Yesterday activists from climate change group Extinction Rebellion took to London’s streets for their latest step in “a full-scale international rebellion” to prevent ecological collapse. We can expect more of this; further demonstrations are planned across 80 cities in the coming month or so, during which thousands of protesters will block junctions, occupy landmarks and make a nuisance of themselves in an attempt to prompt the government to respond to impending ecological doom.

It seems fair to say this is an extreme response to what many of us – myself included – see as an extreme situation. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has developed a long list of the likely impacts of man-made global warming in terms of rising sea levels, biodiversity loss, temperature extremes, ocean acidification, water scarcity, deeper poverty, food insecurity and lower economic growth. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

Except it wasn’t meant to be this way.  The Nudge theory popularized by Richard Thaler and Cass Sundstein – and subsequently embraced by politicians, policymakers, marketers and pretty much anybody with a desire to manipulate the decisions we make in favour of a more “optimal” outcome – introduced a model of individual behavior change that was supposedly powerful enough to improve the decisions we all make about how and what we consume, whether or not we recycle and which mode of transport we choose to take to work. But nearly a decade on, the Nudge approach has hardly shifted the dial.

All of this was predicted as far back as 2009 by sociologist Dr. Elizabeth Shove of Lancaster University.  In Dr. Shove’s opinion, nudging individuals is no substitute for large-scale societal transformation. Bigger theories of social change are required because individual behaviour is shaped by the prevailing economic, social and political system. It seems crazy to focus on changing individual attitudes, behaviours and choices without also asking fundamental questions about how to change society, politics and the economy.

In this context, Extinction Rebellion offers a much-needed reminder that dramatic systematic change is needed if we want to avoid screwing up the planet for future generations. Although they appear revolutionary, their list of demands is short and aimed at improving political decision-making (as opposed to bringing down the entire capitalist system). They want more truth-telling and greater urgency from the government, as well as a Citizens’ Assembly on climate change to introduce a more informed, far-sighted point of view into government policy-making. I can’t be the only person on the planet to think that it shouldn’t take 80 cities to grind to a halt before politicians agree that the idea is worth giving a go. None of this is to say that individuals shouldn’t be expected and urged to change their behavior for the better; it’s just that sometimes a polite nudge isn’t enough.

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