Low carbon behaviour needs the selfish gene

“Why are we indulging in an act of collective suicide when the most powerful force within ourselves is the instinct for survival?”

This could be the last cry of a disgraced MP, in despair that the obsession for re-election that goes with the job could be undone by petty larceny.

In fact it was my own question posed in the context of climate change at a Science Museum event on Tuesday called “Climate (Mis)behaviour” for which I was roped in to join the panel. We were asked to explore strategies to trigger the behaviour change necessary to counter global warming.

I never got an answer to my question. First I made a hash of my own presentation, hopelessly overestimating how much I could say in four minutes.

Then the audience vote went in favour of a strategy to invest in big technology. To my mind this is the signature tune for those who deny the need for any behaviour change.

Finally, before it was all over, the panel was asked whether we were optimistic or pessimistic about the prospects for planet earth. By far our most expert colleague, the Science Museum Director, Professor Chris Rapley, replied somewhat circumspectly but I think I have to report that he was not optimistic.

On a brighter note, this was a participatory event which, in the words of the Dana Centre organisers, was “trying out a new format called Policy Slam …..with the help of the experts, you will discuss, present and vote on several different options.” This certainly happened and there must have been 70-80 people there who all seemed to have something thoughtful and sensible to say.

My group favoured the idea of a scary public information campaign to shock people into behaviour change. It worked for HIV/AIDS and drink-driving, ran the argument.

Like most of the propositions during the evening, this approach assumes a public acceptance of government authority that was suspect even before this week’s parliamentary debacle. Middle England doesn’t respond to the hectoring tone of admonition that low carbon advocates often favour.

Government of course has a role to play. I like the idea of the personal carbon allowance because the onus for decision-making falls to individuals rather than institutions. It also respects the principle of equity for poorer countries. Legislation will be needed and the devil is in the detail, as we were warned by Tina Fawcett of the Environmental Change Institute.

Creating space for individuals to take the lead is my preferred high level strategy for behaviour change. By an immense stroke of good fortune, the digital revolution has arrived at this moment of existential crisis. Personal communications technologies provide the vital tools that enable us to learn what others are doing and to keep government and big business in their place. We must nurture and protect this new freedom.

The OneClimate initiative pioneered by OneWorld UK is inspired by this philosophy. The more we can return power to people, the more we can reconnect with those survival genes which have served us so well in the past.


this article was first published by OneWorld UK