“We’ve shown in the past that surprising changes are possible in how people behave, in smoking, driving, antibiotics, and sexual health. We now know more than ever about how to create the conditions for this kind of change.”
This report looks at the lessons to be learned about behaviour change from efforts to tackle public health problems. It’s one part of the puzzle that tends to get lost in discussions about the possibility of rapid transition, often because it is assumed to be too hard to change. Yet stopping dangerous climate change and the passing of planetary boundaries means humankind as a whole, but specifically wealthier populations, consuming differently and less. Both involve changing how high-emitting social groups live and consume. Attempts to change behaviour that is damaging can face opposition from those who argue that people should be free to choose what harm they do to themselves. Yet it is a different matter when such behaviour also harms others and passes on significant costs to the rest of society. Such debates have been woven extensively around smoking and drinking, as – even where the behaviour can be successfully isolated to prevent direct harm to others – typically, the rest of society is left to pick up large health costs.
What do we know has worked in bringing about behaviour change in cases like these?
We know a lot, and most importantly we know that even where difficult and highly addictive behaviours are concerned, and some promoted by powerful corporate interests, change in short periods of time is possible.
Andrew Simms is Coordinator of the Rapid Transition Alliance, an author, political economist and activist. He is co-director of the NewWeather Institute, Assistant Director of Scientists for Global Responsibility, a Research Associate at the University of Sussex, and a Fellow of the New Economics Foundation (NEF). His books include The New Economics, Cancel the Apocalypse: the New Path to Prosperity, Ecological Debt and Do Good Lives Have to Cost the Earth? He tweets from @andrewsimms_uk