Moral values are the key to sustainability

8426360101_542e18b087_oAdam Corner writes that what will ultimately be needed to help combat climate change aren’t facts and statistics, but moral values.  He contends that the standard efforts over the past two decades to encourage pro-environmental behaviors have been too short-sighted, focused only on how to convince, nudge, and regulate people into behavior that can help protect against further climate change.  Corner argues that this overlooks a significant point, namely that sustainable changes in how people live won’t come from attempts to externally influence what they do, and instead will require an internalization of reasons for sustaining the environment.

Dr. Rachel Howell at the University of Aberystwyth confirmed this point in a recent paper about individuals who adopted lower-carbon lifestyles.  She found that what motivated people to make environmentally friendly changes to how they lived was not social marketing or catchy advertisements, but a deeply held belief that climate change was an issue of social justice.  The participants viewed climate change as unfair for people in less developed areas because they are forced to incur the consequences of greater carbon emissions that come from industrialized nations.

A study by Professor Andrew Dobson also reported findings that aligned with Howell’s.  Dobson argues that a sense of “environmental citizenship”, i.e. a commitment to the principles and values that inform desires to combat climate change, leads to more sustainable “pro-environment” behavior than financial incentives and other types of external motivators.  Hence it is concepts of civic duty, fairness, and justice that are the big drivers for bringing about lasting change.

Corner illustrates these views with an insightful example: if children are taught that they will receive a coin every time they hold back from hurting another child, they won’t learn that hurting others is wrong.  Instead, the lesson they would take away is that restraining themselves from harming others is personally profitable.  But it’s exactly this sort of thinking that is behind government initiatives such as the Green Deal in the UK, where subscribers of the energy-saving program are promised “savings on your energy bills after you’ve made the improvements”.  As Corner notes, though, this frames the issue of energy conservation as simply a way for saving money, and not as the right thing to do.  Corner suggests that when we broaden the issue of combating climate change as the morally right thing to do, then lasting progress can be made.

 HOW Analysis:

Corner’s article is a great example of the difference between simply trying to shift behavior as opposed to elevating behavior, and how the latter is required to bring about sustainable change.  As noted in Howell’s and Dobson’s studies, the most common reasons given by participants for switching to environmentally friendlier lifestyles weren’t external motivators that merely tried to shift their behavior through financial incentives or clever marketing.  Instead, sustainable changes to their lifestyles were brought about through elevated behavior, namely behavior that was internally motivated by their sense of what was right to do, which in turn was informed by their values and character.

Moreover, measures and incentives that merely aim to shift behavior only cloud the moral importance of the issue of climate change itself, and cast it in amoral terms: we ought to switch to environmentally friendly lifestyles if it adds to our bottom line or keeps us out of trouble.  But this frame of thinking becomes dangerous once the behaviors no longer lead to greater profits or safety from punitive measures, because the reasons to keep up such behavior vanish.

In contrast, what motivates lasting change for the better is when moral values, a purpose-driven mission, and clear and actionable principles inspire the behavior that is conducive to reaching a meaningful goal.  A good example of this is the Johnson & Johnson credo that states if the company holds true to its principles, its stockholders should, not will, make a profit. They saw principled behavior as not just another way to profit, but something that goes normatively hand-in-hand with profit.

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