The challenges of our time can feel overwhelming: climate change, economic inequality, water scarcity – even the most passionate campaigner might want to pull the covers over and look away. So can single-issue campaigns such as Buy Nothing New Month or Meat Free Week help us divide important causes into manageable chunks? Or do they only distract?
Peter Burr, CEO of Meat Free Week
Single-issue campaigns are most effective when we have an emotional connection linking us directly to the cause – an aunt dying of bowel cancer; work with mistreated animals; or a concern for the world we’re leaving to our children. Emotional connections compel us to support a cause because we hope to prevent others from enduring the same suffering.
We’re thirsty for knowledge, so any campaign that gets a conversation started will have an impact . Even if you take away only a single aspect of the message that positively influences your life, that’s got to be a good thing.
I have no doubt “wear out” means many people will not participate in a campaign for a second year. But with each year, campaigns attract a significant new audience. That coupled with the residual memory of previous years’ campaigns, will start to return greater numbers. It won’t happen overnight, but it will happen. We’re hoping to achieve that result with Meat Free Week – it’s hard to change habits of a lifetime, but they said that about cigarettes.
Tom Crompton, director of Common Cause Foundation
Stepping up to the challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss is not easy. Embracing small changes in our everyday lives is one important response – but let’s not kid ourselves that this can be remotely sufficient. In the words of David McKay, chief scientific adviser to the department of energy and climate change in the UK, “Don’t be distracted by the myth that ‘every little helps’. If everyone does a little, we’ll achieve only a little.”
Anyone concerned about climate change could ask: How am I encouraging and supporting others to become more vocal in expressing concern – for example, by joining campaigns or public demonstrations, or making far-reaching changes in the way that they live?
Building this deeper concern need not require work on climate change at all. Work on a wide range of issues can be effective, even where there is no mention of anything obviously related to the environment. What’s needed is a re-connection with the things people say are most important to them: friends and family, our communities, beautiful places, the poor or disadvantaged, freedom and creativity.
Conversely, urging people to reuse their shopping bags, or to switch the TV off standby, can undermine this more important work. Unless they invite re-connection with these deeper values, behaviour-change campaigns can be counter-productive if they don’t invite reconnection with deeper values, and can leave people less inclined to respond in more significant ways.
David Willans, director of Will & Progress
Single-issue campaigning is effective if you’re looking for change on a specific issue. It can be incredibly effective for behaviour change if people are aware of a problem, but don’t know what to do about it, as campaigns such as Jamie’s Chicken Run and Hugh’s Fish Fight demonstrate. Traditionally, this type of campaign is akin to taking market share from a competitor. You’re taking people from one behaviour to another. There are mountains of evidence out there demonstrating how to do it (pdf).
If someone’s making a change out of a sense of obligation, as soon as that obligation disappears, all things being equal, so does the change. But thankfully all things are never equal. If the change becomes part of someone’s sense of identity, or gives them a cocktail of personal, social and/or economic benefit that outweighs the effort, there’s a good chance it will last.
Something is effective if it delivers a desired result. If the objective of holistic environmental campaigns is holistic change, which history shows us is never the work of one action, how can you ever decide whether it’s effective? There are two schools of thought about how to drive change at this level. One is intrinsically led change, where we focus on connecting with universally held values and changing societal narratives. The idea is that over time people will shift from one way of living to another. The other is extrinsically led change, where we focus on specifics such as audiences, behaviours and benefits. The idea is that specific changes build up to create more holistic change.
The evidence shows both create positive change. Therefore we need to be doing more and sharing our insights to get better at it. Pitting one against the other is playing the kind of point-scoring game you hear at Prime Minister’s Questions. It’s self-serving and self-defeating and actively puts people off, preventing learning and ultimately wasting precious time.
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