else through a devotion to the land. This devotion was expressed in as many different ways as the Earth itself expressed its existence in the many different creatures and plants and cultures.

Though expressed in many different ways at many different places, including from deities housed in temples to simple mid forest sacred copses, the religious focus was in fact a single and quite universal understanding of a unified existence with nature. This meant that Pagan architecture focused on ‘housing’ the deity in much the same way that the people as families were individually housed. If gatherings occurred then a large square or courtyard or open piece of ground was provided because the religious focus was not the temple itself but the Earth around the temple of which the deity was believed to have played a particular part in creating it.

This presented a problem for the purveyors of the new monotheistic religions because their religious focus had two main differences with the Pagan original which they now attempted to replace. One obvious one was that the focus had shifted away from the Earth and towards the heavens in a religious expression of distrust for the Earth. The other less obvious one was that the function of reliance having shifted away from the Earth was now placed upon a Deity who was said to reside in the stars.
This created an impression that self reliance, as expressed by a pagan who understand the notion of ‘self’ to be a belonging to the land through tribe and sacred animals and plants, was in fact a religious focus upon the self in a quest for personal and ultimately lone salvation from the alleged privations that the Earth had delivered.
A sense of self was no longer a physical problem solvable by simply surviving off the Earth around oneself by baking bread and going fishing, but was now a philosophical problem only solvable by gaining a sense of self from a gathering a like minded people who believe that pleading for personal salvation will create loaves and fishes.
The religious imperator had become one in which God was seen as separate from Earth and ruling its accidents and events of nature and thus the affairs of men, and one who could be implored philosophically to go easy on men. A big differance from one in which Goddess was seen as a benevolent creator whose existence was expressed in the existence of men and creatures and plants and thus the affairs of men were seen as directly attributable to how men behaved in relation to all the other creations of the Goddess.
If the Earth was not properly ‘lived with’, that is not sharing and using abusively, then things went wrong and it was your own fault and your faults could be corrected.
In the new religion the Earth did not count and ‘not properly lived with’ was more a matter of relationships to other men. This created a much broader scope for interpretation of ‘properly lived with’ since the distinctions were not based on physical sustenance and hence upon universal reverence for the Earth but instead on political discourse and therefore on personal and political allegiances.
This created a consequent need for gathering people together as the only means of assuring that any particular political discourse became the prevailing one.
In the Pagan original the focus was the whole earth and so anyone at any time could pay their devotions at any place they happened to be, since issues of sustenance were a matter of personal adherence to the laws of Nature.
In the new religion the focus became the God in heaven to whom you pleaded for personal salvation, but since this was, sustenance wise, bound up with personally adhered to political allegiances, devotional activity became an essential function of the gathering expressing its belief in the new form of ‘sustenance’, that is the Law of Politics at the same time and in the same place, together united in a fear sublimated as blessings.
Earths natural benevolance , when properly used, was forgotten.

Posted by: simon seasons on 25 Jun 08

I disagree, emphatically.

The mainstreaming of environmental consciousness has paid big dividends already. We have two Presidential candidates that are not only talking about the environment, but doing so in a loud, visible, robust fashion. This is not something happened in '00 or '04. So it's done at least that much good.

I don't accept "either/or" framing when we're talking about the environment. It's about "both/and". We need green marketing AND these other approaches. Anything that works, all the time, all at once.

Posted by: Matthew Gerring on 25 Jun 08

Yep! Both, all, anything. Why quibble?

Posted by: simon seasons on 25 Jun 08

I don't accept "either/or" framing when we're talking about the environment. It's about "both/and". We need green marketing AND these other approaches. Anything that works, all the time, all at once.

I sympathize and partially agree with Matthew's comment, but the premise is difficult: that we actually can employ a "kitchen sink" strategy of doing everything, all the time. In a world where time, resources and energy are constrained, we can't. So we have to be strategic, focusing on the most effective leverage points.

