Busy doing nothing – seven reasons for humanity’s inertia in the face of critical threats and how we might remove them

Mark Rutledge and Brian Davey

The addiction to dopamine highs described by Nate Hagens in the previous article is just one reason why humans have failed to curb their excessive resource consumption. Six others are outlined here, some of which are systemic; others the result of the way humanity evolved. Our best chance of counteracting them will come when the crisis pushes us out of our comfortable ruts.

Mark Rutledge writes: Throughout my 25 years as an environmental activist,
I have been struck by the lack of importance other people give to my concerns. For example, the most common response amongst family, friends and classes when I enter into another passionate discourse on the latest climate change science is what I term the ‘MEGO effect’ (My Eyes Glaze Over). It’s no better now than it was when I started out, even though the environmental threat has increased and its causes are understood and are rapidly becoming quantified. As Professor David Suzuki put it, the world is on a “blind date with disaster”. Yet, rather than this enabling me to move in from the margins and play some useful role in putting matters right, I am beginning to resemble William Blake’s “dog starv’d at his Master’s gate” which “predicts the ruin of the state.”

Well, I’m not happy about this since, without indulging in what Camilla Cavendish of the London Times calls “climate porn”, we are, as the New Economics Foundation put it in their 2008 publication The new green deal – 100 months to save the planet, in the final countdown to irreversible climate change. Rather than invite the same glazed looks by writing about the science of climate change and policies to prevent it, however, I’m going to explore some of the reasons for the individual and collective inertia that seems to be the response to the approaching catastrophe.

Reason for Inertia 1: Following the Herd

There is a deeply ingrained human tendency to convince oneself that everything is okay because no-one else is worried. Two psychologists, John Darley and Bibby Latané, have demonstrated that the more people who witness an event, the less responsible any one of them feels for doing anything about what they see. They invited students to undertake an exam in an assembly hall. Only one student was in the hall at a time and the rest of the “examinees” were actors. The student and actors were then presented with an exam paper. In the middle of the exam, Darley and Latané started filling the hall with smoke through the ducts and observed the responses. The actors were instructed to continue with their exam but, in each case, the unsuspecting student observed the smoke, looked at the inaction of his or her fellow examinees and continued to write. When the control experiment involved a single student, once the smoke was observed, the individual rapidly made a decision to evacuate the hall. This exercise and others along similar lines demonstrate how, as Camilla Cavendish puts it, “the inaction of other people can make us underestimate threats to our own safety.”

Reason for Inertia 2: The Post-Trust Society

We live in what Prof. Ragnar Lofstedt calls a “post-trust society“. The public and thus the electorate no longer trust politicians, regulators or big business. In Ireland, some of the reasons are obvious — infected blood scandals, judicial cover-ups, clerical child abuse and corrupt politicians. The result was demonstrated in the first Lisbon Treaty referendum vote when the mainstream political parties representing 90% of the electorate failed to convince the voters that the treaty should be passed. A motley collection of extremist, single-issue campaigners gained a comprehensive victory over the pro-treaty forces. One of the central planks of their victory was that the voters didn’t trust the pro-Europe parties’ assurances over corporation tax, abortion and the possibility of conscription to a European army. While these and other issues were cogently disputed and argued, a Millward-Brown survey afterwards showed that a lack of trust was an important factor in the No vote.

Trust levels are falling throughout the OECD as well. For example, in Finland the proportion of people expressing trust in their leaders fell from 65% in the 1980s to 33% in the mid-nineties, and in Germany it dropped from 51% to 29%.

Convincing people to trust, say, Al Gore, John Gormley or Duncan Stewart on climate change is just as hard as the proponents of the Lisbon Treaty (and indeed the Nice Treaty prior to that) experienced. In Autumn 2009, ‘Climategate’ and doubts over the melt-rate of Himalayan glaciers showed the difficulty of communicating ‘conventional’ views in the ‘post-trust’ society. In the public’s view, the whole notion of anthropogenic climate change was thrown into doubt and the work of thousands of scientists over the past 20 years was immediately devalued. Bespectacled, bearded scientists have been added to the ‘post-trust’ lists, making it very hard to have science at the forefront of the climate debate. In effect, we are getting a replay of the smoking debate in the late 1970s and early 1980s when respected scientists like Frederick Seitz were paid by tobacco companies to use the tactic of “uncertainty” to dispute the effects of tobacco on human health.

