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Tom Crompton, WWF

Tom Crompton, Change Strategist at WWF-UK

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CAMPAIGN HERO: Tom Crompton, Change Strategist at WWF-UK

Matilda Lee

8th February, 2011

What motivates people to act? Tom Crompton, WWF's point man on behaviour change, believes he has the answers. And they go against the grain of conventional campaigning...

What has been your most successful campaign to date?

I'd highlight some work that doesn't really qualify as a campaign, and that isn't really mine! It's more of a way of thinking that helps to augment campaigns - and I've been involved in helping to develop it, with many academics, and many other NGOs drawn from a wide range of domains. It's laid out in a recent report, published by COIN, CPRE, Friends of the Earth, Oxfam and WWF, called Common Cause: The Case for Working with Our Cultural Values. It's an appeal for people working in the third sector to become far bolder in expressing the values that lead to public expressions of concern about environmental and social challenges - and then to begin to campaign in ways that strengthen those values in society.

And has it been successful? If success is measured by the range of people who are joining the conversation, and the number of organisations that are responding to the challenges that we are helping to lay out, then yes - it's becoming wildly successful.

What has been your least successful campaign to date?

I used to lead WWF's work on international trade and investment policy - campaigning on WTO negotiations, for example. That's difficult. Critically important, but very difficult. The pace of change is glacial, and the full weight of the international economic architecture is bearing down in the opposite direction to most of the changes you would like to see. I was campaigning on the relationship between international trade rules and international environmental agreements: which should take priority, when the aims of each conflict? I don't think I made any progress. It taught me how difficult it is to promote the environmental interest when this comes into conflict with international economic interests. And yet this is exactly where most work is needed. It was an unsuccessful campaign, but experiencing it has convinced me that we need to ask deep questions about how we campaign, so it was also really educative.

What gets you out of bed when you're at your lowest?

My three-year-old daughter shouting to be lifted off the loo.

Corporations: work with them or against them?

Well the easy answer is both. But what does that mean? Knowing when we should work with them or against them is the difficult bit. Green consumerism is a cul-de-sac. As a strategy for responding to environmental challenges it risks reinforcing all those values that underpin apathy about environmental problems, and resistance to tackling them.

But business plays a crucial role in shaping cultural values - for example, through culture in the workplace, pay structures, and its marketing and advertising activities. There are businesses which recognise this, and take this responsibility seriously. It is their work that NGOs should be championing.

What is the best way to motivate people?

Despite the insistence of some campaigners, it's not by appealing to people's extrinsic goals - their desire for social status or financial success. Rather, it's by connecting with their intrinsic goals: their connection to family, friends, wider humanity and the natural world. That isn't just my experience. It is also demonstrated by a huge volume of research looking at people's motivation to engage in a wide range of different behaviours. Pursuit of these intrinsic goals leaves a person far more motivated to act, and that motivation is likely to persist far longer.

What is the best way of reaching politicians?

Through citizens. Talking to politicians is fine for trying to persuade them to embrace incremental changes. But it seems likely that the ambitious changes which are needed will only be delivered with far greater public appetite, and active public demand.

What is the most important thing to avoid when campaigning?

Undoubtedly, the most important thing to avoid is undermining prospects for fundamental change by ignoring the bigger picture. So often the possibility to help create tangible yet fairly insignificant change is dangled in front of us. It's so easy to loose sight of the bigger picture and pursue this consolation prize - without asking: what principles and values is this change helping to embed? Are these principles and values that will stand us in good stead as we begin to have to tackle more difficult changes entailing more fundamental change? Or are we pouring our energy into pursuing another pyrrhic victory?

Most important thing government could do this year?

Government should acknowledge that public policies, and people's experience of living with these policies, has a profound and inescapable effect on the values that come to dominate culturally. (Margaret Thatcher, for one, was forthright about this, famously declaring that 'economics are the method - the object is to change the heart and soul'.)

Government should then conduct an enquiry into the cultural values that must necessarily underpin public engagement in a ‘big society'. The evidence shows that the values which motivate volunteerism are closely related to those which motivate concern about domestic social problems, climate change, global poverty and biodiversity loss. Government should then review the whole panoply of public policy, to examine how current policies serve either to strengthen or undermine these values. It should then reorient public policy -making sure that this serves to build further commitment to these values.

Most important thing individuals could do this year?

We should find out about the values that motivate the NGOs or political parties that we support, and the organisations for which we work. We should then ask: are these intrinsic values, focussed on improving our relationships with one another, and with the natural world?

If not, then we should work with these organisations to change the values that motivate them: pointing to the mass of evidence that we will only confront environmental and social challenges with the level of ambition that these demand through appeals to intrinsic values.

If these organisations profess to be motivated by these values, then we must hold them to account: we must make sure that these values do genuinely infuse all that they do, and challenge these organisations where they fail to embody these values.

What makes a good campaigner?

Of course, a good campaigner must understand power, and know how to work to create political leverage. But, far more importantly, she must be able to keep a cool head when she scents such leverage. She must be able to stand back from the campaign that she is running, and ask: am I making progress on the bigger picture here, or am I caught up in the possibility of creating some specific change - while losing sight of its wider impacts? A good campaigner is always paying close attention to how her work contributes, however slightly, to creating systemic change.

What (other) campaign has caught your attention recently?

There are many NGOs grappling with these issues in their work. Many are small, fleet of foot organisations like PIRC or PLATFORM, which are beginning to apply an understanding of cultural values to their own work. But other larger NGOs - like Oxfam, and my organisation, WWF-UK - are also beginning to respond to these challenges.

Who is your campaign hero (past or present)?

It must be Martin Luther King, as immortalised in his speech in Washington in 1963. But I like it for the wrong reasons. It's de rigour at present for campaigners to remind each other that King didn't start his speech by intoning 'I have a nightmare...'. It's taken as proof that successful social change movements must avoid examining what's wrong, and focus on being up-beat and positive. But this is a misconception. King may have been up-beat, but he certainly didn't pull any punches in highlighting all the bad things about the political situation that he confronted.

So I prefer to focus on a different aspect of the counterfactual history here. Many modern-day environmentalists are intoxicated with the notion that progress on environmental issues can only be made by demonstrating the economic case for action. But King didn't start his speech, they might have done, by crying: 'I have a cost-benefit analysis'!

No, he knew what he stood for, and was unequivocal in articulating this. He was well aware of the dangers of deflecting pressure for fundamental change through short-term sops. 'This is no time,' he said, '...to take the tranquillizing drug of gradualism.'

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