The past few decades have witnessed moments of great social change and environmental action. From developing research on climate change, environmental disasters, sustainability movements, and the increasing polarisation of the entire debate — our “dying planet” continues to be a heated topic. But, what makes people take action? And what goes on in the minds of those who don’t?

Alyssa Medel speaks to Dr. Niki Harré, the Associate Dean for Sustainability at the University of Auckland.


Can you talk to us about your research in sustainability and psychology?

I am very interested in what inspires people to get involved in sustainability and social justice movements, so I spent the last several years thinking a lot about that, collating all the research I could find in psychology that speaks to that. And I’ve really been talking about a few central ideas, one of them is the importance of values — people really want to be good and they’re generally strongly interested in what I call ‘infinite values’. And ‘infinite values’ are things that are relational, so they’re about our relationships with other people, and they’re also expressive values, so they’re about how we can be in the world. We have a strong craving to be a part of a thriving natural environment as well, so this impulse towards belonging — being with other people, being a part of a community, giving to others — this impulse to express our deepest selves and the enjoyment we get from the beauty and wonder of the natural world, those things are all driving us as people. And if we start from that position, then we can think about how to inspire people to get involved by drawing on, if you like, our better natures — that side of ourselves.

Another key concept that I’ve been talking about is around modelling. One of the key reasons why people do what they do and are as they are is that, they’ve learned to be a person through watching other people. We’re born with the question — if you like — in our little baby brain is “How do I be a person?”, “I know, I’ll look at these people and do what they’re doing.” So, often people ask me to explain unsustainable behaviour as if there’s some evil or cruel impulse in people, but most of what we think of as unsustainable behaviour — say driving our cars a lot, using a plastic bag, taking aeroplane trips, living in huge houses, all of those kinds of things — are better explained by just copying and becoming part of the culture that surrounds us. And also, [I’m] really interested in people’s positions within different social groups, so if you think of us as copiers overall we also are particularly attuned to those closest to us and the social norms of those groups, so sometimes we can get polarisation on issues like climate change, for example. Because, we’ve got clusters of people who are all copying each other without reference to other groups, or sometimes deliberately in opposition to other groups.

Just on the last point you made regarding climate change, what are the key differences between the two polarising groups? In terms of what stance they take.

It’s always fascinating if you take a step back from it, that something like climate change, which is about the physical reality of the planet, has become a politicised issue. Now, I’m not trying to say that the science hasn’t got open questions. But, if you’re looking purely at measurements of temperatures and all of those kinds of actual issues about the real planet, it’s unequivocal — as I understand — that climate change is happening. The only slight grey area is around the causes of that, and even that, you know, there’s strong consensus. So, what seems to have happened around that is that it’s become tagged to identity positions. And just to take a contrast, if you think of an issue like smoking — now for a while that was contentious too, tobacco companies and others said “No, no, smoking doesn’t cause disease.” But, now, I don’t think that you’d find an alignment between what people thought of the harms of smoking and their political position, because we understand that smoking is to do with what it does to the body. It’s not an issue of who you’re mates with because there’s something physical happening there, so again you can contest the physical evidence but it doesn’t become aligned with a particular position. So, climate change to me has become politicised for a whole lot of different reasons: One — and there’s been lots of research on this as well — one is there’s probably the association of Al Gore as a Democrat, sort of, so representing the left, in the broadest sense. In the US, with promoting the problems of climate change and advocating for action for climate change — which in the very polarised society — automatically seems to put the right on the other side of some kind of defensive and that flow through into New Zealand as well. I think probably another reason for that is the association of climate change mitigation with the potential for holding back business, holding back the free market, putting restraints on the way in which that the business community can operate. Now, of course, lots and lots of people in the business community accept climate change and are doing all they can to try and take action on this. But, that association with regulation is probably another reason that it has become politicised and then again, once these things happen, once they’ve become associated with a particular group, the ideas just bounce around and around in that group and we become convinced of our peers. One of the important things to remember here — to stick with climate change for a minute — is people who want action on climate change, don’t necessarily understand the science, so it’s not like they’ve got some, that you know, they’ve actually looked at the evidence and made up their mind independently any more than the ones who are against it, do you know what I mean?