The emergence of the web has exacerbated the problem. The surfeit of contra-arguments and contra-opinions available on the web makes it hard to trust anything.

Reason for Inertia 3: Distorted perceptions of risk

Over the past 20 years, an increasingly aggressive media has used sensationalised headlines to sell papers. In the process, risks have been amplified and benefits played down. Health in the News, Risk Reporting and Media Influence, a major report by Roger Harrabin, Anna Coote and Jessica Allen, demonstrated the effects of the sensational face of news reporting in 2003. The report analysed the news stories on the BBC and in three newspapers and compared the level of coverage of stories on risk with the real likelihood of someone being harmed by the risk in question. It found that scares were usually overplayed in the media. Smoking was killing 120,000 people a year in Britain at the time but it rarely featured in the news. Anyone dying of measles was 34,000 times more likely to have their cause of death mentioned on the news than if they died of smoking.

The BBC News programmes surveyed for the research ran one story on smoking for every 8,500 people that died from a smoking-related disease. At the other end of the scale the BBC ran one story per 0.33 people who died of vCJD and one story per 0.25 people who died of measles. The newspapers showed a similar pattern, but their coverage was more proportionate because the news output was balanced by features where public health issues were more likely to figure.

Deaths per BBC news story

Cause of Death













The sensationalisation and amplification of threats like vCJD, SARS and measles versus bigger health risks is shown in the table. Climate change has already entered the risk-attenuated category, helping dampen down our responses individually, collectively and politically. News research organisations have reported that February 2007 was the peak of public interest in climate change; polls since then have shown a decline in public concern on the subject and, by association, in the willingness to act. In Ireland, we have seen simple policy changes around CFL bulbs and a motor-tax regime built around emissions become enmeshed in posturing around extreme scenarios and cheap political point-scoring.

Reason for Inertia 4: The lack of a notion of the future

The collective inertia cannot be attributed exclusively to the ‘post-trust society’ and the way the media portrays risk. There are a number of other factors at play, and these are deeply rooted in the human phenotype. In his Commonwealth Lecture in March 2008, David Suzuki explored the role of evolution in our response to climate change. He starkly outlined some of the worst environmental problems facing us:

  • By 2048 marine fish will be commercially extinct
  • The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) is now 20 years old but has little to show for its efforts
  • 50,000 species are becoming extinct annually
  • 50% of the world’s forests are now gone
  • Global human populations, now at 6.6 billion, is expected to rise by 50% by 2050

Little or no collective responsibility is being taken for these and other worrying projections. Suzuki looked at evolution in an effort to understand why. He pointed out that modern man, homo sapiens, first emerged as a species 150,000 years ago — upright, hairless in what was, in effect, an open-air zoo. The natural attributes that one would expect to have to have to survive in such a situation — strength, speed and sensory development — were not sufficiently well developed to give man a competitive advantage.

That advantage came from intelligence, an intelligence manifest in man’s memory, curiosity, inventiveness and ability to think in abstract terms. Even though the reality is the present and our memories are of the past, these attributes combined to “create a notion of the future“. And, because the brain invented a future, humans recognised that they could affect that future by what they did in the present. Foresight became an important ability that enabled humans survive and flourish.

The ability to look ahead and manoeuvre to exploit opportunities and avoid threats is just as critical for survival in modern times. For at least the 40 years since the publication of The Limits to Growth in 1972, our foresight has warned us that are on an unsustainable path. It is now almost two decades since the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro when scientists warned humanity that “no more than a few decades remain before the chance to avert the threats we now confront will be lost and the prospects for humanity immeasurably diminished.” The worldwide response to these messages from those with the resources to bring about change has been almost nil.

The failure of those with the power to allocate resources was graphically portrayed in 2005 by the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina. Despite warnings about New Orlean’s inadequate drainage system and levee height, tax money had not been provided to rectify them. The result was that almost the whole city was flooded and $90 billion in property damage was done over a wide area. More than 1,500 people died in Louisiana alone.

