Behavior Change
It's Not You, It's We:
Why Values Alone Aren't Enough for a Sustainable World

“The circumstances of the world are continually changing….That which may be thought right and found convenient in one age, may be thought wrong and found inconvenient in another. In such cases, who is to decide, the living, or the dead?”

Thomas Paine

It’s not you, it’s we

The world abounds in theories (and models) of change, from Theory U to Kotter’s 8 Step Change model, McKinsey’s 7S model and many more.

At the heart of all of these, and of many sustainability campaigns, is a focus upon the role and importance of values in supporting and driving any form of change.

Many sustainability approaches suggest that we must appeal to people’s values, so that they can persuade business and government of the importance of the issue and the need for action to move towards a sustainable world.

Calls for values-based change for sustainability tend to go something like this:

"All we need for a sustainable world is an evolution in human values, for humanity to move away from the shallow association of stuff with happiness … and to move towards a higher state of self-actualisation."

This approach revolves around the idea of sin and guilt — essentially indicating that if we were better people then things in general would be better.

However, while this is quite possibly true, the argument includes the erroneous notion that sustainability or unsustainability is somehow an easy matter of will or choice. Instead of being the product of the very warp and weft of our systems of value and production.

Context is everything — values do not arise from the ether

Below the level of change management models lie only two universal and immutable determinants for things to happen in our universe, in either physical or social dimensions: opportunity and capability.

If both are in place, change occurs. If not, the status quo persists. It is context that determines opportunity and capability.

The values of different societies have definitively varied over time. The value given by Roman society to the lives of gladiators or Christians was for a time very different to the value given to the life of a Senator. In the 17th century, slaves were considered property, rather than as sovereign human beings.

Values do not exist in isolation — they arise out of a complex mix of factors; human psychology and neuropathology, social mores, physical reality and the political and economic norms that are at play.

The range of behaviour expressed across human societies has a firm relationship with the hard and soft infrastructure of those societies — from the methods by which things are valued and priced, to the way that things are prioritised and produced.

  • People make choices contextually — not on an absolute basis — choice arises primarily from availability.
  • Economic, cultural and industrial infrastructure is a significant determinant — it mediates the range of choices available to us.
  • Only a minority of people will act on their values when it is difficult — at variance to the social norm — the publication, Rethinking Consumption (2012), from BBMG, Globescan and SustainAbility, found that such people, termed “Advocates,” represent an average of 14 percent of the world’s population.
  • The majority will follow their peers and go for the easy and obvious choices — “Rethinking Consumption” classes these as “Aspirationals” and “Practicals,” together representing an average of 71 percent of the world’s population.

Fertile ground for change

If the conceptual and physical infrastructure of the world plays such a huge role in defining and driving the human choices that are open to us, so it must also be the determining factor in whether values for sustainability move from intent to action.

Intent and action are inextricably either supported or enabled by our systems of value, prioritisation, production and supply. We cannot buy what is not available. We might have the intention to, but the action is impossible until that choice becomes available. Intentions need fertile ground to thrive in.

Turning the tide

“To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

R. Buckminster Fuller

Allowing the potential values we hold to be expressed through action is not a matter of guilt and should not require that we must swim against the prevailing tide. Sustainability will come when we turn the tide.

Making sustainable choices the norm, rather than the exception, is the major means by which sustainable intent will turn into sustainable action. However, making such outcomes the default (e.g. “You can have anything you like, as long as it’s sustainable”) requires a more significant evolution of value than is currently underway through responsible consumption initiatives.

While a greater number of sustainable choices are becoming available, they still struggle to become mainstream because of the dominating value of conventional, unsustainable alternatives.

Many efforts to re-conceptualise the nature of economics and value are underway, from Kate Raworth’s tools for the 21st-century economist, the Natural Capital Coalition’s work to put the value of nature on the agenda of business, the Capital Institute and Long Finance’s approaches to exploring new models of money and markets, a range of Green Economy and New Economy initiatives, to our own Towards 9 Billion vision for a sustainable economy with a point and purpose.

All such ideas, and any successful system, must focus upon providing humanity with sustainable access to the eternal verities of human existence; sustenance, shelter, and materials (other stuff that we need and want).

Each is required, none can be significantly ignored.

Given this, if we wish for our species to persist, and even thrive, we must be able to understand how to deliver these requirements without giving rise to our own demise (like this, perhaps). Sustainability must become a natural outcome or side effect of being alive.

The capability for us to act is manifest in the form of sustainable tools and solutions, the potential for action is present in the majority of us. We need economics and capitalism to provide opportunity — the fertile ground needed to turn sustainable aspiration (I would if I could) into actual sustainability (I will and I can).

This post first appeared on the Terrafiniti blog on June 25, 2014.


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