I think Alex and Julia are saying that "green consumerism" isn't an effective leverage point - in fact, focusing on it may be counterproductive, because it reinforces behavior patterns and systems that need fundamental re-design. It may be more effective to challenge consumerism in general - not through impractical jeremiads and rants, but by demonstrating new models, such as product-service systems, alternative indicators of genuine welfare, and so on.

We need vast change at record speed. We need competence, fueled by urgency. That requires us to take deep breaths, remain open and constantly learning. What actually works trumps how we happen to feel about stuff. Sustainability doesn't care about ideology.

Posted by: David Foley on 26 Jun 08

Great article.

My take of course is that the green movement is composed solely of upper-middle class people who are terrified of falling out of the middle class; 95 percent of the products, activities, policies, etc. are targeted at and created by this group.

How many articles are there for the 3 billion 'greenies' living on $3 a day? Answer - none. Because they are not the targeted audience.

How many really rich people care about the green movement? Answer - none. Because no matter what happens, they will buy their way out of any mess we get ourselves in.

Only when you consider these two subgroups can you realize the grim reality of the situation - the very poor are already green, the rich will never be, and the middle class - the 'environmentalists' - are doing everything they can to economically hold fast.

Now, go buy a Prius and a clothesline.


Posted by: Mark O on 26 Jun 08

Great Post Alex and Julia - clearly the discussion reflects the quality of the article.

In support of the 'both, and' thinking, I want to comment that clearly social marketing has a role to play. Like any effort - down cycling plastic to begging people to bicycle - social marketing has some unintended consequences. The challenge is to accept social marketing and its faults and build on it's strengths.

Social marketing has helped a lot of people realize that we can decouple economic development from environmental degradation. When I was a child it seemed like every time I washed my clothes I killed a fish. Now I know that if I choose carefully, I can have less of an impact. This is a critical lessen for the transition to a sustainable economy.

Now we need to realize that despite all of the fantastic innovation and heartfelt effort, social marketing and "big green" is not going to get us to the finish line. We are going to have to transform the personal responsibility message. The new message: do your part as an organization (business, household, agency) to engage the community in the systemic changes needed for a sustainable economy.

The best example was when several major corporations lobbied in favor of climate regulation last year. When the private sector starts to engage government in the design regulations that allow companies to make a profit in the transition to a sustainable economy, then largest possible lever to a sustainable economy will be pushed.

(Of course there are losers in the transition, but there are always losers. If those who are going to lose are smart, they can likely get assistance to transition to a new product. But if they just fight it, then there is no help for them.)

I think the only way that such a large lever gets pushed is when the citizenry expresses exactly what they want to regulations to reward and that happens through a values conversation. The extent to which social marketing has helped to highlight the values that we hold through our purchasing has been great. The fact that only rich people can express that through purchases (verses a lack of purchasing) demonstrates the limits of the approach.

So keep in my mind that we are entering the NEXT PHASE of social marketing where it is about getting those "green" companies (GE, Toyota, 7th Gen, Patagonia) to go beyond making green products and instead demand regulations that all products be green. That is the real system lever that is finally within our reach.

Posted by: SustainAbill on 26 Jun 08

We can only be the change we want to see in the world, as Gandhiji accurately said. All our efforts might ultimately be in vain, but we want to be able to look back and say we did our best.

Which means not being content to rest on our laurels and accept half-truths and greenwashing. Sure, things are intermediate and some effort is better than no effort. But we've got to look ahead to the prize we want (ie a sustainable future) and not be content to sit still or let others tell us that they are doing all they can (when in reality they're only interested in making fast money).

Posted by: joe on 27 Jun 08

Treehugger weighs in on the benefits of the small changes in leading to bigger steps

Posted by: roadshow on 27 Jun 08

This is awesome.

I've been writing an occasional series for the past several months about exactly this--that changing small lifestyle patterns is not significant and will not save the world. The analogy I used was fitness: if activists and leaders are the equivalent of marathoners, and people who don't care are the couch potatoes, then people who bring their own lunch to work and reuse shopping bags are the ones who every so often go for a walk around the block. They are not half-marathoners. It's better than being a couch potato but it's not enough to prevent you from getting a heart attack.

