Tag Archives: hidden

Shallow and Deep Paternalism

In a blog post on the 6th August 2009 (Sticks, stones and lexical nudges) I was critical of the Institute for Public Policy Research’s Warm Words publication (2006). This report suggested that if we could somehow change the “linguistic landscape” associated with climate change—largely from alarmism to pragmatic optimism— we could more effectively get people to change their climatic behaviours. My critique argued that such linguistic nudges embodied superficial attempts to short-circuit the climate change debate through a process of sub-conscious subterfuge. The good news is that things appear to be improving within the field of environmental behaviour change. The recent publication of the report Common Cause: The Case for Working with Our Cultural Values appears to signal a shift from addressing the surface framing of climate change to its deep psychological resonance.

Common Cause was published by a collection of Environmental NGOs in September 2010 and was written by Tom Crompton, a ‘Change Strategist’ at WWF-UK. According to the Common Cause report: ‘It seems that individuals are often predisposed to reject information when accepting it would challenge their identity and values. Campaigning approaches that rely on the provision of information may well work for people whose existing values are confirmed through accepting, and acting upon, that information. But for others, the same information (for example, about the scale of the challenge that climate change presents) may simply serve to harden resistance to accepting new government policies or adopting new private sphere behaviours’ (2010: 9).

The ideas presented in Common Cause have been influenced by the work of George Lakoff, a cognitive linguist at the University of California Berkeley. In particular the Report draws on Lakoff’s distinction between deep and surface frames. Surface framing involves the use of key words and phrases to guide the ways in which people approach and understanding an issue. Deep frames on the other hand relate to the ‘cognitive structures held in long-term memory’ (2010: 42). The crucial insight of Lakoff’s work is the emphasis it places on the interrelationships between deep and surface frames. According to Lakoff, the success of surface frames (like the climate crisis), in guiding and shaping human behaviour, depends on the ways in which they resonate with deeper frames and associated values. The compelling argument of Common Cause is that people are failing to take action on climate change because the climate change message is at fundamental odds with our deep frames and associated sense of self.

The message of the Common Cause report is of great value to those interested in how to transform our individual and collective relationships with the environment. While there are some who still wait for definitive proof from science of the climate crisis, I personally feel that science may have taken us as far as it can. The point is that even if the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change could tomorrow produce a definitive consensus on the exact nature and consequences of climate change it would be unlikely to significantly shift behaviour. As Common Cause points out, the scientific message on climate change has to resonate with our deep frames. To these ends, it is clearly important to consider why it is that we value the accumulation of wealth, gratuitous consumption, and economic measures of success, despite their deleterious consequences for our climate, so much. It is clearly these values that should be the target of environmental behaviour change policies in the future. It is, of course, precisely these values that the Transition Culture, Degrowth, and Voluntary Simplicity Movements have already been focusing upon.

The more cynical among us can quite fairly argue that surely the problems of climate change are quite enough to have to deal with, without also having to initiate a fundamental shift in the nature of human values as well. This may, however, be the real challenge of climate change.



DIY Streets and Community-Based Nudges

Every now and again you have one of those life affirming days when you realize what life could be like if we lived under slightly different circumstances. I had just one of those days recently when I visited the residents of Beech Croft Road in North Oxford. I was on Beech Croft Road to witness the commencement of a new DIY street project. Initiated by local residents, and inspired and funded through Sustrans’ DIY Streets programme, the Beech Croft Road scheme has two broad goals: 1) to slow down traffic travelling along the road; 2) and to make the road a space that is shared between cars and the local community, and not simply given over to traffic movement functions.

On arrival, as a somewhat awkward stranger of the street, local residents immediately drew me into discussion about what was going on. It was assumed that I was a passing local, but when it emerged that I had travelled from Aberystwyth to see what was happening people seemed please that word of their project had spread so far. The road had been closed for the day to allow for two main activities.

First was the street transformation. The residents were trialling the introduction of a series of street objects that were designed to act as psychological prompts to change driver behaviour. The first of these was a psychological speed bump that was to be painted on the road. Based on an attractive geometric pattern that mirrored the Victorian paving that had been used on several properties of the street, the psychological speed bump took some careful planning by the residents, as they worked all day, and through the heat, to see it to completion. Other objects that were to be introduced included street planters and bike racks, that would be collectively used to break-up the linearity of the road and again slow traffic.

The second main activity of the day was the street party. This brought more residents to the street, partly to cast an eye over the new objects that had appeared on their road, but also to engage in a lively game of egg-flinging, a community barbeque, and to partake of the rapidly constructed cocktail bar.

