Knox College Illinois

Values and Climate Change Behaviours Conference

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Schwartz’s Value Circumplex

The Scottish Government’s conference on values and behaviours focused on the ways psychology could inform work to address climate change.  Prof Tim Kasser, Knox College, Illinois; Dr Anat Bardi, Royal Holloway, University of London and Prof Greg Maio, University of Cardiff, introduced current thinking in psychology of values.  For those interested in this approach, check out and in particular the Common Cause Handbook.

The argument being made in the offices of the Scottish Government last week was fundamentally against neo-liberal capitalism.  Saving the planet requires engaging (in Tim Kasser’s language) people’s ‘intrinsic’ values such as universalism and benevolence, as opposed to their ‘extrinsic’ values such as power and achievement.  Interesting suggestions were made such as banning advertising from public space and banning advertising aimed at children, given that we are apparently on average subjected to 1600 ‘adverts’ per day.

The panel sessions were more diverse and included papers on ‘Collapse’ in a North Atlantic Context, Andrew Dugmore, University of Edinburgh; and Faith Traditions and Sustainability: ‘Moving Mountains’?, Ian Christie, University of Surrey.  Dugmore’s analysis of Viking society and resilience to environmental change across the North Atlantic was fascinating, as was Christie’s work on engaging religious groups with issues of sustainability.

Across the day, whilst the psychological analysis portrays itself as having all the answers, it does offer some important insights, such as the way that values are connected.  Often different ’causes’ are seen to be in competition with each other, but from a psychological perspective, what is important is whether they are addressing a common set of values.  This suggested that environmental organisations could usefully form alliances with organisations in other sectors and focus on emphasising common values.

But the link between values and behaviours is not simple.  Although cognitive dissonance was not specifically mentioned, there was considerable discussion, and both Christie’s and Dugmore’s presentations offered nuanced readings.  Christie was at pains to emphasise that engaging faith groups, although potentially very effective, was not without risks.  Dugmore’s analysis of the collapse of Viking society in Greenland indicated that they had successfully adapted to one environmental change (the mini ice age), but the adaptations had infact trapped them (in tighter hierarchies and patterns of behaviour), reducing their ability to address a second phase of change.  Christie also highlighted the importance of ‘wilful’ individuals, saying that faith groups that engage with issues of sustainability usually do so through the leadership of specific individuals, rather than group decisions.

In the plenary some discussion focused on the relationship between the current economic crisis and broader environmental change issues.  It was suggested that, whilst economic crisis often results in greater concentration on extrinsic values, reflection on the crisis actually promotes longer term thinking and focus on intrinsic values.  It would have been interesting to hear more about mindfulness.

Finally the theologian in the room asked whether the language of ‘intrinsic’ values actually had a root in Aristotelian virtues: virtuous behaviour is our best bet to address climate change.  There’s a thought!


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