I'm looking forward to reading the report this was based on.

Posted by: Andrea on 27 Jun 08

As a Seattleite I see an awful lot of the Consumerist Ecology, wherein the wealthy are quite happy to eat organically and drive a Prius, but the working class is increasingly pushed to the suburbs by New (read Expensive) Urbanism and our Public Transit is a shambles. Humanist Ecology needs to acknowledge that we can't separate environmental sustainability from a larger political and economic system which places little or no value on people or the planet. We shopped our way into these problems, but we can't shop our way out.

Posted by: Andrew Jellin on 27 Jun 08

Great article Alex and Julia

We are now being indundated with advertising and promotions for being “Green”. Most of what we see, hear and read relates to the environment or alternative energy. The two issues are inseparable. Many people are caught up in the frenzy but only for a short while. What is missing is a financial reason to stay involved.

Our energy crunch has been in the making for quite some time. Big oil companies want to blame OPEC, OPEC wants to blame the speculators, and the speculators want to blame the Federal Government. Well folks "WE ARE THEM". We are the problem and we are the solution.

Big business and industry are not the root of the problem, they are simply supplying our huge appetites for energy, goods and services and our appetites have become larger than the supply. We need to go on a LOW CARBon DIET!

The fact that the big 5 oil companies paid their CEO's over $50 million each last year is absurd. It creates resentment because of the perception of greed it creates. However you could take all their salaries, @ $250 million and distribute it to all the registered vehicle owners in the U.S. and it would amount to less than $1.00 each. So we have to get organized as individuals to change things.


We can improve our environment and economy by a few simple acts of Conservation and Recycling if everyone participates.

Conservation doesn't mean simply involves discipline in our lifestyles. Few problems of society were created by a single event of epic proportions and our problems will not be corrected by a single act of epic proportions.

Simple errors of judgment, repeated over time, can bring down a team, a company, a country or a civilization. Simple acts of discipline, repeated over time, can empower a team, a company, a country or a civilization.

The government or big business can not cure our problems. It will take a conscious effort of every individual to restore and preserve our environment as well as our economy. The missing element is the financial incentive to stay involved.

There are two approaches to accomplishing any task involving human effort...THE CARROTT or THE STICK. When government gets involved it usually involves the STICK. There is a company that is using the CARROTT approach. Anyone wishing to learn about it can contact me at

Posted by: Wayne Alderman on 27 Jun 08

It's about time people realised where we stand. The huge problems facing us can indeed not be solved with the use of "greener" bulbs. We are wasting so much water, clean air and natural habitats that the abyss may not be very far at all. See China for example. Although they took drastic measures with their one-child policy, environmental problems there are huge. One thing that every family can do: restrict the number of children to one or two. Overpopulation has a direct effect on the destruction of our planet. So good-bye to planning families with half a dozen or more children!

Posted by: Rudolf Weiler on 27 Jun 08

about that NY Times article:

most 'green fatigue' comes from getting your advice from the wrong quarters. Who would sensibly back biofuel?

Posted by: Yarrow on 28 Jun 08

I think that it may be important to consider the possibility that:
living sustainably, and changing everyones values to something else away from where they are now, no matter how shallow, are different objectives. And we have to ask ourselves, what is more important: having the world's lifestyle change or creating solutions which solve the sustainability problems. And is it right to demand both and worse, to link them.
As living sustainably starts to take on very specific definitions, ideas that we can attach numbers to, the solutions become more obvious... and that may not be palatable to a lot of hardcore environmentalists that dream of an industry-free, car-free, small-scale farms and village-like living. Which is a lifestyle choice not necessarily a sustainability issue.
What if we were to solve sustainability problems by engineered solutions only? No has to drive a kilometer less, purchase less, travel less. live wherever they want? - would environmentalists applaud - no because it is not enough to them. And this is why the population at large rejects the amount of change that enviros demand - they think that enviros are trying to change them on principle, not on practicality only... which is offensive to them. Big-solutions can exist: Stopped waste by creating closed-loop systems. Maintained biodiversity by identifying and planning the hotspots and choosing which areas to develop rather than fighting all development blindly.. I don't necessarily think that every solution can come in time by engineering and money alone... but depending on community and grass-roots involvement as a source of all solutions is only quaint, no matter how good it makes you feel about the process... we have to be more technical in our process and a little less emotional, cuddly, and activist-oriented. I understand how these feelings could be appealing to a large majority of the activist-population -- but it is not good enough and even if it feels right -- it is too impractical. In my engineering law & ethics books at school, we are taught to work and conduct ourselves without the three 'p's - work and conduct yourself without Prejudice, without Pride, and without Passion. Think like engineers and these problems become goals with specific technical paths and no one needs to know that you used a calculator rather than a hemp-grocery bag.

