Feminism and behaviour change: do current demands for environmental behaviour change disadvantage women?

July 30, 2012 § Leave a comment

What are the politics of current demands for behaviour change? Do these demands fall unequally on women and men? Do we need to think more about gender roles in creating a low-carbon society? These were the themes of a workshop I ran recently for the Green Party’s ‘Women by Name’ conference.

Because of the way domestic tasks tend to be divided, it is likely that more responsibility for reducing carbon emissions will fall on women: there is the potential to push women back into domestic practices and roles that as feminists we fought to leave behind. If using less energy means using fewer labour-saving devices then it isn’t hard to predict who is likely to be providing that labour.

Unfair family footprints

A quick glance at a family carbon footprint can be illuminating. Who is most likely to find themselves responsible for routine behavioural changes such as such as turning lights and equipment off, drying laundry outside, cooking from scratch rather than using processed foods, chopping vegetables smaller, defrosting the freezer or walking the children to school? All these activities fall within women’s traditional sphere of responsibility and are repetitive and time consuming. They add to the everyday burden of life. If taken on they can add to the stereotype of women as nagging about domestic work. In contrast tasks stereotypically done by men tend to be one-offs – doing some DIY to draught-strip the doors, ordering a new boiler or arranging insulation. So where women’s commitment to carbon reduction tends to be onerous in its everyday changes, men’s is likely to be less so. « Read the rest of this entry »


Siblings, justice and equality – Joseph Rowntree report finds that fairness and a sense of obligation matter for climate change

May 31, 2012 § Leave a comment

In thinking about people’s motivations to act on climate change, have we ignored the influence of one of the crucial relationships of family life – that of siblings?

Many appeals to the public pander to people’s self-interest and materialism, seeing them as individuals with narrow, individualistic concerns. The short-termism of this approach has been criticised very effectively from a values perspective. Commentators like Tom Crompton and Tim Kasser point out the failure of such approaches to build deeper cultural change. They argue convincingly that it is the values opposed to this individualism – values based on concerns bigger than self – that need to be triggered if we are to address multiple social ills. Justice and equality figure strongly amongst these values but the psychological dynamics that lie behind them are not often discussed.

Siblings are the template

Sibling relationships provide the template for lateral relationships with peers in adult life and can profoundly affect people’s ideas on justice and equality. The childhood refrain ‘It’s not fair,’ echoes in the adult world in arguments about just rewards, entitlement, equality and free-loading. We can hear it in current arguments about ‘hard-working families’, ‘benefit scroungers’ and ‘irresponsible bankers’.

Sibling relationships are characterised on the positive side by solidarity, loyalty, co-operation and willingness to share. The discovery of one’s inventiveness and creativity often arrives (along with mischief and devilment) in first friendships. On the negative side of sibling relationships lie rage at having been displaced, rivalry, envy and the suspicion that someone else may be getting a better deal or swinging the lead. And it is amongst childhood peer networks that we often get our first taste of bullying, of ‘might is right’ and the destructive power of taunts and teasing. « Read the rest of this entry »

Why the language of fracking demeans women and nature and closes off debate

April 24, 2012 § 3 Comments

The recent recommendation by government advisers that “fracking” for shale gas is safe to resume is bad news for anyone concerned about climate change. But is the way this issue has been framed – the language and metaphors through which it is represented – a help or a hindrance?

The term ‘fracking’ is shorthand for hydraulic fracturing, the process by which rock fissures are forced open with a mix of water and chemicals to release gas trapped deep below the earth’s surface. It is also a euphemism – popularised by the 1978 TV series Battlestar Galactica – for the word ‘fuck’. Geoscience and associated industries remain male-dominated (only 8% of US geology professors are women for example) so the term was almost certainly adopted into the industry by men, easily drawn to a sanitised expletive which at a deeper level expresses disturbing but not uncommon ideas about the relationships between men and women and the relationships between humans and the rest of the natural world. « Read the rest of this entry »

Bringing the safe inner space to climate change communication

April 1, 2012 § Leave a comment

Research has given us a lot of good ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ on how to communicate about climate change. It tells us that:

  •  information doesn’t by itself change people’s minds
  • confirmation bias means that people seek out facts that confirm their existing views
  • people find it hard to understand risks that are not immediate and tangible
  • fear appeals have mixed effects

However we rarely talk about the inner state of the person we are communicating with and how this relates to the creative, innovative, whole-hearted and committed responses we need. If we are to help people avoid the flight into false certainty and paranoia that I wrote about last month, what kind of emotional state should be trying to foster? « Read the rest of this entry »

Exploiting vulnerability – a key tactic of climate change denial

February 27, 2012 § Leave a comment

Recent leaks about the extent to which America’s Heartland Institute has been funded to disseminate climate change disinformation have shocked many. The sums involved are huge and the opinion shift in the US has been dramatic. In a recent article for The Nation, Naomi Klein reported that the number of Americans who believe that burning fossil fuels causes the climate to change has fallen from 71% in 2007 to 44% in June 2011.

But why are the arguments of organisations like the Heartland Institute so successful? Why do people shift their views so rapidly? Why do people believe information that is so contrary to their interests?

