Books: getting real about climate change

Personality and core values are key to how people will respond to a warming world, writes George Marshall in Carbon Detox. Anna Plodowski agrees -- and won’t be scared into inaction.

Carbon Detox: Your Step-by-Step Guide to Getting Real About Climate Change
George Marshall
Gaia Publications, 2007 

Seriously fed up with all this new fangled stuff about climate change when the climate has always changed? Seriously fed up with being asked to do something about climate change in addition to everything else you already have to do? Seriously fed up with being told you shouldn’t have any fun because that causes greenhouse gases? Seriously fed up with trying to tell people to reduce their carbon footprint? Then this book is for all of you.

Whereas other carbon-footprint books start from the entirely mistaken understanding that information equals effective behavioural change, this one starts from the understanding that people’s core values are key to their behaviour. As a result, the Medusa-like effect of climate change — paralysing everything and everyone in its path into inaction because it’s going to be so scary — just terrifies and/or irritates most people into climate apathy, contempt and utter bum-numbing tedium. 

As a psychologist, this really rang true with me. There’s lots of research showing that we do not make decisions rationally, and how you describe or “frame” a choice has a big impact on your understanding of what will happen, especially under conditions of uncertainty. (Daniel Kahneman and Vernon Smith shared the Nobel economics prize in 2002 for research in this area of psychological and experimental economics.)

In Carbon Detox, George Marshall describes very well how global warming is a very difficult problem for us to get our heads round and take seriously. It’s too big, too long term, whereas we respond more effectively to local, short-term threats. In addition, the terms used are themselves unhelpful; “global warming” sounds as though it will happen elsewhere, for instance. We need to abandon the terrifying Medusa approach – it can’t bring about effective behavioural change.

So what will? Marshall argues very powerfully that we all need to engage with our core values. He describes four (not mutually exclusive) basic types — Traditionalists, Survivors, Winners, Strivers — for whom the motivations and persuasive arguments for behavioural change are very different. We need to understand what these are, both for ourselves and others, in order to be effective in changing behaviour. There’s no point telling Winners not to have fun in order to save the planet.

When you know what core values you’re dealing with, you also know what the vulnerabilities to behavioural inertia are, and can address them. This section alone is worth the price of the book and should be compulsory reading for all those working professionally or voluntarily to enable us all to thrive under a changing climate. 

Thrive under a changing climate? Yes, indeed. The second most useful section of the book describes different responses – for instance, you can ignore the changing climate, adapt to it, engage with it or even thrive. I found the idea of thriving very inspiring.

The substantial section on “losing a tonne of carbos” — a “carbo” being a unit of equivalent carbon dioxide (CO2e) — is easy to read, very informative – I didn’t know about the greenhouse-gas impact of lamb for instance – and clearly reveals what the big changes in behaviour are that we all need to prioritise. For the seriously interested, there’s even reference to a website enabling one to settle, he hopes once and for all, the question “to wash or to dishwash?”. Marshall also was at pains to show how losing “carbos” doesn’t mean losing fun.

Was there anything missing? Firstly, I really liked the cognitive shift Marshall described — let’s think light, smart, twenty-first-century behaviour, rather than worthy, hardcore green, but I still would have liked to see more detail about how to visualise one’s carbon detox behaviour. Surely real behavioural change needs to engage people’s emotions as well as their core values? Maybe the next edition of the book can include such a section. 

Secondly, given the importance of core values that Marshall rightly emphasises, I’m not sure how many Winners are going to be attracted by a book called Carbon Detox. Perhaps a special edition for them, entitled “How to Win Under Climate Change”, is necessary? Perhaps the website of the Climate Outreach and Information Network (COIN), founded by Marshall, could try to find out what types of people actually read this book.

These are however, very minor quibbles. Buy this book, read it and use it, so that you understand your own vulnerabilities to climate denial and those of other people. We’ve all annoyed each other enough about climate change. Let’s start communicating effectively now so that we can thrive under it.

Anna Plodowski is active in London’s Peckham CRAG, part of the Carbon Rationing Action Group (CRAG) network