I believe this type of thing happens because while our foresight tells us what needs to be done, we fail to do it because we have evolved into a highly polarised global society where some of the very poor are forced to engage in unsustainable practices such as forest clearance in order to survive while the very rich, those with the resources to make the change, are engaged in a bacchanalian race to excess in which, up to now, no competitor has been seriously penalised for their overconsumption. Indeed, the penalty for underconsuming has been to be left behind. Trapped in this competitive system, our individual and collective ability to guard against threats such as climate change is negligible. We operate in the narrow bandwidth of daily life at the expense of developing a notion of a sustainable future and then actually bringing that future about because that would involve the overconsumers curbing their current consumption.

Reason for Inertia 5: Discount Rates

To understand our attitude to the future, we must look at ‘human discount rates’, their evolutionary origins, and their relevance to the mitigation and adaptation to climate change. The discount rate favours the present over the future: the higher it is, the greater the bias. The term discount rate is commonly associated with the talk of equity analysts and can be defined as “the interest rate used in determining the present value of future cash flows.” A discount rate approaching 100% means things in the future have no value at all in the present moment. A discount rate of zero means that 1 in 2050 is worth 1 today.

It was always considered that a human discount rate curve (rate/time) was exponential; this meant that we discounted the same period to period. Actual economic experiments have shown that the shape of the discount curve to be hyperbolic; in other words, the early periods have much steeper discount rates than later periods. David Laibson, in his paper ‘Golden eggs and hyperbolic discounting’, indicates that peoples discount rates are 12% during days 0-5 but drop to 4% in days 20-25. We really prefer the present.

Comparisons between the discount rates of animals and humans show differences. Many animals have short lifespans and they have been shaped by evolution to devour food and reproduce quickly before they die. They therefore have a high discount rate. This is not a conscious choice, of course; they are simply behaving in a way that was historically successful since animals that postponed opportunities to eat might come back to find their food had been stolen. As Nate Hagens has put it, “the long arm of selection would have favoured organisms that valued immediacy over those who preferred to wait.”

A recent study used food rewards to study two monkey species of similar genetic make-up and living in a similar habitat but with different diets. One species was a gummivore; it scratched on trees and waited for the sap to ooze out. The other species was an opportunistic insectivore, grabbing whatever insect it could catch. Not unexpectedly, the monkeys whose feeding behaviour required patience had lower discount rates than the other species.

Generally, human discount rates are not as steep as animals. David Laibson reports that in economic games, subjects who choose larger, long-term rewards have their prefrontal cortex activated. This is the part of the brain involved in conscious decision making. Those who chose the smaller, short-term rewards showed neural activity in the limbic system, the emotional mammalian brain. Humans, in effect, have two discount rates: the ‘thinking’ discount rate with a low decline over time and the ’emotional’ discount rate with a steep decline over a short time. This reinforces the notion that emotions trump reason!

Reason for Inertia 6: Our brains are maladapted to
modern life

In the 1997 book Evolutionary Psychology – A primer, Leda Cosmides and John Tooby set out five core principles. They can be paraphrased as follows :

Principle 1. The brain’s circuits are designed to generate behaviour that is appropriate to our environmental circumstances.

Principle 2. Our neural circuits were designed by natural selection to solve problems that our ancestors faced during our species’ evolutionary history.

Principle 3. Most of what goes on in our minds is hidden from us. As a result, our conscious experience can mislead us into thinking that our circuitry is simpler that it really is. Most problems that we think are easy to solve require very complicated neural circuitry.

Principle 4. Different neural circuits developed specifically to solve different adaptive problems.

Principle 5. Our modern skulls therefore house a Stone Age mind.

In other words, the key to understanding the modern mind is to realise that its circuits were not designed to solve the day-to-day problems of a modern European; they were designed to solve the day-to-day problems of hunter-gatherers. These Stone Age priorities produced a brain far better at solving some problems than others. For example, it is easier for us to learn to fear snakes than electric sockets, even though electric sockets pose a larger threat than snakes do in most modern communities. In many cases, our brains are better at solving the kinds of problems our ancestors faced on the African savannahs than they are at solving the more familiar tasks we face in modern life.

