Being green: A question of class

Research tells us the public understands the environmental dilemma we find ourselves in, and is keen to act. But, asks Barrie Clarke of Water UK, just how accurate is it?

"People are irrational, that's all there is to that! Their heads are full of cotton, hay, and rags! They're nothing but exasperating, irritating, vacillating, calculating, agitating, maddening and infuriating lags!"

Even amended for a politically correct era, the old Alan J Lerner lyric (1) remains an entertaining, if extreme, comment on the truth that there's nowt so unpredictable as folk. While being thankful (how boring if it weren't the case) we should also admit it can be frustrating. Want a cleaner environment? Of course. OK to pay a bit more?

Yes, sure. Hosepipe ban once every ten years? No problem.

No problem, that is, until the water runs short or the bill comes in.

Understanding people, let alone changing their behaviour, is hard. In the water policy business, we still have to try. A lot rests on getting it right - in practical matters such as persuading people not to waste water or use the loo as a dustbin - but also political stuff, such as people's attitudes to their water bills paying for things unconnected to the service they receive.

There are pitfalls here for the unwary and, let's be frank, the well intentioned. One reason accepted by most people is that consumer research has been compromised by being used as an arm of public relations, rather than as a source of objective information. Another reason, less recognised, is that research carried out for those with an interest in a single aspect of people's lives - diet, say, or alcohol, or water use - can be misleading because it puts an artificial focus on that aspect at the expense of a rounded perspective.

If this is right, two things follow. First, the findings of consumer research must be combined with evidence from as wide a field as possible. Secondly, social and environmental policy-makers must put their own hopes and fears to one side if they want to be successful. The importance of each is illustrated by some recent developments.

The Nuffield Council of Bioethics (a respected group of academics and medics) last month called for more action on binge drinking (2). It said government would be justified in introducing "measures that are more coercive than those ... in the National Alcohol Strategy".

It recommended higher taxes and shorter licensing hours. It also said that the arguments for banning smoking in enclosed public spaces would apply to banning smoking in homes, and that town planners should design buildings and public spaces to encourage more active lifestyles.

Well-intentioned or not, this got short shrift from lobby groups and a wide spread of public opinion. The Times said that "given the right information individuals will generally act with moderation and common sense in the interests of their families. If they choose not to, that is surely up to them". The would-be coercers provoked the "nanny-state" criticism they expected and the outcome seemed to be more hot air.

The government's annual survey of attitudes to the environment (4) is as fair a picture as any. It reports a majority view that "humans are severely abusing the environment and man's interference with nature may produce disastrous consequences". Sounds like progress for the green lobby.

But environmentalists, especially well-heeled ones, should hold the fizz a while. We also read that "people living in rented accommodation, readers of tabloid newspapers and those in lower social grades were most likely to say that the environment was a low priority for them and to offer a range of reasons for not changing their lifestyle".

Like it or not, positive behaviour on the environment correlates with wealth, education, healthy and relatively secure lives and we who would influence policy had better not forget it. Things hang together, so be suspicious of plans to change social or environmental behaviour if they have a single focus: car use or water efficiency for example.

Smoking might be different, but then again for the last four years tobacco shares listed in the UK and US have gained at nearly twice the market rate. And in 2006 McDonald's UK cut promotion of salad and fruit, focused on selling burgers, and saw operating profits grow by a healthy 27%.

1 A hymn to him, My Fair Lady, Lerner and Loewe, 1956
2 Public health: ethical issues, Nuffield Council of Bioethics, November 2007
3 The Times, A sugared pill, leader, 13 November 2007
4 Survey of attitudes and behaviour in relation to the environment, Defra, November 2007

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