States of confusion

Some clues can be found in the work of Bryant Welch and his book ‘State of Confusion’, published in 2008. « Read the rest of this entry »

35 British Standard Objections to Change

January 30, 2012 § 1 Comment

Workplace resolutions about sustainability can easily dissolve in the face of uncooperative colleagues or a recalcitrant manager. Are people just being pig-headed, or is there more to it?

’35 British Standard Objections to Change’ is a list I first came across in the 1980s while preparing training materials for the Local Government Training Board. The list starts ‘Our work is different,’ and ends ‘We haven’t got money for this at present’. On the way it covers such gems as ‘We’ve been doing it that way for 25/15/10/5 years’, ‘We’ve never done it before’, ‘We tried it once before’, No-one’s ever tried it before,’ ‘Nothing new about it. We’ve been doing it all the time,’ ‘It’s so completely new to us,’  ‘The boss/committee/staff/clients/Treasurers/Personnel won’t like it’…and so on.  The list captured the culture of local government bureaucracy at the time and produced wry smiles from anyone who had tried to shift the entrenched attitudes of people who were accustomed to their routine ways of doing things. You can see the full list here.

Resisting change

The idea that change is resisted through cultural attitudes and social systems is an important one, first suggested in the work of Jacques and Menzies-Lyth where they identified anxiety as the key factor driving resistance. Most people are made anxious by demands for change. The demands may:

  • imply criticism of the status quo or suggest that work is not being done efficiently or effectively;
  • call into question people’s ideas about their core purpose and tasks. In relation to sustainability, business people may be faced with questions about the morality and viability of their business area. Is it inherently destructive? Does it have a future in a changing world?
  • threaten loss – of familiar tasks and goals, relationships or responsibilities;
  • have practical implications such as redundancy, heavier workloads or additional responsibility;
  • touch more primitive anxieties. This seems particularly true of climate change where fears of having done irreparable damage or guilt about greed can easily be stimulated.

Relying on the system

In the face of such anxiety, defensiveness is natural. What is unique about organisations however is the opportunity to frame the defence in terms of the organisation’s culture and systems. In each of the ‘British Standard Objections’ recourse was being made to some aspect of the culture or workplace system that was seen as part of the natural order or beyond the individual’s influence. In 1980s local government, this tended to be the well-established routines, roles and hierarchies of an inward-looking bureaucracy.

Modern business culture is quite different of course but the process is the same. Where 1980s local government employees fell back on the idea of an inevitable and unchanging bureaucracy, modern, private sector employees invoke the structures of the market, the attitudes of the customer or the arcane practices of the IT department to explain why – although they might like to – they will not be taking action. Do any of the following sound familiar?

Contemporary standard objections

‘It’s not competitive’, ‘It won’t be profitable’, ‘There isn’t a market’, ‘It will inhibit innovation’, ‘The board/customers/IT department/sales department won’t like it’, ‘We can’t afford it’, ‘We haven’t got time for it’, ‘It will reduce efficiency’, ‘It’s not viable for a small company’, ‘It’s not viable for a large company’…and so on. The full list can be found here, along with the original 35 British Standard Objections to Change. Often such responses conceal an underlying anxiety. This may be about climate change itself or about the process of change and the threats that it brings.

Making space and time to address these anxieties is essential. Although systems have to be reviewed and new procedures or technologies initiated the anxieties stimulated by demands for change must also be understood and dealt with. If they are not addressed, they will fuel resistance to change, usually through a strong defence of the existing system and culture.

(This piece first appeared on the Guardian Sustainable Business site)

See my chapter in the new volume edited by MaryJayne Rust and Nick Totton Vital Signs: psychological responses to ecological crisis, due from Karnac in February 2012.


Vital signs – new year essential reading

January 1, 2012 § Leave a comment

Christmas is a time when environmentalists feel duty bound to have a quick moan about the way over-consumption is wrecking the planet. (I joined in with a post for the Guardian in December.) The reasons why UK citizens purchase an unconscionable amount of ‘stuff’ are complex and not reducible to simplistic notions of greed or manipulation by advertisers however. « Read the rest of this entry »

Defeat and defeatism

November 30, 2011 § 1 Comment

The mood as we approach the Durban negotiations is sombre. Coming to terms psychologically with the defeat at Copenhagen will not change the political outcomes but could make a difference to campaigners’ capacities to continue the struggle. « Read the rest of this entry »

Safe spaces

November 1, 2011 § 1 Comment

The idea of the ‘safe space’ is crucial to psychotherapy. What relevance does it have to climate change?

Listening and respect

Many people find it hard to accept the reality of climate change and the need for both urgent action and widespread socio-political change. This is often an emotional rather than an intellectual problem: climate change threatens much that people hold dear. ‘Safe spaces’ where people can come to terms with what may happen, the changes that are needed and their own feelings about it can be crucial in helping them take action both in their personal lives and politically, as citizens. « Read the rest of this entry »

Denial, culture and ideology

October 2, 2011 § 3 Comments

Is climate change denial all to do with uncomfortable emotions and psychological defences as I argued last month? Dan Kahan and the cultural cognition project argue that denial has more to do with a particular kind of rationality that is rooted in people’s cultural beliefs. His research produces some interesting results. « Read the rest of this entry »