Reason for Inertia 7: Our addiction to a dopamine buzz

The neuroscientist and psychiatrist Paul D. MacLean developed his Triune (three brains in one) hypothesis in 1959. He suggests the human brain consists of a ‘primitive’ reptilian brain around the brain stem for controlling basic instinctual survival behaviour and thinking. Then there is the mammalian ‘Limbic’ system that handles emotion, memory and feelings associated with unconscious behavioural response patterns. Finally, there is the ‘neocortex’ which developed to enable rational thought and other higher order functions and is unique to humans. But, interestingly, human emotional response patterns depend on the neural pathways that link the right hemisphere of the neo-cortex to the mammalian brain which in turn links to the reptilian brain.
It is these connections, where impulse can override rationality, where humans engage in activity at a societal and personal level that they know to be adverse to our health and well-being but still satiates the repitilian brain in the short-term, which continue to dominate our reponse. This scenario can be seen in our relationship with tobacco, alcohol and increasingly food — the rise of obesity, diabetes and heart disease where the short-term primitive needs are met at the expense of our future condition.

Central to this behaviour is dopamine. Dopamine, a core neurotransmitter, plays an integral role in our short-term desires. It is the dopamine rush that consumers feel when securing a particular handbag or winning at the bookies. Many of the modern options that engage our neurotransmitters are maladaptive. Pornography and lottery tickets give us feelings identical to those our ancestors were good at pursuing. But now, in the 21st century, they often trick our brains into responding in the way they did which led to evolutionary success.

In his 2008 book Enough: Breaking Free from the World of More, John Naish argues that “We are lumbered with ‘wanting’ brains.” We want, want, want, and are also intrigued by novelty. Our dopamine pleasure centres in our brains are flooded when we acquire and buy. A salesperson talks of ‘shoe-limics’ . The dopaminergic systems is clearly one of the drivers of our short-term behaviour. In essence, more dopamine craving means less concern about climate change.

So Brian, tell me, in view of all these constraints on human behaviour, why do you remain optimistic that humanity will be able to change sufficiently to save itself from disaster?

Brian Davey replies:

I wouldn’t describe myself as overly optimistic but I do feel that a lot of people are capable of changing. After all, we all go through major life changes from time to time, and that gives us a collective chance to steer these personal transitions in a more ecological direction. So I think we need to explore what happens when, either intentionally or involuntarily, people move outside of their previous routines and restructure their lives.

It is not really surprising that most people’s behaviour is difficult to change most of the time. If you want to predict what most people will be doing tomorrow, then the best thing to do is to look at what they were doing yesterday and are doing today. Of course if it is a weekend then what they were doing last weekend would be a better predictor.

Routines make the management of everyday life a lot easier. As the English playwright and author Arnold Bennett put it: “The great advantage of being in a rut is that when one is in a rut, one knows exactly where one is” and “Any change, even a change for the better, is always accompanied by drawbacks and discomforts. “

That means that people are usually open to major changes only when they are outside their routines and in transition. More normally they are blinkered and prefer to stay with the familiar. So they may hear the environmental messages of the sort Mark used to deliver but only superficially. Then they ignore them or file them in their minds as “for later action…maybe” and forget them. And if they hear the messages too often, their eyes do glaze over.

Meanwhile their routines, based on an unsustainable use of social and natural commons resources, have a “locked-in” character and are often heavily “context determined”. The context includes the interrelated arrangements that arise in the relationships people have, in the places that they live and the equipment and machines that they use, sustained by their incomes and the nature of their jobs — and also by their age, health, experience, education and aspirations (or lack of aspirations).

These different elements fit together in what can be described as a “lifestyle package”. You cannot change most elements of the package very far without having to change the other elements. For example when people become parents they need to find space for their child in their habitat and that, in turn, will affect their day-to-day financial needs. Of course it will affect their time commitments too and their relationships with their partner. A child brings with it the need for a new “package” arrangement.

If you want to change you must take your relationships with you

If you want to start living differently, in a more environmentally sustainable fashion, you will usually have to take other people along with you; they too will have to change their routines and familiar patterns. Say that you decide to eat less meat for environmental reasons; if you live and eat together with others it isn’t easy to do that without them having to change too. Say you want to get involved with an environmental project in your leisure time; again, you can’t change how you spend your leisure time without it usually affecting the people with whom you currently spend your leisure.

