Tony Juniper: Sustainability must learn how to tap into humanity

The sustainability debate needs to realign itself with social values if challenges around behaviour change are to be overcome, leading environmentalist Tony Juniper has said.

During a keynote speech at Sustainability Live in Birmingham last week, Juniper warned that any attempt by the green movement to advocate behaviour change was “quite a dangerous business” as the question of credibility often arose.

“There are very few people in society who are in a position to tell other people what to do,” he said.

According to Juniper, what most environmentalists and those working in the sustainability field often overlook is human nature itself, and the underlying dynamics that drive our decision-making processes.

“Many of us ignore the fact that behaviour is the manifestation of some much deeper things that are going on in our psychology.

“Ultimately behaviour is the reflection of our values and these values are often unconscious in terms of how people react to different propositions, how they react to stimuli in their environment. If we don’t understand that it can make things worse,” he argued.

Juniper likened behaviour to being “the tip of a values iceberg” that needed to be mapped much more effectively.

He cautioned against taking an overly-scientific or information-based approach with consumer-facing messaging as it often resulted in psychological rejection.

“Certain individuals really don’t want to change their world view and their behaviour because their values clash with what is being said … where the implications of climate science are leading to an utter rejection of the whole agenda because it’s about big government and constraints on personal freedom.”

He added: “I would argue that in order to change behaviour on climate change, giving people more science is not going to be the way forward”.

Juniper said that the solution lies in sustainability professionals finding the right tools that can lock into different cultural dynamics such as community, peer pressures, ingrained habits and individual status.

This would also involve environmental issues being taken “out of the ghetto” and mainstreamed, he added.

Maxine Perella

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