Posted by: Jer on 28 Jun 08

..Continued from above...
The sad thing about what I propose is that the 'engineered' approach can not be followed by many or even most people. They are not technically-inclined or maybe not as logic-oriented, or big-picture-solution based. A lot of people will be left out of many of the decisions or at least influence on the process. This is a shame, but it may be the only way.

Posted by: Jer on 28 Jun 08

I have observed something about human beings: We will only do what is within our capacity to do. If we can change light bulbs to CF, then we will. If we cannot do any more than that, we won't do any more than that.

Anyone who says they changed their bulbs and therefore they feel their contribution is complete is lying to themselves. They are simply not comfortable with more change, and are attempting to justify it.

This is not to say that such people should be condemned, but rather to say this: There are finite boundaries against which any political movement will eventually rub. Just accept that there are people who will only change to CF bulbs, and might then buy a plasma TV, and move on. Working that end is wasted effort. Whatever change was to be made there has been made.

Current events are making their own argument. Gas is $4+ in the US, which is a Big Deal. Prepare for the shift. :-)

Posted by: Enoch Root on 28 Jun 08

I'm not sure this is being considered properly, because it seems to imply that there is something else individuals can or will conceivably do besides mild changes to their consumption habits.

So what we should really be looking at is whether or not these "small steps" function to encourage a certain political outlook, which would be how you make major changes. Frankly, those big changes will come only through political intervention at every level, municipal, state, federal, international. And realistically, individuals and small groups don't actually have much direct impact on how all that goes.

They do have impact in terms of their participation in larger organizations, their identification with particular political parties, and which major political programs they will support.

So we should be asking is do these small changes reflect a broader shift in outlook that may not be reflected in systemic lifestyle changes but MIGHT be expressed in the fairly unobtrusive form of political identification.

In America, a country dominated by the aesthetics of, well, domination, on giant cars, infinite accumulation and hyper-individualism, political candidates who do not at least make some "green" overtures are getting their asses handed to them in a sling. Given the Democratic and Republican nominees for president, this trend looks set to continue. The Farm Bill is becoming a significant and controversial ecological issue, with a great deal of public discontent. Trains, light rail and public transit are getting more funding. Most of the country believes in global warming and thinks it's a big f-ing problem. Frankly I'm amazed at how overwhelming this surge of sentiment has been.

And I'd suggest that
1) this is a real, significant thing, that represents concrete public investment possibilities that will create major shifts, everywhere from energy policy to transportation infrastructure


2) We shouldn't just think of these small environmental acts in practical terms. They also function as rituals, that orient individuals towards a larger worldview and community of practice. Not necessarily a lot- certain rituals will turn you into a lifelong activist, certain ones will just change your party identification a little bit. But frankly, that's important. The important threshold is the one that actually effects major structural changes, and if all we get is people identifying with "green" lifestyles long enough to vote for major political changes, that's f-ing enormous. Can't stop chunking out carbon without major reinvestment in public transit, bike lanes, and zoning to encourage shorter commutes, and the State controls that sort of thing-

That being said, we could focus on crafting more potent rituals, and we should because we'll have to eventually, maybe with "clear" levels for increasing commitment.