That is really important because if you cannot bring along the others in your life when you decide to have a more sustainable lifestyle, then your lives with others may start to become desynchronised; partners and children start doing different things. And when people’s emotional lives start to become desynchronised it does not augur well for the future of their relationships. [1]

A decision to live a more sustainable life also has knock-on consequences for where you live, your income and/or your savings and your debts. It will probably affect your work — and perhaps how you get to and from work. It may affect joint budgets with your loved ones, which includes time budgets as well as money ones.

A decision to live a more sustainable lifestyle has lots of “knock-on consequences”. It takes you into unknown territory and destabilises your usual relationships with your loved ones. It may require new situations and skills. It may take you out of your comfort zone — or you may fear that it will and decide not to look more closely at it as a result.


Despite everything, there are also situations where, in the ordinary course of life, routines change or where people seek out a change in the routine because they are frustrated, bored and hemmed in by the life they are living. Every so often people go through lifestyle changes despite the risks. They seek out different things to do, in different places, with different people. As the routine is changed they have a need to review aspects of their lives, to look at options and consider different ways of acting — these are situations that may require new ideas and new skills. They may require help to make the transition too, for there is no guarantee that things will go as they hope or as well. This suggests a different way of looking at mental health crises — as botched transitions when people flounder and are disorientated and distressed by their new lives. This was anticipated by Anthony Storr [2] when he wrote

Suppose that I become dissatisfied with my habitual self, or feel that there are areas of experience or self understanding which I cannot reach. One way of exploring these is to remove myself from present surroundings and see what emerges. This is not without its dangers. Any form of new organisation or integration within the mind has to be preceded by some degree of disorganisation. No one can tell, until he has experienced it, whether or not this necessary disruption of former pattern will be succeeded by something better.

There are socially typical transitions and not so typical lifestyle changes. There are voluntary changes that people launch into themselves and changes that they are forced to make, whether they like it or not.

Examples of socially typical transitions are when young adults leave the parental home, get a job and set up relationships of their own. At the other end of life they retire. Pretty much everyone goes through transitions of these kinds; these transitions are socially normal. That is not to say however that everyone makes these transitions easily or successfully. Their previous lives may not have provided the experience, skills, financial and social resources to make the transition successfully. New relationships, activities and places might require resources and skills that people do not have. Stress and distress, disorientation, and breakdown are the hallmarks of a botched transition.

Midlife crises

A slightly less normal, if not unusual, life transition is the midlife crisis where somebody reviews their value system, considers what really matters to them, and decides that the pattern of their life needs fundamental change. They may decide to downshift, accepting a lower income for less paid work and using the extra time for things that matter more to them. Downshifting is not that uncommon and usually means adopting a more sustainable lifestyle. It doesn’t fit the argument that people are reluctant to embrace environmental sustainability. In his 2004 book Growth Fetish, Clive Hamilton [3] quotes figures from a US survey in which 19% of the adult population declared that they had voluntarily decided to make a change in their lives that resulted in making less money in the previous 5 years. That excluded people taking scheduled retirement. A similar survey in Australia found 23% of 30 to 60 year olds downshifting.

Life games

The discussion about midlife crises and the phenomenon of “downshifting” is a useful point from which to explore the important issue of life purposes. The critic of psychiatry Thomas Tsasz developed this idea when he wrote that to be mentally healthy one must have “a game” to play in life. A life game is what one might call a vocational choice, using vocational choice in its widest sense and not just in a narrow career sense. To join an extremist cause or a religious sect, or to become a committed environmentalist are examples of adopted life games. Most people, most of the time, adopt more prosaic life games and the advertising industry tries to structure our life games around shopping, status consumption and holidays — funded out of our work.

It should be noted that there is a distinction between a life game and a lifestyle package. They are not quite the same but there is a subtle interplay between the two of them. Thus, for example, efforts to organise your house and garden in an energy-efficient and self-sufficient manner are not a significant thing in the life game of someone involved in extremist left-wing politics or who lives to promote the truths, as they see it, of a religious sect, although people like this will need to arrange somewhere to live, the same as anyone else. On the other hand, to an environmentalist who is trying to save energy, the organisation of their house, with insulation to save energy and a productive vegetable garden, will be very much a part of their lifestyle package on which they concentrate to be consistent with their chosen life game.

