Imagine a world where—rather than envying the excesses of the uber-rich—such behaviour is widely and openly spurned. Where little luxuries were seen as good, with all people deserving of them—but large luxuries and a life of leisure were seen as the ill-gotten gains of environmental degradation and social oppression.
A life of luxury and leisure is not possible in today’s world without extensive environmental damage and deep social inequity. Arguably, our collective obsession with luxury fuels the unsustainable growth in consumption among the well-off (including most of us in high-income nations), which in turn drives environmental degradation. Even the many of us who are not obsessed with such luxury both feel its cultural pull and are largely private about our disapproval.
The current obsession with luxury is not a given. Values about luxury ebb and flow through time, but they are at a climax now due to today’s mix of technology, global wealth, and immediate access to how the rich and famous live.
Some values change quickly, when the right conditions emerge. This may sound surprising to those versed in psychology, sociology, and other social sciences, who have absorbed the idea that values only change over generational time scales. Our analysis differs because we’re talking about relational values—notions of appropriate or desired relationships—not held values like the abstract notions of courage, fairness, or liberty.
Thus, we all have a much more important role than previously recognized in helping to change societal values. The third leverage point endorsed by most of the world’s nations acknowledges the power of values to spark change in social norms and practices (see Leverage Point 3, Latent Values of Responsibility). This power is manifest especially in situations where existing values are somewhat at odds with the context—where many people feel that their actions don’t fully reflect their values. Here, a small, strategic change could enable the expression of those values in ways that ripple through whole systems.
Because the CoSphere team has extensive expertise with values, unleashing values consistent with sustainability is a core focus for us. Values about luxury are but one example of the values that matter.
Let’s be clear: with lots of problems, values mostly follow, not lead. Recycling, composting, and transportation decisions including walking, biking, and public transit: in all these cases, values will largely follow behaviour, and behaviour requires supporting infrastructure and norms. Can you imagine a world where most people feel that it’s wrong not to properly recycle or compost every single thing? Such a world is impossible without widespread availability of products that can be properly recycled and composted, and the infrastructure that enables that to be easy. That is, not without a circular economy. The current mess we’re in, where the vast majority of products cannot be properly recycled or composted, makes it impossible for people to enact zero-waste values. And because of the power of our brains to protect us from the cognitive dissonance of living against our values, if people can’t enact those values, most won’t even feel them deeply.
There are whole classes of social problems where infrastructure is not wholly limiting, though, but problems persist due to history, habits, and the self-reinforcing nature of norms. For these problems, underlying values are supportive but latent, and norm change could perhaps be initiated by “a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens”—to quote Margaret Mead. Think consent, racism, sexism, gender identity, equity, citizenship (including the planetary kind), and luxury. Many of these problems are fundamental to sustainability. And yet there is a gap in sustainability initiatives: most focus on behaviour change, without attending explicitly to the crucial links with relational values. CoSphere seeks to assist and leverage efforts to unleash values for sustainable pathways.
So how might values be unleashed? This is a big topic, but in this ‘primer’ we’ll touch on four key pieces, which are not widely practiced.
1. First, working to unleash values through norm change must involve doing more than private actions (like what we buy, how we travel). These private actions are an important foundation, but alone they don’t create the kind of accelerating ripples outward that can stem from system-changing and social signalling actions. Far too frequently, when people ask what they can do to fight climate change or protect the environment, they’re told to buy something (e.g., an electric car) or not buy something (e.g., palm oil), to recycle, turn off the water while toothbrushing, etc. Those actions are all largely private.
2. Second, the actions and lifestyles we model must be clearly achievable and broadly desirable. If changes seem too hard, costly, or weird, people will reject the model as one that applies to them. Thus, there is limited normalizing power in the bloggers who—for example—go waste-free or plastic-free for a year. For most people, while these efforts are impressive as spectacles, seeing someone give up their day-job or their hobbies for a waste-free or plastic-free life does not inspire imitation. Such efforts have other important purposes, including raising awareness about the need for structural change. But some kinds of messages can alienate people and create a counter-productive dynamic of us vs. them. For example, many organizations and companies have given the message that buying organic food is a necessary component of environmentalism. But organic food is often much more expensive, and many products aren’t available in organic, such that people get the impression that being an environmentalist means being rich or uber-committed.
3. Third, for transformative change, actions and values must be linked to enable broad shifts. Modeling actions can be much more inspiring when linked to shared values, and through those to other kinds of actions. Yet it’s common to be quiet about the values that underlie our actions. For example, flying less isn’t a conspicuous action, and it could stem from many different circumstances. Meanwhile, explicitly limiting our plane travel—as a component of a broader commitment to conscientious consumption and a low-carbon lifestyle—has the potential to contribute to norm-change that includes not just travel but also other actions.
4. Fourth, to inspire broader change, we need to be likeable, and to be nice. People often want to be like people they like. Modeling behaviour is thus only really helpful within social groups, due to how we unconsciously orient ourselves by our social groups, even in how we understand facts (this is called ‘cultural cognition’). These forces are so strong that if you appear to be clearly in someone’s outgroup (say, based on religion or politics), your modeling could back-fire and make that person less likely to follow. But in-groups are somewhat fluid (we have many identities), so the task is to prime people’s perceptions based on shared identities rather than differences (e.g., parenthood, patriotism, love of a sport or a holiday). Being nice sounds obvious, and yet too often when we seek to make a statement about some value-based behaviour (e.g., protesting pipelines for the climate), we come off as angry and self-righteous.
These forces of social persuasion and cultural change are powerful. For centuries, several have been used effectively by marketers and retailers to get people to buy products and services. They have worked magically: now many people are thoroughly persuaded and even psychologically conditioned to consume—both in general and for specific categories and things.
Now it’s time to promote widespread social and cultural change—complete with values—to achieve a better world for all.
Written by Kai Chan of the CoSphere Team.