Thoughts from FOE Conference, Day 1: Human Values

I’ve just spent a fascinating first day at Friends of the Earth’s national conference, celebrating the organisations 40th birthday with key speakers Nnimmo Bassey (chair of FOE International), Jagoda Munic from FOE Croatia, and past executive directors Tom Burke, Charles Secrett, Jonathon Porritt and Tony Juniper.   I feel particularly fortunate, as this is the first national conference I have attended, and seem to be being treated to an explosion of environmental personalities.

Converse to my own experience, however, is talk of the stagnating green movement.  Topics in discussion have quickly turned to how we can revitalise the environmental scene and what can be done to bring back the life and interest the green cause used to inspire.  As we race toward some very large points of no return, people seem to have lost interest in the planet.  I would like to hope that, being relatively young as I am, in the future I will be able to say that I entered the environmental scene during a dip, but that during my life time I only saw interest and commitment to the cause increase, but whether that is unrealistic remains to be seen.

Stimulating this branch of thought, the first seminar I attended during the day very much concentrated on this idea.  Led by volunteer Karen Leach from Birmingham’s local group, the talk was on values and common causes.  It reflected on research that suggests two distinct type of value basis; intrinsic, where values are based on the individual’s perceived role as part of society; or extrinsic, where the person extracts their values from elements of society.  Although the research avoided absolute pigeon-holing of people, stating that we all have different aspects of each type within our personality, it did state that we are likely to lean to one or the other – so for example, if I am fiscally motivated, or place value in my own achievements (extrinsic motivation) I might be less likely to see value in community projects (intrinsic value).

Discussion centered on the implications this research might have on campaigning.  While many environmental campaigns have been based on appealing to people who might lean towards extrinsic value systems (get the celebrities on board, make the Pryus look cool, encourage solar panel installation on the basis of saving money etc), it is suggested that they may serve better if they tried to appeal to our intrinsic values.  The research also found that, like exercising a muscle, the more an individual concentrates on one value system, the more it grows – which has hopeful implications for the environmental movement which mainly hopes to appeal to peoples’ intrinsic values, because it suggests that these intrinsic value systems can be nurtured, even in people who might mainly be extrinsically motivated.  It was also suggested that by appealing to a persons’ extrinsic interests, the impacts would be short term and only be likely to last until the individual lost interest, whereas appealing to their intrinsic values could create more long-term interest in environmental issues.

The debate took an interesting turn, considering the concept of the ‘Other’ – whether we were identifying people as being ‘separate’ from ourselves, and therefore putting up further damaging barriers (mainly assuming that the persons present were intrinsic valuers, up against those with extrinsic values not present) but the discussion left me with one clear feeling: that as human beings we all have some very common vested interests.  Almost all of us (99%?) have some kind of vested interest in the future – either in our own future or in the future of our off-spring and their off-spring, who we are hoping to leave behind us.  Here is a common value that other research projects have shown we tend to reach a consensus on: family.  As human beings we are programmed to live and operate in groups, to create family units and to function in societies that are useful to us.   So, here is an optimistic speculation: if we could appeal to people on the basis of this shared interest, on the basis of this human value, could we not cause the largest boom the environmental movement has ever seen?  It may seem like a ridiculous notion, but I am always overwhelmed by how few people are interested in the future of their planet.  When the environment is a vested interest we all share, shouldn’t the movement be continuing to grow?

The seminar drew to a close, yet the theme continued.   Listening to Marinet, the oceans group of FOE, who were discussing the CFP* and dire state of the oceans, the speakers appealed to us to do all we could to back the CFP actions being taken – because it is in our interests.  It is in our interests for there to be fish in the sea, for us to be able to eat, for local fishermen to be able to catch and sell and keep them in business.  To some degree, the fact that we even have to campaign on this is ludicrous – because it is not even in the long-term interests of the big fishing companies for us to run out of fish.  They might make a lot of money while the stocks last, but when they have gone their businesses will become null and void.  What is it the Native Indian proverb says about money…?  Something about how it can’t be eaten…

That’s day one!  More thoughts on conference likely to follow…

*CFP – Common Fisheries Policy

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About EcoTheme

Welcome to EcoTheme. I’m from the the county of Dorset in the South West of England. Having studied environmental ethics and written a Masters dissertation on the ethics of sustainable living I now work with Campaign against Climate Change and Greenpeace. I started EcoTheme to present discussion and views on things going on in the environmental world. It should become clear through my posts that I believe our environmental problems to be the most pressing matters of the day – not simply because I place value in our natural world but also because it is the platform on which all life depends.
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