One of my favourite things is to see solar panels on a house, and then see that the neighbours either side have them too, and the house opposite. You see it with people keeping chickens or driving hybrid cars too – visible changes that make things normal, and therefore easier for others to do.
“There are few influences more powerful than an individual’s social network and the
social norms that people are surrounded by” say Climate Outreach in their report Mainstreaming low-carbon lifestyles. “Where there is no social or cultural norm around a particular low-carbon behaviour, it sends a powerful signal: this type of behaviour is not typical or widespread.”
We can see social norms at work in environmental behaviours such as recycling, which is taken for granted as a responsible thing for households to do. Or to see attitudes on the move, consider meat and dairy in Britain at the moment. The soy or oat alternatives in the office kitchen fridge are evidence of changing social norms.
Conversely, in middle class circles it’s normal to own and drive a car, or to fly off on holiday. With very little behaviour change around transport, it’s hardly a surprise that transport emissions aren’t falling. It’s normal to get a new phone on a regular basis, buy new clothes when you need them, and turn up the heating if you feel cold. All of these behaviours will come into question if Britain is to reach zero carbon.
Unfortunately, there are powers at work against the formation of social norms. Here are three:
Virtue signalling. We all know what it looks like when someone lords their lifestyle choices over others, and it’s not pretty. But cries of ‘virtue signalling’ have become a knee-jerk reaction, particularly on the internet. That suppresses people’s willingness to talk about their choices, or to express their enthusiasm for something.
I had a depressing conversation with someone recently who was buying a car for the first time. They had considered a hybrid, but “didn’t want people to think I was one of those people.” They knew it was a better choice, but the fear of being judged for making a good choice was apparently more powerful than the instinct to make the good choice in the first place.
Ironically of course, shouting ‘virtue signalling’ at other people can be a form of signalling in itself.
Modesty. This is something that was pointed out to me by Jeremy Kidwell, an academic who has studied Christian environmental movements. In a recent paper he suggests that Christian groups can “under-report their accomplishments and the footprint of their work on the basis of a common religious conviction which we have termed a ‘culture of modesty’.”
This is the opposite problem to annoying show-off greens, and it’s not exclusive to Christians either. Some of the people making the most ambitious lifestyle changes prefer not to talk about it, and so nobody knows. They’re setting an example that friends and family might follow if more people knew about it. Jeremy’s challenge was one of the things that encouraged me to write more about myself this year, and I still don’t think I’ve got that balance right yet.
Silence. Most importantly, every culture has subjects that are talked about and those that aren’t. In many places there is a social silence around climate change. It rarely comes up, and when it does people make glib jokes or change the subject. This has very real effects. For example, Climate Outreach point out that “while most people in the UK are in favour of renewable energy technologies, they don’t think other people are.”
Talking more about the climate and our own lifestyle choices helps others to understand how widespread those views are. People can see that they’re not acting alone, and that there is a cumulative effect to all those choices.
In short, speak up. Be sensitive, but don’t be shy.
- Feature image by William Moreland