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The Values of Everything

Progressive causes are failing: here’s how they could be turned around

by George Monbiot: journalist, author, academic and environmental and political activist, United Kingdom

So here we are, forming an orderly queue at the slaughterhouse gate. The punishment of the poor for the errors of the rich, the abandonment of universalism, the dismantling of the shelter the state provides: apart from a few small protests, none of this has yet brought us out fighting.

The acceptance of policies which counteract our interests is the pervasive mystery of the 21st Century. In the United States, blue-collar workers angrily demand that they be left without healthcare, and insist that millionaires should pay less tax. In the UK we appear ready to abandon the social progress for which our ancestors risked their lives with barely a mutter of protest. What has happened to us?

The answer, I think, is provided by the most interesting report I have read this year. Common Cause, written by Tom Crompton of the environment group WWF, examines a series of fascinating recent advances in the field of psychology(1). It offers, I believe, a remedy to the blight which now afflicts every good cause from welfare to climate change.

Progressives, he shows, have been suckers for a myth of human cognition he labels the Enlightenment model. This holds that people make rational decisions by assessing facts. All that has to be done to persuade people is to lay out the data: they will then use it to decide which options best support their interests and desires.

A host of psychological experiments demonstrates that it doesn’t work like this. Instead of performing a rational cost-benefit analysis, we accept information which confirms our identity and values, and reject information that conflicts with them. We mould our thinking around our social identity, protecting it from serious challenge. Confronting people with inconvenient facts is likely only to harden their resistance to change.

Our social identity is shaped by values which psychologists classify as either extrinsic or intrinsic. Extrinsic values concern status and self-advancement. People with a strong set of extrinsic values fixate on how others see them. They cherish financial success, image and fame. Intrinsic values concern relationships with friends, family and community, and self-acceptance. Those who have a strong set of intrinsic values are not dependent on praise or rewards from other people. They have beliefs which transcend their self-interest.

Few people are all-extrinsic or all-intrinsic. Our social identity is formed by a mixture of values. But psychological tests in nearly 70 countries show that values cluster together in remarkably consistent patterns. Those who strongly value financial success, for example, have less empathy, stronger manipulative tendencies, a stronger attraction to hierarchy and inequality, stronger prejudices towards strangers and less concern about human rights and the environment. Those who have a strong sense of self-acceptance have more empathy and a greater concern about human rights, social justice and the environment. These values suppress each other: the stronger someone’s extrinsic aspirations, the weaker his or her intrinsic goals.

We are not born with our values. They are shaped by the social environment. By changing our perception of what is normal and acceptable, politics alters our minds as much as our circumstances. Free, universal health provision, for example, tends to reinforce intrinsic values. Shutting the poor out of healthcare normalises inequality, reinforcing extrinsic values. The sharp rightward shift which began with Margaret Thatcher and persisted under Blair and Brown, all of whose governments emphasised the virtues of competition, the market and financial success, has changed our values. The British Social Attitudes survey, for example, shows a sharp fall over this period in public support for policies which redistribute wealth and opportunity(2).

This shift has been reinforced by advertising and the media. The media’s fascination with power politics, its rich lists, its catalogues of the 100 most powerful, influential, intelligent or beautiful people, its obsessive promotion of celebrity, fashion, fast cars, expensive holidays: all these inculcate extrinsic values. By generating feelings of insecurity and inadequacy – which means reducing self-acceptance – they also suppress intrinsic goals.

Advertisers, who employ large numbers of psychologists, are well aware of this. Crompton quotes Guy Murphy, global planning director for the marketing company JWT. Marketers, Murphy says, “should see themselves as trying to manipulate culture; being social engineers, not brand managers; manipulating cultural forces, not brand impressions”(3). The more they foster extrinsic values, the easier it is to sell their products.

Rightwing politicians have also, instinctively, understood the importance of values in changing the political map. Margaret Thatcher famously remarked that “economics are the method; the object is to change the heart and soul.”(4) Conservatives in the United States generally avoid debating facts and figures. Instead they frame issues in ways that both appeal to and reinforce extrinsic values. Every year, through mechanisms that are rarely visible and seldom discussed, the space in which progressive ideas can flourish shrinks a little more. The progressive response to this trend has been disastrous.

Instead of confronting the shift in values, we have sought to adapt to it. Once-progressive political parties have tried to appease altered public attitudes: think of all those New Labour appeals to Middle England, which was often just a code for self-interest. In doing so they endorse and legitimise extrinsic values. Many greens and social justice campaigners have also tried to reach people by appealing to self-interest: explaining how, for example, relieving poverty in the developing world will build a market for British products, or suggesting that, by buying a hybrid car, you can impress your friends and enhance your social status. This tactic also strengthens extrinsic values, making future campaigns even less likely to succeed. Green consumerism has been a catastrophic mistake.

Common Cause proposes a simple remedy: that we stop seeking to bury our values and instead explain and champion them. Progressive campaigners, it suggests, should help to foster an understanding of the psychology which informs political change and show how it has been manipulated. They should also come together to challenge forces – particularly the advertising industry – which make us insecure and selfish.

Ed Miliband appears to understands this need. He told the Labour conference that he “wants to change our society so that it values community and family, not just work” and “wants to change our foreign policy so that it’s always based on values, not just alliances … We must shed old thinking and stand up for those who believe there is more to life than the bottom line.”(5) But there’s a paradox here, which means that we cannot rely on politicians to drive these changes. Those who succeed in politics are, by definition, people who prioritise extrinsic values. Their ambition must supplant peace of mind, family life, friendship – even brotherly love.