The DIY Street initiative has been inspired by a series of community movements, planning philosophies and environmental concerns. These movements range from the community-based street reclamations instigated by City Repair in Portland, Oregon, to the “shared space” planning practices of the Dutch engineer Hans Monderman. What they have in common, however, is the realization that for too long our streets and roads have been designed with the dominant aim of facilitating efficient transportation and linear mobility. This process has had the twin effects of fragmenting communities whose only shared public space is a road; and of making roads less safe – as traffic speeds have increased along easy to navigate mono-functional highways.

DIY Streets encourages communities to take back some degree of ownership over their streets. It is not about banning cars, but about making drivers aware that roads have more than one function. Consequently, by introducing psychological speed bumps, street arches, and various local accoutrement, DIY practitioners attempt to de-homogenise roads: to provide them with a sense of territorial distinctiveness which speaks quietly in ear of the driver, saying, “people live on this street, people like me, with children and dogs and social lives, maybe I should slow down and display the same sort of respect for this place as I would show if I was visiting someone’s home.”

As I left Beech Croft Road, passing the signs that read “Road Closed” and “Play Street,” I was struck by an interesting revelation. I had only seen Beech Croft Road as a community space that was closed to traffic. I had assumed that perhaps this was just the type of place were everyone hung out and talked to each other; invited you into their gardens for a cup of tea; pooled their toys so that visiting children could play in the street. But perhaps such forms of community behaviour are just much easier to achieve when our streets slow down and become spaces of shared endeavour.


Inventing commodities and policies

Nigel Thrift (2006) has written recently about the way in which capitalism increasingly uses the whole intellect as a means of innovating new commodities. What he means by this is that – in a desperate search for profits – capitalism is increasingly trying to ‘outsource’ the process of commodity innovation by using the (tacit) knowledges and experiences of consumers. For instance, Thrift discusses how capitalists actively seek to create ‘consumer communities’ with a view to forming groups of people with both a loyalty to a particular commodity and an ability to contribute in substantive ways to the ongoing and continual process of re-inventing that commodity. innovative chairs by alex osterwalder@flikr

Is it possible to think about the way in which the state – potentially through its emphasis on libertarian paternalism – is also increasingly seeking to make use of this kind of creative outsourcing of innovation and inventions? To what extent are state policies or strategies commodities that must be sold to citizens? To what degree do citizens contribute to the process of fine-tuning state policies and strategies through their own (tacit) knowledges?

Capitalism is in crisis because of a long-term profit squeeze…
The state is in crisis because of a squeeze on democracy and citizenship
Capitalism seeks ways of making profits by intermeshing commodities with consumers…
The state seeks legitimacy by intermeshing policies with citizens
Affectively binding consumers through their own passions and enthusiasms sells more goods…
Affectively binding citizens through their passions and enthusiasms sells more policies
Commodity projects are extended over time through incremental innovations derived from consumers…
Policy projects are extended through incremental innovations derived from citizens
Commodities are placed into new worlds created by capitalists/consumers…
Policies are placed into new worlds created by the state/citizens
There is a new market in which dialogue takes place between capitalists and consumers…
There is a new agora in which policies are co-produced by the state and its citizens
Capitalism seeks to increase profits through a spatial extension of intelligence, particularly with regard to IT…
The state seeks to increase legitimacy and rule through a spatial extension of intelligence

Two separate but interlinked issues seem to arise here. First, the possibility of thinking about policies as commodities that can be ‘sold’ to citizens or that can fine-tuned to take heed of the disparate needs of citizen. Echoing Walter Benjamin (1977[1938] quoted in Thrift 2006: 284), can we suggest that ‘if the soul of the commodity [read policy]…existed, it would be the most empathetic ever encountered in the realm of souls, for it would have to see in everyone the buyer [read citizen] in whose hand and house it wants to nestle’ (Benjamin 1977[1938] quoted in Thrift 2006: 284)?

Second, we need to think about the extent to which citizens are part of this process whereby policies are developed, adapted and fine-tuned. Are citizens part of this agora within which new kinds of state policies are developed, whether explicitly or unwittingly? Which citizens actively contribute in a positive manner to the development of these policies, e.g. through contributing to blogs, participatory planning events or focus groups? Which citizens are merely an unfortunate backdrop against which policies are framed?