Posted by: donald on 28 Jun 08

An excellent study and topic for conversation. I'm exploring this in the documentary I'm producing. Most of the comments here are asking all the right questions. Fundamentally it comes down to whether we believe the human race is capable of doing the right thing because it is the right thing, or is only capable of responding to price signals and advertising slogans, and avoiding pain we can see right before us. I believe we do our world a disservice when we sell our species short.

Dave Gardner
Hooked on Growth: Our Misguided Quest for Prosperity

Posted by: Dave Gardner on 29 Jun 08

It's impossible to argue that the original article makes some tremendously valid points. But, any point of view, philosophy or practice that does anything to discourage people from taking personal responsibility -- large or small -- is destructive.

It would be great if Mr. Jones, your neighbor, figured out a way to cap coal-fired power plants tomorrow. A huge success if Ms. Smith from church developed a 100 mpg car. And a tremendous coup if young Sally, from your daughter's class, was able to convince millions in developing economies around the world that their new wealth should be donated to reforestation efforts rather than buying new cars.

But, friends, neighbors, co-workers and classmates are not likely to singlehandedly make these things happen anytime soon. So, in the meantime, lets not discourage turning down the themrmostat, beginning to compost, changing a light bulb or using reusable grocery bags.

There is nothing small about individuals taking personal responsibility. Nothing. It is the source of all progress. Without the notion of personal responsibility for the environment being promoted vigorously and adopted by more people everyday, we will never see the cleaner power plant, the ultra fuel-efficient car or a productive response to an evolving global economy and the impacts it has on the environment.

Posted by: Mike on 30 Jun 08

There is nothing small about individuals taking personal responsibility.

Mike, those are great comments and insights. You make a strong case that individual, incremental actions are needed and helpful. But as you say, Mr. Jones and Ms. Smith will not, by themselves, cap the coal plants or develop the hypercars.

We rarely envision how, exactly, individual actions "scale up." Sometimes we place all our faith in markets - without enough empirical evidence. Sometimes we vaguely assert that if enough people make personal changes, "somehow" we'll foster new consciousness, new cultural norms and new political possibilities. Perhaps we'll soon reach some kind of "100th Monkey" syndrome, and "the paradigm will shift" -or we're about to encounter "The Singularity," that quantum leap in technology that is always just about to change everything, and has been for most of my life.

We're starting to have new ways to think about "scale" more productively. The science of networks, of fractals, ecology, and other disciplines looking at connectivity across scales - these may let us start learning how to coordinate small steps into vast changes.

I was struck by your points, and feel they've added well to this discussion. I'm asking how we acknowledge the power of the individual small steps, AND the need to generate large-scale, profound transformations in a hurry. Because we've never needed before to make such vast changes so quickly. We need for world-wide sustainability to be an "emergent property " of everything we're doing. I don't think that will be automatic - it's a brand-new, huge, critically-important, daunting problem. So by all means, let's be grateful for the individual efforts, and let's find useful ways for them to be networked, shared, peer-reviewed, open-source, continually-improved, etc. We've got about 8 to 12 years left and we have to get it right the first time.

Posted by: David Foley on 30 Jun 08

Thank you for this article! Wonderful! Go go go!

Posted by: Alice on 3 Jul 08

I understand the underlying basis of this article and argument, however once we start minimizing small actions how do we ever expect to create the tipping point for change? should undervalue small changes. the more people working to create change. Learn more about what small actions are doing

Posted by: Heather Carmona on 3 Jul 08

I can't help but equate "the low carbon diet" to actual weight loss diets. If you told a person who was a few hundred pounds that he/she had to get up and run a marathon in order to get back into shape, how successful would that be? However, if you asked that person to start drinking diet soda instead of regular soda, or eat baked chicken instead of fried, and walk for 10 minutes a day, they would start to see results. This would continue to motivate and encourage them until they met their goals.

I don't think that many people are going to embrace the consume less message. So for now, I think that we need to encourage people to consume eco-friendly products when possible, which in turns sends signals to the major corporations (e.g. Clorox) and this is where big changes can happen - on many levels.