Extrinsic and intrinsic motivations

In the next few years it is likely that consumption- and status-based life games will become increasingly unviable in manageable lifestyle packages. This is important in the light of the important distinction between people motivated by intrinsic and extrinsic purposes. Psychologists have discovered a great deal of evidence that people motivated by extrinsic goals — like making more money so that they can acquire more of the consumer goods and activities that they want — have more problems maintaining their self-esteem and life satisfaction than those motivated by intrinsic goals. This tells us that there is something very wrong with the assumptions of mainstream economics. In most mainstream economics we get a sense that making money has become the end and chief purpose in and of itself: it is the goal and purpose of life. The life game is to become rich. Full stop. People with this life game will likely be in trouble in a future of expensive energy and wobbly banks.[4]

This is even more important in those circumstances where life transitions are forced on people involuntarily — for example, through redundancy, which at its worst may bring with it the loss of home and the loss of relationships too. Involuntary life transitions may also affect whole communities, as in when a major local employer goes bust. There are serious dangers here, if people cling to unrealistic expectations of returning to a “normality” that is gone forever, and then become bitter and recidivist. In situations where a community in crisis is pervaded by cultural assumptions that favour extrinsic motivations — a high-status, high-consuming lifestyle — there are going to be lots of problems. After the shock of closures, individual community members can only hope to retain aspects of this kind of life if they resort to deviant activity like selling drugs, or acting for loan sharks or resorting to prostitution or pimping, while others dull their disappointment and frustration in other forms of self-destruction.

Seen in this way, help for individuals and communities to adopt more sustainable lifestyles that are socially valued can be seen as crucial to good individual and community mental health. This has been recognised for some time among health promotion and community mental-health professionals. Projects like community gardens, projects that promote cycling and energy efficiency in neighbourhoods, are of more than ecological relevance. They suggest that it is possible to organise holistically and try to achieve a number of goals at one time; indeed, that this needs to happen if people are to be able to cope at all. [5]

There have, of course, been many times in history when millions of people come together to adopt common life games in that unite against a common enemy in a war, or adopt a common religion or political ideology. What postmodernist theorists called a “Grand Narrative” may provide the inspiration for a common life game and the social cohesion that makes possible the achievement of far more than can be achieved by individuals or small groups alone. The inspirational power of “Grand Narratives” can be intoxicating but they may be dangerous too, inspiring a loyalty that leads to conformity, to an inability to see the world any differently from the one portrayed within the conceptual framework of the new ideology and, ultimately, to new forms of tyranny as conformity to the cause is enforced by new leaders.

In current conditions we need something of the intoxicating power of a new grand narrative with ideas like the defence of natural and social commons resources as unifying themes, but without the conformity and centralisation of a top-down bureaucracy and leadership. There is good reason to hope that we can indeed, this time, have a movement that recognises the value that comes with preserving diversity. This is because the ecological revolution, if we can call it that, proceeds from the need to resist the homogenising tendency of the world market — to recognise instead that every field, stream, forest, biotope settlement and building needs a unique management regime to restore ecological health. Nevertheless, the inspirational power and motivational potential of a new movement are already evident, as is clear from the writings and presentations of Paul Hawkens; in his book Blessed Unrest, he refers to the civil society movement as “the largest social movement in history” with perhaps as many as one or two million organisations active on the destruction of the environment, against free-market fundamentalism, for social justice and against the loss of indigenous cultures.

Using the window of opportunity to promote more sustainable lifestyles

In recent years a number of researchers have investigated whether periods of life transition can be used be seen as windows of opportunity for promoting more sustainable lifestyles and consumption patterns — albeit in situations less dramatic than those just discussed. The evidence suggests that it is possible alright, but the policy design is not straightforward.

From the point of environmental sustainability, lifestyle and consumption patterns after a significant lifestyle shift may be better, but frequently they are worse. Car use when people move home is an example. Several studies show that ” the probability for changes in mobility habits seems to rise with the degree of context variation. Persons who move from a rural area to a city tend to reduce their car use significantly more often than do persons who move from one city to another. These studies also stress, however, that variations in context do not automatically lead to the reduction of car use. While some life events like the transition to retirement, a reduction of income or a relocation to a district with good public transport (PT) may have these effects, there are others which tend to result in higher car use (e.g. birth of a child, relocation to rural areas, increase of income)”. [6]

The importance of peer support and advice

There is never just one thing going on when a lifestyle changes — it is the whole package that is changing. Moreover the person in transition will be taking advice, ideas and information from a variety of sources — from friends, family and peers, and from commercial and other sources. Nevertheless, lifestyle shifts do often provide windows of opportunity for changes in a more sustainable direction. If and when green influences can be brought to bear in these situations, they are then more effective the more they tune into the unique circumstances of the individual — rather than being generic in character. As Schäfer and Bamberg explain:

The strongest effects seem to result from personal communication that takes the personal circumstances of the addressed person into account. There is also evidence that the behavioural impact is higher if the sender has a similar social background as the addressee.