The burger woman and acts of citizenship

We’ve all become aware in recent years of Jamie Oliver’s crusade against unhealthy school meals and, indeed, his success in ensuring that Turkey Twizzlers – the staple diet of school canteens from Aberdeen to Aberystwyth and from Penzance to Penrith – have been consigned to the (recycling) bin. Another feature of Jamie Oliver’s campaign, of course, was the pictures of mothers of school-children selling items of (presumably) junk food to children through school fences or over the school gate. As a middle-class, educated and reasonably healthy academic, I was of course appalled by these guerilla tactics. Surely these mothers were guilty of the insidious crime of undermining their own children’s health or, even worse, the health of other children? burger by vanessa pike-russell @flikr

And yet, the work of Professor of Citizenship, Engin Isin (Open University) encourages us to think different about these parental practices. Isin argues that ideas of citizenship throughout history have been articulated through reference to those on the margins. It is these individuals and groups that can act as a kind of threat to us but it is these individuals and groups, too that are the source of our own security. We become assured of our own political identity by contrasting ourselves with these more marginalised people. I, as a well-behaved citizen of good character and reasonable diet, derive my own sense of worth and smugness from mothers such as these and their Turkey-Twizzler-eating offspring.

Isin goes further by suggesting that there are enduring ‘acts of citizenship’ that can emerge from these marginalised and disenfranchised groups, which can help to transform dominant ideas about citizenship. Is the act of passing or selling a burger over a fence to a child an act of citizenship? Will this act lead to different conceptions of what it is to be a British citizen? How do acts such as these lead us to question the extent to which the state can determine the diets of its citizens?


Hidden food and the nanny state in the kitchen

My mother tells a story of her childhood dislike of sprouts and my grandmother’s feeble attempts to disguise them as cabbage through a hastily conducted mashing-up process. Any parent can attest to the various culinary tricks, techniques and fables that routinely have to be deployed in order to encourage/force their children to eat more healthily: I, for example, am still waiting for my improved eye-sight and curly hair as just reward for my assiduous consumption of carrots and crusts!

pizza by wendalicious@flikrBut what was once an exercise in shrewd parental food repackaging is now becoming an arena of corporate action and state policy. On the 12th of May this year (2009) the British Food Standards Agency (FSA), in partnership with a range of popular high street restaurant chains, launched a new scheme for promoting healthy eating among Britain’s young consumers. The FSA’s ‘health through stealth’ approach to eating involves putting less salt in dishes, using lower-fat cheeses in pizza, and inserting ‘hidden vegetables’ in a range of menu options for children (FSA, 2009). Involving 400 companies and in excess of 2,000 restaurants (including Pizza Express, Pizza Hut, Frankie and Benny’s and Bella Italia outlets), the British government sees this new initiative as a significant act in public health improvement.

While the FSA’s ‘health through stealth’ approach to childhood nutrition reflects a broader series of attempts to restructure the ‘choice architectures’ that frame the consumption patterns of young people (including re-thinking school canteen provisions, the re-positioning of alco-pops in bars, and the movement of cigarette packs below the shop counter) there also appears to be something else going on here. Changing the hidden content of food appears to be less about making it easier for young people to choose to eat healthily, and more about making them do so without them realizing it. The choice here is all with the parents, in as much as they can decide to dine at Pizza Hut rather than McDonald’s, or Frankie and Benny’s as opposed to TGI Friday.

As a thoroughly paternalist policy then certain issues arise out of the hidden food agenda. While celebrated by government as a corporate commitment to public health, there is a danger that such policies could be self-defeating. So for example, despite improving the content of the food they offer is eating at Frankie and Benny’s really a healthy option? To what extent is a pizza really a healthy choice? My point is that this scheme could also be interpreted as a stealthy marketing ploy by partner companies to recast their image in the wake of the revolution in organic, slow and nutritious food? (Note for example that this scheme has coincided with the renaming of Pizza Hut as the much more nutritionally appealing Pasta Hut – whatever next, TGI’s becomes Thank God It’s Humus?)

Furthermore this policy initiative could also be counterproductive to the extent that rather than trying to educate children about the benefits of a healthy and balanced diet, it aspires to enable them to eat more healthy food in a completely unconscious way. This is hardly the “recipe” for developing a more culinary aware citizenry (and possibly contradicts the FSA’s own commitment to develop nutritional competencies among young people). While ‘health through stealth’ may not have people rushing for barricades in order to defend the gastronomic liberties of young people, it may thus prove to be an ineffective policy on its owns terms: my mother was never fooled by those sprouts you see, and she has never let us forget how she saw through the attempted dupe!