Well-meaning “eco-tips” are often received as nagging guilt trips, triggering resistance to climate action just when it is needed most, says a new study out of Georgia State University.
Titled Don’t Tell Me What to Do, the study found that being told that “the solution to our planetary crisis starts with us” is very likely not having the intended effect, writes Grist.
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Through an online survey of nearly 2,000 people, the Georgia State researchers found a clear correlation between openness to climate action, policy, and education and not having been exposed to “eco-pious” messages about the need to sacrifice things like a long hot soak in the tub.
By contrast, exposure to messages that involved policy issues—like fuel efficiency standards or efforts to stop deforestation—seemed to encourage a positive response to tackling the climate crisis. In both groups, the nature of “the messenger”—meaning, scientist versus layperson—did not make much difference to how the message was received.
What did make a difference, notes Grist, was the political bias of the respondent, with Republicans being much more likely than Democrats to object strongly to being told that a shower is better than a bath.
The viewpoint is valid, said Sarah McFarland Taylor, author of Ecopiety: Green Media and the Dilemma of Environmental Virtue, given that such small actions seem “absurd” compared to the scope of the climate crisis. Economics plays a role, too, she told Grist: “The fact of the matter is, a small cadre of the ‘eco-pious’ who have the wherewithal and the resources to do these voluntary individual actions, will do them. And the rest of the people will not.”
And reactions to such eco-piety can be hostile, said the study’s lead author, Georgia State urban geographer Risa Palm. She pointed to how certain groups of diesel truck owners responded to the rise of electric vehicles with their own trend of “coal-rolling”—“rigging up their vehicles to spew giant clouds of smoke, targeted at unsuspecting pedestrians, bicyclists, and Prius owners.”
Rather than telling people what they must and mustn’t do, those anxious to proselytize climate action need to show, rather than tell, just how “fun,” “cool,” and “sexy” it is to cut carbon—the exact words used last year by Japanese Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi, Grist notes.
Case in point, says McFarland Taylor, is Copenhagen’s rousing success at becoming a “bicycle paradise” in the wake of the 1973 oil crisis, thanks in part to a marketing pitch that celebrated two-wheel mobility as “something practical, exciting, and even glamorous.”