This points to the need for a movement based in communities — where people giving advice know each other personally — and not on some official programme delivered by anonymous bureaucrats. It points to the development of skills by advisers who can really tune in to unique circumstances. It is for reasons like this that we can understand the success of projects like Eco-Teams and the community activities of projects like Transition Towns. In these activities the learning is in the presence of, and between, peers — people who are considering how to organise a household rather like one’s own. Indeed, like going to a community garden regularly, this is a way of making new friends — something that one is unlikely to be able to do by accessing all one’s needs from the supermarket.

Generic programmes

While this points to the value of peer relationships and support that are more tuned into individual needs there are still occasions when generic policies can be delivered effectively. Thus Schäfer and Bamberg found that the Munich public transport administrations enjoyed considerable success when they specially targeted people newly relocating into Munich.

Typical elements of these mover-marketing campaigns are the provision of a temporally valid free PT test ticket and PT services-related information as soon as possible after the move. Evaluations of these campaigns indicate a significant impact from these simple measures on new citizens’ travel behaviour: New citizens receiving the intervention report a substantive increase of PT use and respective decrease of car use…….Car possession per household is, for example, reduced from 1.5 to 0.9 after relocation and PT is used more often. These effects were significantly higher among the group that was addressed by the campaign in comparison to the control group (increase of 7.6% of the modal split). The results show that the effects were mainly achieved by increasing knowledge about the use of PT. From these results Bamberg (2006) drew the conclusion that linking such campaigns to life events is an effective strategy for increasing behavioural mobility changes.


In a recent book the Financial Times columnist and economist John Kay argues that policy, business and life goals are often best achieved not by pursuing them head on, directly, but by an indirect approach. His book is aptly titled Obliquity. The complaint of environmentalists, that people are reluctant to change, is often because they are approaching the change process too directly and too generically. Indeed there is always a danger that when one tries to get people to change, and at the wrong times, one is perceived as interfering and moralistic. The implied message that people “should change their ways” is experienced as subtle criticism that can often be rejected — “who are you to tell me how I should live my life?”

An oblique approach is required to deal with the problems that Mark highlights. People change the way they arrange their lives from time to time anyway and/or are forced to do so whether they like it or not. The trick of moving towards more environmentally sustainable lives may be to find ways to intervene in these periods of transition in a way that is experienced as helpful by people who lead by personal example. As far as possible this needs to be tuned into the unique circumstances facing individuals and as far as possible it needs to be in the form of advice and support coming from peer groups. In the difficult times ahead there will certainly be enough people who need this kind of support.


See also my paper “The De-Growth Economy and Lifestyles”, produced for the Economic De-Growth for Ecological Sustainability and Social Equity conference, Paris, 18/19th April 2008 http://events.it-sudparis.eu/degrowthconference/en/themes/

  1. Luigi Boscolo and Paulo Bertrando. The Times of the Times. A New Perspective in Systemic Therapy and Consultation. WW Norton 1993.)
  2. Anthony Storr, Solitude, HarperCollins 1994 page 35
  3. Clive Hamilton, Growth Fetish, Pluto Press, 2004, p 206).
  4. http://www.bgmi.us/web/bdavey/Life.htm
  5. Davey B., “Solving Economic, Social and Environmental Problems Together: An Empowerment Strategy for Losers” in Barnes, M and Warren L (eds) Alliances and Partnerships in Empowerment. Bristol, Policy Press 1999).
  6. Schäfer, M./Bamberg, S. (2008): “Breaking Habits: Linking Sustainable Consumption Campaigns to Sensitive Life Events”. Proceedings: Sustainable Consumption and Production: Framework for Action, 10-11 March 2008,