If you can't bring yourself to encourage consumption of any kind, then maybe you can work to help people find meaning and value in their lives so that they can realize that happiness does not come from things.

Posted by: Beth Remmes on 4 Jul 08

I'm asked to speak to business groups about sustainability often these days. People always ask me the question, "What is the one thing we can do to really make a difference." My answer used to be there isn't one thing...which is obvious. However, lately I've come up with a better answer: "Do a real, well-documented analysis of your carbon footprint." The next step, of course, would be to take that number and develop a 20-step plan to cut that footprint by 70%.

I get a lot of blank stares.

Never ceases to frustrate the heck out of me.

Posted by: David Biddle on 5 Jul 08

If the effect of social marketing has been to show clearly that it is "not enough," that seems like a success to me. If I change my lightbulbs, but then read in the paper that Arctic Ice is still melting, I am much more likely to believe that deeper value change is required than if I had been told upfront, "Changing your light bulbs is a waste - we need huge worldchanging effort immediately."

Sometimes it's best to do the little thing in order to realize directly how inadequate it is.

Posted by: Kim on 5 Jul 08

So much of the environmental conversation so far has been centered on what we can't have, what we HAVE to do, screechy this and harpy that.

Is it possible that Green consumerism is the first step toward positive, bright green thinking becoming more mainstream?

If I can buy a solar-powered lantern for my backyard, and it's pretty and it works well, maybe it starts to undo all the "YOU ARE A TERRIBLE PERSON FOR KILLING TREES" rhetoric that I have been exposed to for all these years. And maybe that plants a bright green seed in me, making me more open-minded to solar power in general.

Re: values-based arguments: I think it's possible that, as much as bright greens hate spirituality, spiritual motivations can open up the bright green movement in unprecedented ways. For fundamentalist Christians, what's more values-based than wanting to be a good steward of the Earth God gave us?

Personally, I don't believe these terms are accurate, but a lot of people do, so why not run with it? Being a good servant of God means taking good care of His creation, using all the gifts He gave us -- logic, perception, fellowship.

To my way of thinking, anything that opens minds to thinking positively about the future and taking responsibility for creating it? Even if I don't believe in it? Is a good thing.

Posted by: Megan Dietz on 7 Jul 08

This is a great article and a great discussion. Several people have mentioned that small steps are important as ways to create ritual, create and sustain hope, and keep from being overwhelmed. Another person used a diet analogy as in telling a person they immediately need to run a marathon in order to lose weight and be healthy is going to be out of reach for the average person needing to change his or her lifestyle.

Like Megan, I think many people find it hard to make changes when they feel they are being constantly scolded or told that they are bad in some way. In my mind, the question is how do we change the rhetoric of the environmental movement to be more inclusive and encouraging in such a way that actually affects true and lasting change?

Posted by: MorganO on 8 Jul 08

While the underlying frustrations of this article are understandable - we do, after all, continue to emit more and more GHG's - this does not mean that small steps are not worthwhile. Surely getting major industry to alter their processes will be essential in any global strategy to help fight against climate change; this cannot be ignored.

Similarly, it should not be overlooked that our personal homes, driving habits and consumption patterns represent approximately 51% of North American emissions. This number can be greatly reduced by implementing relatively small changes into our individual lives.

It can be frustrating, and often hard to see the benefits of taking these actions, but working to make small changes is a helpful and necessary step in fighting climate change.

Posted by: myles on 8 Jul 08

The "Don't be a Litter Bug" public service campaign started when I was a child. There were many ads on TV and trashcans in public areas labeled with the cartoon. I took in the message as thought it was gospel. I would pick up trash I saw in the streets and lovely throw it away, feeling great about it. Due to the reverence for "clean" the campaign instilled in me, I would never (and still do not) toss any trash on the street unless I had no choice. If there are no trashcans available and if the trash is small and manageable, I stuff it into my pocket or carry it. In my opinion, the "Don't be a Litter Bug" public service campaign produced great results because most people want what is good and will do well given the knowledge and opportunity to do so.

