Reading the news, it's hard not to feel a growing sense of unease. The threat of terrorism, growing instability and conflict overseas, a shooting on Parliament Hill last October and uncertainty about the economy diminish our collective feelings of safety and security. To this we add the looming environmental threats of climate change, pollution, declining ocean health, oil spills and extreme weather.
All of it takes a psychological toll, even when we're not directly affected. Studies show that when we feel threatened, we isolate ourselves and focus on restoring our sense of security. Many people attempt to alleviate anxiety by grasping for wealth, seeking pleasure and taking solace in achievement or status. But this strategy backfires. Instead of bolstering our sense of security and well-being, it diminishes it.
Across cultures and regardless of age and gender, people whose values centre on social position and accumulation of money and possessions actually face a greater risk of unhappiness, including anxiety, depression and low self-esteem. In his book The High Price of Materialism, psychology professor Tim Kasser shows how materialistic values undermine well-being, perpetuate feelings of insecurity and weaken the ties that bind us as human beings.
People who are materialistic also tend to be less interested in ecological issues, have negative attitudes toward the environment and demonstrate fewer instances of sustainable behaviour. That's a tragedy for humanity and the rest of life on Earth.
Cross-cultural research in social science has identified a set of consistently occurring human values. Social psychologists refer to one cluster as "extrinsic," or materialistic. These are concerned with our desire for achievement, status, power and wealth. Opposite to those are "intrinsic" values. They relate to caring, community, environmental concern and social justice.
Although each of us carries both, the importance we attach to one set of values tends to diminish the importance of the other. When power values like social status, prestige and dominance come first, the universal values of tolerance, appreciation and concern for the welfare of others are suppressed.
The U.K.-based Common Cause Foundation is synthesizing this growing body of values research. It offers guidance to social change organizations on ways to engage cultural values to further their causes. Because values are like muscles — they get stronger the more we exercise them — activists can consciously stimulate intrinsic values in communications and campaigns.
Researchers have also discovered what they call the values "bleed-over effect." Because values tend to exist in clusters, when one is activated, so are compatible neighbouring values. For example, people reminded of generosity, self-direction and family are more likely to support pro-environmental policies than those reminded of financial success and status.
The forces behind planetary crises are complex. History, politics and economics influence how humans act. Social change requires a focus on individual behaviour, corporate responsibility and government policy. In today's unstable political environment, values must also be part of the equation.
That's where we find an important connection between environmental and social justice movements. On a values level, the efforts and strategies to combat climate change and biodiversity loss complement and strengthen those required to bring about greater equality. When environmentalists invoke intrinsic values to increase support for their cause, they also increase support for social justice.
Because values are an important driver of attitudes and behaviour, they are essential to changing social norms. What can we do as individuals? Our social responsibility goes deeper than our consumer habits and voting choices. We need to reflect on what's important to us. We all deserve to feel secure in our homes and communities, but we can't depend on the false sense of security that isolation or materialistic pursuits bring. When psychological insecurity is on the rise, we need to stay committed to the values that make us environmentalists and champions of social justice. Instead of retreating to our corners, let's turn toward one another to re-establish our sense of security and strength.
The good news is that values that support a healthy society and sustainable planet — self-respect, concern for others, connection with nature, equality — also make us happiest in the long term. Each one of us is a value prism, subtly bending the light in a particular direction. As Canadians, let's be conscious of where we direct our light.
Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Senior Public Engagement Specialist Aryne Sheppard.