Emphasising, once again, the importance of values and empathy in development education

At the recent July Mediterranean Academy of Diplomatic Studies/MEDAC_human_rights_summerschool80:20 Human Rights Summer School in Malta, Roland Tormey of the Teaching Support Centre, Ecole polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne reminded participants of the factors that influence ‘pro-social action’ (an extended version of his presentation will shortly be available on www.developmenteducation.ie).  These factors he noted included moral reasoning, moral feeling and social context; he also stressed the importance of the work of Martin Hoffmann for those of us engaged in development and human rights education especially his Empathy and Moral Development: Implications for Caring and Justice (Cambridge University Press, 2000. Read the introduction to the book or buy it here).

The implications of his presentation reminded me, once again of the work of the Development Education Commission (DEC) from Ireland some years back which sought to highlight many similar issues and dimensions, especially those related to values, dispositions and reasoning. The necessity to work on promoting the basic value of empathy was intrinsic to the agenda of the Commission; this value has once again been highlighted in some recent research by Rachel A. Howell of the Institute of Geography and Earth Science, Aberystwyth University.  The research emphasises the ongoing need to place values at the core of our work as a means of promoting core dispositions, especially those related to behaviour change. Her research builds further on recent articles related to the topic from a range of academic journals: Journal of Environmental Education | Environmental Education Research | Journal of Environmental Psychology | Journal of Social Issues.

Howell sought to investigate the values and motivations in addition to the ‘routes to engagement’ of a (limited) cohort of people who had adopted environmentally responsible behaviour (specifically ‘lower-carbon lifestyles’) in order to explore whether this could offer ideas and insights into how to promote such change. Having explored the debates and commentary around the values theory of Shalom Schwartz (a comprehensive overview authored by Schwartz in 2012 can be found here) Howell suggests that while it cannot be assumed that promoting particular values will lead to lower-carbon lifestyles (or, in our case, human development or human rights dispositions), it is worth understanding the values of those who have adopted such lifestyles, as they might provide clues to the promotion of ‘pro-social action’.

Four key values dominated the results in Howell’s research; people who had adopted a low-carbon lifestyle did so because of a concern for (in order of importance):

  1. ‘social justice’ (‘how to live fairly’);
  2. ‘community’ (being part of a community with concomitant responsibilities);
  3. ‘frugality’ (beliefs and practices around consumption and happiness and;
  4. ‘personal integrity’ (wanting to live a moral life, living a life that ‘feels right’).

Howell’s research into the ‘routes’ people took in adopted environmentally responsible behaviour is also revealing for development education agendas.  Long standing concern with social justice and human rights issues (e.g. women’s rights, universal human rights, discrimination in South Africa, local community issues etc.); religious influences in church and at home; specific experiences in organisations such as Amnesty International, Friends of the Earth, local ‘anti-road’ campaigns and overseas experiences were deemed formative in terms of attitude and behaviour change.

Some implications

The outcomes of Howell’s research are interesting and should encourage further research; they also suggest a number of pointers to policymakers and activists focused on behaviour change.  It is worth repeating that although the sample included in the research was very limited, the results concur with other related research.

  • Altruistic reasoning remains pre-eminent in the motivation of those concerned about these issues – altruistic values trumped biospheric values in this cohort of people
  • Contrary to much popular perception, those concerned about issues such as climate change are not, in general, ‘deep green’ environmentalists, typically, they are more concerned about the plight of poorer people who will suffer the deepening consequences of climate change (cf. Wolf, 2011; Wolf et al., 2009 – references below)
  • Concerns about local community issues remain important as a motivator for broader concerns
  • Broad, general pro-social values are key catalysts for stimulating concern and motivating change
  • Engagement with specific issue-focused agendas as well as broad ‘experiential’ events and opportunities appear to be important catalysts
  • It may be the case that those concerned about climate change often have different concerns and motivations than those of environmental ‘professionals’
  • Those who seek to promote issues such as lower-carbon lifestyles should make greater common cause with development and human rights groups, for example those concerned with women’s rights issues or with refugee rights (see, for example the arguments of Fatma Denton)
  • Promoting climate justice agendas may need to make more of the value of ‘frugality’ and the excesses and impact of over-consumption.

Perhaps most importantly of all, campaigns need to focus strongly on a values-driven agenda emphasising the human dimension strongly in place of the traditional ‘to do’ list of ’10 actions to save the planet’.

This, and related commentary has much for those of us engaged in development and human rights education to consider and research further.


Howell’s research

Howell, R.A. (2012) It’s not (just) ‘‘the environment, stupid!’’ Values, motivations and routes to engagement of people adopting lower-carbon lifestyles in Global Environmental Change, Volume 23, 281-290 (free access).

Other references

Wolf, J (2011) Ecological citizenship as public engagement with climate change from Engaging the Public with Climate Change: Behaviour Change and Communication by Lorraine Whitmarsh, Saffron O’Neill, and Irene Lorenzoni (Check for library copies, such as in the UCD James Joyce Library).