In terms of the key people that are part of this debate, and their role in it, in terms of either inspiring people to take action or actually putting them off it, what are the qualities that they have that makes such extreme — such different — reactions?

So within, say, within an issue like climate change or other forms of environmental degradation there are different ways of getting people on board with these issues, and one of the things I advocate for is a really positive approach to it. So, out there in the general public environmentalists are often seen as being negative, and they’re seen as drawing attention to the bad scary stuff. Of course that is partly true. Environmentalists are drawing attention to things that challenge business as usual, that suggest that the planet might not be as liveable for human beings in the future that is now, and so on. And so, there’s a certain polarisation even within people who are trying to advocate for environmental issues, and one of the things we know in terms of human psychology is that positive emotions enable people to be more creative and responsive to issues.

Now, we are drawn to negative issues in other words, when people say something really scary is about to happen most people immediately pay attention, it’s probably an evolved characteristic that means we are able to deal with threats instantly and immediately. But, the trouble is with chronic underpinning issues like climate change and other forms of environmental destruction, is that there’s not an immediate threat that we can deal with, run away from, extinguish, or whatever, it’s not that kind of thing we’re not running away from a scary wild animal. So what happens with those fear and negative appeals that are sometimes used by environmentalists to get us to take action, is that we become used to them and we start to deny them, we start to reject them, we start to not want to hear them, they make us feel disempowered — and they don’t inspire us to action – even me, when I go to a talk on an environmental issue. I went to one recently which was a lot about these low-level environmental toxins affecting things like male sperm count and so on, I felt this thudding depressed feeling in me, I didn’t walk out of there with a sense of what I could do. But, when we’re able to turn the cards around and talk about a positive vision for the future, then what happens is people become enabled to become creative themselves, so it’s a difference between saying to you “There’s environmental toxins that are lowering sperm count, this is going to affect us for generation after generation, boom, end.” What do I do with that? — Nothing, except get depressed. Versus, “There are environmental toxins around, lots of people working on solutions to this, there are chemists working on solutions, there are biologists working on solutions, there is so much we can do to work together to try and solve these issues, there are some of the things that are happening that you can be involved in.” Spending a lot more time talking about the positive kind of story. So, when we think about this kind of polarisation issue and we think about human psychology, you’ve got to remember that people, to be part of something, have to feel like there’s a way in for them and ultimately they have to feel, they have to be inspired. I keep using the word inspired because inspired means feeling uplifted, engaged, feeling a sense of the opening of possibilities for people.

With the groups that we see, such as on campus, like Fossil Free, on a day to day basis, and them trying to push for these changes and really starting the movement, how do they stay motivated for such a long time? Because I know that from experience, these groups have been around for quite a few years and there still hasn’t been that much of a change in terms of policies around the university and actually divesting — in the case of Fossil Free — how do they stay motivated, and what are the drawbacks with movements that have lasted for so long?

Yeah, it’s really difficult, for a movement like the Fossil Free campaign which is directed specifically at the university, which is trying to ask the university foundation to divest from fossil fuel investments, which has not worked. It is really difficult to stay buoyant about an issue like that, and there’s always such a — there are pros and cons to having such a clear focus. I am just full of endless admiration for the people in Fossil Free to have kept going with that issue, and to have found different creative and imaginative ways to draw attention to it and to try and figure out where the power is, where the decision makers are, because it’s really hard to work that out in a complex organisation like this. So, I think one of the ways in which the Fossil Free club for example, has kept going is through using playful, creative, imaginative ways, and really being together as a group, and remembering who the many, many, supporters they have across campus. As a lecturer at the university, I always try really hard to support any, all student attempts to bring these issues to everyone’s attention. Even something like Fossil Free doesn’t achieve its ultimate end, its to remind people that they’re part of something much, much bigger. In the end, I think to keep yourself going is to try and maintain that creative, imaginative approach, remember and draw on supporters, the people that recognise what you’re doing — and then for every individual and every organisation, there are points where you decide whether you want to keep with this main focus or whether you want to change, divert, maybe even dissolve into something different. So, the clear focus side, the negative side to that, the positive side is the motivation and the clarity, the negative side is that you can’t fail in the sense of when you’ve got a really clear goal. When you’ve got a club say, Sustainable Futures Collective, which is a newer club on campus, because they’ve got a more open brief where there are numerous things they’re trying to promote, they can’t fail in that same sense. On the other hand, you know, the disadvantage — if you like — is that you have to constantly be remembering what your goal is and recreating that.

