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This Climate Week, The Science Museum Hears Martin Kirk's values

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This Climate Week, I was tasked by the Science Museum to speak on motivating engagement with climate change. I will start with a question...

What links poverty in London with poverty in Nairobi and climate change everywhere? The answer is simple, and fiendishly radical: values.

Where there are problems with things we think are important, we tend to work hard to fix them. If your car breaks down and you need it to get to work, you get it fixed. That is an expression of how much you value what your car means to you. If on the other hand you have a tawdry spare room that's been unpainted for years, that's an expression how of how much you don't value what the decoration of that room means to you, relative to other things.

Ask a psychologist to explain these things and they'll talk in empirical terms about values. They'll tell you that values have been studied for decades, in over 70 countries, and that, regardless of culture or age or any other standard variable, people everywhere share some core values. Fifty-seven of them, in fact. They're defined, can be clustered into ten sets, and again into four categories. The categories we're interested in are the intrinsic values and their 'opposites', the extrinsic.

Intrinsic values have three interesting characteristics. Firstly, they are not about the self. They are things like 'community', 'equality, and 'a world of beauty'. Secondly, they are inherently satisfying to pursue; acts undertaken to address them are rewarding in their own right. Finally, they are linked to a host of attitudes and behaviours that are helpful to tackling both climate change and poverty, e.g. cooperation, empathy, care for others etc.

Extrinsic values, on the other hand, are about the individual. They are things like "power", "social status" and "wealth". And they need external stimulus to be satisfied. To achieve wealth, you need to acquire something from outside yourself, i.e. money. They are also linked to attitudes and behaviours that get in the way of tackling poverty and climate change: competition, higher racial prejudice, lower empathy etc.

Things get really interesting when we understand the psychological relationship between the two. They are, to a certain degree, antagonistic; the stronger the one set in your psyche, the weaker the other.

We all have a natural orientation but it is changeable. Values are a bit like muscles; the more they are stimulated the stronger they get. So is you have your values for wealth stimulated a lot, you will, in the moment and over time, become more inclined to value wealth and hence be more inclined do demonstrate socially and environmentally destructive attitudes and behaviours.

This is the quickest run through of the theory I could manage whilst making the point that there is strong scientific evidence at work. Stronger, in fact, than is often required to approve medicines for market. If you're willing to take a pill because it's been approved, you should be willing to accept the evidence on values.

Which values are most forcefully promoted in our society? Intrinsic one, like equality and community? Or extrinsic, like social status, wealth, and power? Extrinsic, of course. Think Pop-Idol, ubiquitous advertising, GDP as the measure of national progress etc. We shouldn't be surprised, therefore, that we're not responding to poverty or climate change with anything like the necessary resolve.

Which leads to the radical point: it that if we want to engender social and political conditions necessary to tackling poverty and climate change, we need a resurgence of intrinsic values in our social and public spaces and a ratcheting down of extrinsic. As things stand, poverty and climate change a bound to remain the neglected spare room, whilst getting materially richer and more powerful will get the car treatment.

Martin Kirk
Head of Campaigns
Oxfam GB

Martin Kirk was speaking on Thursday 15 March at the Science Museum's Dana Centre, as part of their Changing Climate programme. To learn about the science of climate change, visit the dedicated 'atmosphere' gallery for free http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/ClimateChanging/AtmosphereGallery.aspx .

For the evidence behind this post, go to www.valuesandframes.org