I think the US government could again do something similar. Cartoons targeting children and adults (such as lights out, fix water leaks, recycle). But it must be made easy to comply.

Posted by: earthy on 13 Jul 08

The WWF report makes a number of assumptions that I don't find to be accurate. It essentially creates a straw man and then does the usual thing with it. I agree with the 'logic error' comment--behavioral change and 'going green' are by no means sufficient. But they are necessary.

The faulty assumptions:
1) That the focus of behavioral change on climate issues is on small and painless steps.

True behavioral change is never painless. Making a fundamental change in thinking and assumptions is always difficult. Unless a major disturbance quickly forces people to change their thinking and behavior, the research shows that people (and organizations) progress through a fairly predictable series of stages whenever they make a fundamental change.

The stages begin with disinterest (people are not aware of the problem, don't think its serious, or don't think anything can be done about it).

If they decide that perhaps their current behavior may be problematic people begin to 'deliberate' over whether or not to make a change. Deliberation is resolved only when the individual decides that the benefits of making a change (whether they be positive such as economic or social gain or negative such as risk avoidance)far outweigh the downsides of change.

When people decide the benefits of change warrent a new approach they usually take some time to 'plan' how to make a shift.

After sufficient planning (which in the case of an individual could be 10-30 minutes or for a business months) they begain to 'act.'

After 6 months or so of acting on their original plans they enter the phase where they must maintain their new thinking and behavior over time--which requires 'defending' them against numerous obstacles until it sticks.

The 'small steps' strategy as its described by WWF is simply a way to get people to move beyond disinterest into deliberation and beyond.

2) That small actions build to larger ones.

This is a hope but no individual or organization I know plans on it. Instead, the common belief is that people learn only through doing and making mistakes. If people are not personaly engaged global warming is likely to remain just a conceptual issue, not something they care enough about to support major changes.

3) That green consumption is key.

Although the green marketers and companies producing so called green products certainly want people to buy their stuff, anyone that understands the depth of the problem knows we can't buy our way out of global warming. Dramatic changes in our energy systems and economy will be needed. Those radical changes must lead to low-carbon sustainable goods and services and whole new ways of transportation, city planning and development etc. etc. Therefore, it's vital to get people focused on those technologies and changes now. But, no one I know of believes we can resolve the climate crisis through green consumption.

That said, the underlying theme of the report that the actions and focus so far is wholly inadequate for the scale of the problem is right on target. Much of the focus on behavioral change is due to the fact that all levels of government have failed to act. Of course, in a democracy politics follows, it does not lead. That government is yet to act in a meaningful way means that too few people are in the planning or acting stage of change (and too many are still in disinterest or deliberation).

So, the focus on behavioral change is, in my opinion, vital to continue to grow awareness and one of the key reasons here in the U.S. pressure has been growing and we are close to seeing meaningful policy initiatives at the state and federal levels.

WWF does not seem to grasp these fundamentals of change. The report proposes a more or less classic top down political change strategy. How many big fundamental changes can you remember occuring through this approach alone? And, think of the huge amount of groundwork that always occurs before any significant policy change occurs.

Strategies are needed at all scales. The behavioral change approach is one way to get people enagaged and learning. If there are failures with this approach they lie in the failure to keep pushing the ball higher and more forcefully and in the failure of those focused on policy to do their jobs--not in behavioral change itself.

Bob Doppelt
University of Oregon

(Portions of these comments are from my new book "The Power of Sustainable Thinking: How to Create A Positive Future for he Climate, Tghe Planel, Your Organization and Your Life" now available from Earthscan Publishing)

Posted by: Bob Doppelt on 14 Jul 08



MESSAGE (optional):

Search Worldchanging

Worldchanging Newsletter Get good news for a change —
Click here to sign up!


Website Design by Eben Design | Logo Design by Egg Hosting | Hosted by Amazon AWS | Problems with the site? Send email to tech /at/
Architecture for Humanity - all rights reserved except where otherwise indicated.

Find_us_on_facebook_badge.gif twitter-logo.jpg