I think one of the things that those of us who see that the system needs to change in quite radical ways, one of the things that we need to get our heads around, is the system’s going to resist that, and we all know this in theory, but it’s really hard to practice when we’ve got an idea that seems low-cost, that you just think is ripe for people to instigate, but they don’t and it’s a shock every single time. It’s a shock, how can it be like this? I still feel that shock, I still can’t get over the resistance. The system won’t give you brownie points for trying to pull it down. If people can remember that, then it’s so much easier in the sense that you don’t have the expectation, and you can try and deal with the shock that you feel at the personal level when things don’t go the way you’d hoped.

Speaking of the system, what are some common reasons as to why they resist so much?

Yeah, that’s a good question, I mean I’ve got this idea of, this metaphor of the ‘infinite games’ and the ‘finite games’. The ‘infinite games’ is keeping in play what we deeply value, so it’s around those, the environmental things, the relation values, the expressive values that I talked about earlier. And what ‘finite games’ are is the ways that we organise ourselves, so our goals, our bureaucracies, our competitions, all of that kind of thing. And, in a sense I think, the simplest way to explain why the system resists is because they’re caught in a ‘finite game’ with its own rules and regulations and it’s much more difficult to step outside that than you think. So, say you’re a university lecturer and you’re trying to get a class through a course, a curriculum, or whatever — you’re caught by numerous rules and bureaucracies; your lectures have to be at this time, they have to be recorded, you have to have assignments that are worth this, students have to basically write stuff, you’re only allowed so much group work. There’s just numerous, numerous, numerous rules, and there’s so many that you can just become caught up in having to maintain that. So, if you think of people who take major leadership roles in universities, think about what they’re trying to keep afloat.

At the University of Auckland we’re trying to keep afloat that we’re New Zealand’s leading university, we’re trying to keep afloat our international reputation, we’ve got to attract students, we’ve got to keep certain numbers, we’ve got to get research funding, we’ve got to attract international researchers to apply for jobs here, if we’re caught in the international rankings game. So it’s all so exhausting and consuming, sometimes the thought of a change, it isn’t even thinkable, when you’re really, really caught in a particular kind of framework. So, this is why partly, why you need a constant provocation from the outside, outside the game, for the game to start to shift. I can remember when I was a child — this is an example — [I] never [understood] why people talked about unemployment as a problem. Because, I couldn’t understand why people would want to work, it just didn’t make any sense to me. Why would you want to do, you know, to trudge out the door every day at nine o’clock, and do a job? Of course, as an adult now, I completely understand why people would want to work, but going back to that childish feeling of “Is work really a good thing?” Like remembering what it is, it’s that particular game. Say the work game, or is the game we’re trying preserve, or the things we’re trying to preserve are around everybody having a place in society, everybody having enough money to have a roof over their heads, to provide for their children, everybody being able to express themselves, everybody feeling a sense of belonging, everybody being able to work hard and do something meaningful, and a job’s the best way to do that. So I’m taking the job idea because it’s so prevalent as a “finite game”, as a unit throughout society. So I’m, I think, fairly slow to judge people, particularly people in power, because they’re trying to do their best within the constraints in which they live.

On the leaders, who are within the system, or the ones that do resist the system, the change-makers, what are their common qualities?

