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Are people fundamentally selfish and self-motivated?

Solitaire Townsend and Tom Crompton

24th March, 2010

In this email debate, leading environmentalists Solitaire Townsend and Tom Crompton thrash out that thorniest of questions: do people really care about more than themselves?

Solitaire Townsend, managing director of Futerra Sustainability Communications, and Tom Crompton, WWF UK's change strategist, are friends but they see the world slightly differently. They have both contributed to Green Alliance's new publication 'From hot air to happy endings', looking at how government can communicate better on climate change. 
 
Here we find out how different they really are and eavesdrop on an email exchange between them about what makes people tick and what will work to get the message across:
 
To: Tom Crompton
From: Solitaire Townsend

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Dear Tom

The environment movement can argue within itself with more rage than when confronting climate deniers! And it seems we’ve been set up for a gladiatorial contest between Identity Campaigning and the Marketing Approach to behaviour change. Personally, I’m not sure either deserve the capitalisation.
 
I’ll tell you a secret Tom, I don’t think you’re a bearded evangelist preaching homespun values and the evils of consumption, and I’m not a sharp-suited spin-doctor trying to greenwash our way out of climate change. In fact we’re both weary travellers striving for the same destination along different paths.

Fancy comparing notes? I’ve always wanted to ask you: how do you think a shift in values would be possible considering the ‘universals’ identified by evolutionary psychologists like Steven Pinker?

Solitaire

To: Solitaire Townsend
From: Tom Crompton

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Dear Soli

There’s some irony to you proffering the olive branch, when it’s me banging on about compassion and empathy: that’s not lost on me!

If there is anything to be debated here then evolutionary psychology’s exploration of human nature and what shapes it is surely a good place to start. Richard Dawkins, an admirer of Steven Pinker, writes that precisely because we can expect little help from nature, we must 'work all the harder for the long term future', recognising that 'the human brain is well able to dispense with the ultimate value of gene survival and substitute other values', if we make the collective effort.

It is those other values that must interest us both, because Pinker’s fellow psychologists find that values are of crucial importance in motivating engagement around issues like climate change. ‘Intrinsic values’ - empathy, for example – provide the best motivators of durable change in response to such challenges. Materialistic values, on the other hand, erode motivation for those more difficult changes.

If we are to respond to Dawkin’s call to bring helpful values to the fore, then we need to respond to the ways in which particular values come to dominate culturally – as a result of the influence, for example, of public institutions, the media and marketing industries, and (tautologically) our social norms.

Tom

To: Tom Crompton
From: Solitaire Townsend

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Dear Tom

Ah there’s the rub. If we dismiss ‘blank slate’ philosophies and accept what the anthropologist Donald E Brown calls the 'psychological unity of mankind' then values aren’t entirely an act of free will. Desire for status, for social acceptability and indeed drivers for consumption are pre-programmed into us. Neuroscientists have pinpointed the brain region tasked with buying. Even Neanderthals coveted trinkets. You can’t cut that out of people with a values shift.

Embracing those selfish drivers rather than condemning or dismissing them opens up an extraordinary tool for change. Their incredible power must be harnessed to affect behaviours on the most fundamental level. Men don’t drive Porsches to get from A to B, but rather for the documented testosterone rush of being seen driving one. Like most high carbon consumption behaviour the object isn’t to consume, but to achieve status, hedonic identity or to press another of our built-in buttons. The real job is to find equally ‘status imbued’ symbols but with radically lower impacts.
 
You can’t substitute a nature walk for a Porsche, not because of our values but because of our programming.

My problem isn’t the desire to consume, it’s consumption’s material impact. The answer must be to substitute not sacrifice.

Perhaps we see people from two different angles, like two people looking at different faces of a Janus sculpture. The question is, how can those two perspectives build a more powerful solution to our common cause?

Solitaire

To: Solitaire Townsend
From: Tom Crompton

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Dear Soli,

I don’t think it’s just that you and I see people differently: I think people are Janus-headed or, at least, are conflicted over what matters to them. And the question must therefore be: 'Which aspects of human identity can we most usefully help to bring to the fore?'
 
The nature/nurture debate surely turns out to be something of a blind alley? Values are shaped by both genetic and cultural factors. There are lots of studies showing that dominant cultural values can shift rapidly, for example, as a result of the introduction of commercial television to cultures that were previously without electricity.

So, can our two perspectives build on one another? You are right that appealing to materialistic values is probably quite the best way of selling both Porsches and Priuses. If only we could weather this perfect storm of profound global challenges by selling different stuff! But if we cannot, then we must ask: 'Can appeals to materialism help to create public demand for the necessary and radical hanges in the way that we live?'

Clearly they can be of short term help, and on this we agree. But the evidence is that they actively frustrate the emergence of greater public concern about a range of ‘bigger than self’ problems, of which climate change, of course, is just one.

Tom

To: Tom Crompton
From: Solitaire Townsend

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Dear Tom

We disagree tactics, messages, and perhaps even on who people are. But why should we be any different than generations of philosophers, eh?

But I’m encouraged by the debate. The real test is to bring about real change with our messages. As always, you have my wholehearted best wishes with that.

Solitaire

To: Solitaire Townsend
From: Tom Crompton

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Dear Soli

Yes, there’s no doubt that the approach I’m outlining is ambitious! But clearly we agree that any credible approach has to be ambitious.

Bringing other values to the fore will require concerted action across a broad swathe of organisations – not just the environment movement - and just as I take heart from our joint desire to create change, I’m energised by the growing spread of interest and discussion generally. Maybe next time this discussion will be with some other voices too?

Tom

This article is reprinted with permission from the latest issue of Inside Track, the quarterly magazine of Green Alliance

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