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Small steps, big changes

07 July 2008
Small steps, big changes

By Molly Webb, Head of Smart Technologies, The Climate Group.

Message 1: Change your lightbulbs. Recycle. Don't drive a gas guzzler. Don't go on too many holidays.

Message 2: Climate change is the biggest threat of the 21st century - the biggest market failure of our time - driven by fuel-hungry USA, and hundreds of millions of Chinese and Indians joining the global economy.

It has been argued that these 2 messages lead to confusion on the part of the consumer or citizen about their role in climate change, and further, that the first message undermines the second. This is the subject of a recent WWF report on messaging and climate change , which argues that appealing to "extrinsic goals" (financial success or social recognition) is not the way to accelerate values-driven behaviour change in the long term.

The danger is that this is interpreted to mean that small actions don't make a difference, which how the argument ends up being portrayed by this World Changing post: "But the report's other findings are even more worrying: small steps, even when they do open the door to greater environmental understanding, are rarely followed by calls for the kinds of profound change that sustainability actually demands."

Actually, the WWF report says that changing light bulbs DOES make a difference en masse, but that promoting these changes the way we currently do undermines people's engagement with policy. People who are told to change lightbulbs may feel under-motivated to vote for higher taxes on fuel because they feel they are already doing their bit.

What's really interesting is if small changes do matter, but our current methods for achieving them aren't working, then a huge opportunity exists to make it easier to link small changes.

How we get those small steps to work in concert toward big solutions is the challenge. Big projects - nuclear, carbon capture and storage - are just as susceptible to the criticism levied around small changes; ie: these big 'silver bullets' allow us to pour more energy at the problem rather than enabling fundamental or systemic change in how we develop our societies.

I think I agree with Russell Davies -- who spoke at the 2gether08 conference in London last week -- that it is small steps, not just big ideas, that change the world.

Our SMART 2020 report found 15% reductions in global emissions possible through ICT-led efficiency and dematerialisation solutions - through lots of small activities that add up to big changes.

Information and communications technologies are just beginning to be applied to climate change solutions, but could provide the missing link of aggregating demand in new ways. It can change how we consume and what we consume. It can give us information to make different choices, or enable automation (so we don't even have to make the choice to be green, it can be made for us).

It is small businesses and a lot of great ideas (small but great!) found along networks like this one which will change society as a whole, one visionary step at a time. That's what citizen/consumers are demanding. 

The world will not look the same if we reduce emissions to the degree that scientists are suggesting. But it might look better. Consumerism will play a role if it isn't about guilt, but about aspiring to do things differently.

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