The only real thing that change-makers have got in common is some urge and vision that things could be better. I’ve done interviews with people who have been long-term involved in political activism, and the only thing they’ve got in common is for some reason they just can’t accept that what we have is good enough. And by “can’t accept it”, what I mean is they’ve got this agitation and compulsion to try and do something about the system, and they can have any kind of personality you like. They can be ambitious, they can be driven, they can be competitive, or they can be soft-spoken and gentle, and completely non-competitive, but they just can’t believe what we’ve got now is good enough. And they feel some kind of personal obligation to take a role, they don’t even think they’ll make a difference necessarily, they certainly don’t necessarily think they’ll win but they can’t let it go, they can’t let it go. And I think we have to be really careful about a formulaic way of doing social change, as if “Here are the rules, do this, do this, do this, and boom, you know you’ll get what you want.” But it isn’t like that, the status quo is constantly responding to every move you make. And if you hit one of those beautiful little wormholes in time where you can make a suggestion — for example, when I was on the board of trustees for Western Springs College, and I suggested that we have a strategic goal around sustainability, the entire board agreed with me instantly, and was like “woah” — that’s your wormhole moment where the system is ready to hear that little piece and to take it on board. So, we all look for and love those moments, and most of the time it’s confusing, and it’s hard, and there are no rules because the status quo are constantly adjusting as if they’re constantly moving in and filling over those wormholes — again not deliberately — just in ways that make it harder. So there’s no formula, there’s no person who’s this thing you can recognise, it’s this impulse, this attempt to just open things and make things better.

In terms of how it’s always, not a battle, a constant responding with one another, is there somehow a consistent way in which change has continued to progress?

I think one of the key things is that sense of a community and a vision, so that, to go back to the Fossil Free example and how that has not been successful in its core aim at the University of Auckland. But, the Fossil Free movement is part of a community, and it’s not just a community actually about Fossil Free. It’s what I’m wanting to call the infinite game, it’s a sense that what really matters is the ability of people to be together in community, to express themselves deeply through the mediums of art, music, science, whatever it is. For us to celebrate, and I don’t mean celebrate in this kind of glitchy sense, I mean celebrate in a deep way and enjoy other people, the beauty of the environment. The Fossil Free movement is like this tiny little speck in that huge ‘infinite game’ towards the grand vision of life, as it could be. So, how you keep yourself buoyant and going, and how you — if you like — decide your next move as an individual or as a group I think involves being in touch with that and that ‘infinite game’ if you like, and there are lots of ways to do that. Inspiring talks and people, religion, there’s a lot of religion-bashing in our society but the major religions for example have a very strong vision about compassionate practice, about putting aside yourself, things that are extremely important. Māori tikanga, ideas like looking after the environment, guardianship, all those kinds of things. So if you’ve got some kind of home base that you can draw on that connects you to the mystery and beauty of life then you’re better positioned for these human-level games that we have to get involved in. None of us are alone in this, I actually don’t talk about people making a difference, because I think if you have that as your goal, you are likely to be disappointed and also you can never measure what you’ve done. Fossil Free, to just keep going back to that because we both know it, they’ve inspired me so that’s strengthened my practice, and it’s probably strengthened the practice of many other people to know that there’s a group trying to do this. So it’s like the end line, and the goals, the impact that you’re having can never really be pinned down. I think that’s a really important thing to have in mind.

To end our discussion today, what is a message you’d like to give to these changemakers?

The message I’d like to give to change-makers is, you are blessed or doomed or cursed or whatever term you want to use by a bug, a virus, that says “Don’t let go, contribute to the common good.” And oh my goodness, we need you, I am so grateful for the young people that are taking this up and doing whatever they can to contribute to the common good, it just gladdens my heart, it strengthens my practice, so don’t feel — success or failure, whatever — just stick with it, because there’s so much of a place for you, you’re so needed in this world today.


Alyssa Medel is an undergraduate student in Screen Production and History at the University of Auckland. 

Photo Credit: Sam Smith 

See Also:

How have social movements changed in the twenty-first century? 🔊