Is saving the planet a question of shame?

‘Save the Planet’ seems to be the rallying cry for many green groups.  I’ve been arguing for some time however that while this message appeals to those motivated by the desire to ‘do the right thing’, it’s failing to move sufficient numbers of people into action.

My argument has drawn upon a number of pieces of research that have looked at the motivations and the responses to different environmental messages of different sectors of the population.  For instance, the ‘Warm Words’ study from the IPPR which found that the alarmist and small actions narratives around climate change disempowered people and lacked credibility; or work looking at cultural dynamics, which suggests that most people are motivated by satisfying status driven needs and reject messages that criticise their lifestyle choices.

This week however, a blog piece ‘What saves Energy – Shame’ has added even more colour to my argument.  The article outlines new research from MIT that looked at what motivates people to act in environmentally friendly ways.  I’m not sure that ‘shame’ is quite the right term (shame falls into my trap of telling people they’re doing something wrong – it’s more about “this is how we do things around here”), but the researchers found that social norms were  key to getting people to act.  The blog gives an interesting and vivid example:

“In 2008, a ritzy hotel in Phoenix, Arizona (a city with a limited energy future) induced conservation with three different signs. One witless card said “Save the Environment.” Another encouraged bathers to “Preserve Resources for the Future.” But the card that got guests reusing their towels in big numbers said “Join Your Fellow Citizens In Helping to Save the Environment.” It also included information that 70 per cent of guests generally did so.”

I might not be buying the ‘nudge’ solutions being prescribed (it makes it sound as if changing behaviour is really easy, when it’s not), but it does point to the need for a different way of talking about the environment.


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