Practise don’t preach

Yesterday I was at a conference about climate change and how the media could get individuals to reduce their carbon emissions. There was an interesting, quite heated disagreement between those who felt the public needed to be told how they must radically change their lives now, and those who felt that fear and radical messages turn the public off engaging at all and small steps were valid. Simply put, would being too preachy put people off.

One of the first things to come out of this discussion was that institutions which are telling people to reduce energy consumption should start by making sure their own house is in order, for instance not having lights on all night in public buildings. That is to say, practice what you preach. But this is just the tip of the iceberg, dealing with one of people’s many potential ‘excuses’ for not engaging.

Many felt what we really needed was to create a value system in which people are rewarded for being green. And for me this is where preaching just doesn’t work. Changing value systems will be incredibly hard and if you are doing well in one system you don’t want someone at the top of another system commanding you to switch to, and start at the bottom of, their system.

The problem is the preacher is implicitly saying you must follow, I know the right way, I’ve already changed, I’m better than you. This doesn’t empower people to change, it doesn’t reward them, it just make them feel inferior and makes them negative about the whole undertaking.

It was clear, just from the reaction to the holier than thou arguments in the conference that preaching simply puts people off, they want support in making gradually bigger changes, not to be continually berated for not being radical enough.

However if rather than preaching you make people feel the change is actually happening around them, and their neighbours are doing it, then they will react more positively. And if they feel they will get social kudos and quality of life rewards within the new value system then they’ll be on there way to changing.

So we need to move beyond practise what you preach to put the emphasis on leading by example to show the benefits. The Universalist ‘preacher’, Hosea Ballou, put it thus:

‘Preaching is to much avail, but practice is far more effective. A godly life is the strongest argument you can offer the skeptic.’

Or to extend this further, Mohandas Gandhi said:

‘An ounce of practice is worth more than tons of preaching.’

And in line with this I think one of the best ideas that came out of the conference was the suggestion of using a happiness index (see the one New Economics Foundation have) and predictions on future happiness based on climate change / carbon emissions cut scenarios – potentially a way to compare the rewards of different value systems.

By the way, it wasn’t easy to discuss this need for a gentle change in value systems in the conference. The radicals were preaching to the converted, the one situation where everyone, and not just the preacher, gets a reward as they feel they are all in the know together and are reinforcing each other’s beliefs that their value system is right and better than other people’s.

It is interesting that I’ve used quotes and proverbs to reinforce my argument in this post. Some people find proverbs rather preachy.

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