So we must lead this shift ourselves. People with strong intrinsic values must cease to be embarrassed by them. We should argue for the policies we want not on the grounds of expediency but on the grounds that they are empathetic and kind; and against others on the grounds that they are selfish and cruel. In asserting our values we become the change we want to see.


  1. Tom Crompton, September 2010. Common Cause: The Case for Working with our Cultural Values. WWF, Oxfam, Friends of the Earth, CPRE, Climate Outreach Information Network.
  2. J. Curtice, 2010. Thermostat or weathervane? Public reactions to spending and redistribution under New Labour, in Park, A et al, S (eds.) British Social Attitudes 2009-2010: the 26th report. Sage, London. Cited by Tom Crompton, above.
  3. Guy Murphy, 2005. Influencing the size of your market. Institute of Practitioners in Advertising. Cited by Tom Crompton, above.
  4. Margaret Thatcher, 3rd May 198. Interview with The Sunday Times. Cited by Tom Crompton, above.


  1. This article surely has a deep questioning:

    “In 1972, Naess made a presentation in Bucharest at the Third World Future Research Conference. In his talk, he discussed the longer-range background of the ecology movement and its concern with an ethic respecting nature and the inherent worth of other beings. As a mountaineer who had climbed all over the world, Naess had enjoyed the opportunity to observe political and social activism in diverse cultures. Both historically and in the contemporary movement, Naess saw two different forms of environmentalism, not necessarily incompatible with each other. One he called the “long-range deep ecology movement” and the other, the “shallow ecology movement.” The word “deep” in part referred to the level of questioning of our purposes and values when arguing in environmental conflicts. The “deep” movement involves deep questioning, right down to fundamental root causes. The short-term, shallow approach stops before the ultimate level of fundamental change, often promoting technological fixes (e.g. recycling, increased automotive efficiency, export-driven monocultural organic agriculture) based on the same consumption-oriented values and methods of the industrial economy. The long-range deep approach involves redesigning our whole systems based on values and methods that truly preserve the ecological and cultural diversity of natural systems.”


    “Green consumerism has been a catastrophic mistake.”

    Green consumerism is part of what Arne Næss defines as “the shallow ecology movement.” Like for our politicians, their questioning is shallow.

    Deep Ecology’s principle seven:

    “The ideological change is mainly that of appreciating life quality (dwelling in situations of inherent worth) rather than adhering to an increasingly higher standard of living. There will be a profound awareness of the difference between big and great.”


    If you act according to the Way (Tao),
    You become one with the Way.

    If you act according to the Virtue (Te)
    You will become one with Virtue.

    If you lose either the Way or the Virtue,
    You will lose both. – Lao Tzu

    Surely the way of Lao Tzu is the one of strong intrinsic values. The media and our politicians show us the way away from the path of Lao Tzu.

    “In ancient China, the keeper of the Imperial Library, Lao Tzu, was famous for his wisdom. Perceiving the growing corruption of the government, he left for the countryside. On his way, the guard at the city gates asked Lao Tzu to write out the essence of his understanding to benefit future generations. Lao Tzu wrote the Tao Te Ching, left, and was never heard of again.

    The Tao Te Ching (also called “The Tao”, “The Dao” or the “Dao De Jing”), by Lao Tzu, is one of the most influential books in history. It is the source of famous Chinese sayings such as “Those who know do not speak, those who speak, do not know” and “Even a 1,000 mile journey starts with a single step”.”


    We, the humanity, should now take our first step to sustainability; even it’s a long and fatiguing 1000 mile journey. Let’s follow in the footsteps of Lao Tzu. Let’s make our world to a world of strong intrinsic values, a world of deep questioning, and a world with a deep disguise for people who priorities extrinsic values. A tribal world of tribal values!

  2. Fantastic article, i think Michael Moore called the people who vote for policies that will penalise them ‘flag wavers’. They stand whooping and cheering at the rich politician while he makes or promotes policies that benefit the minority.
    This is due to to the monocrome mainstream media thats presented to the public and a kind of hysteria a crowd can develop.
    Most of the time only two political views are shown which do not differ from the main paradigm, they are in fact basically the same. Any other political view is described either in a subtle or overt way by the media as ‘kooky’ or irrelevant.

    This is disturbing to those that value freedom of thought and a progressive society. You would have thought that by now a society that benefits all would have been created, the fact that it hasn’t leads one to believe that it is engineered not to benefit all.

    In responce to Oyvinds article – i would say that “Those who know do not speak, those who speak, do not know” , perhaps people that remain silent should speak.

  3. What I mean is that likewise as social atomism ( is a foundation for extrinsic values, so is tribalism a foundation for intrinsic values.

    Like Christopher Alexander ( was Arne Næss strongly influenced by Taoism:

    – Loving the World as Our Own Body:The Nondualist Ethics of Taoism, Buddhism and Deep Ecology:

    It’s really sad to see how China has turned away from the way of Lao Tzu! It’s no mystery why western leaders praises the false way of China these days, as they doing so justify their own way of extrinsic values and shallow questioning.

    Your first step on the way of Lao Tzu could be to sign the Stetind declaration:

    Stetind is a really beautiful mountain; I saw it the first time on my way to Lofoten this summer:

  4. Hi Habler! When I wrote “This article surely has a deep questioning” I meant George Monbiot’s article. Sorry if my comment was so long that it was mistaken for an article. Anyway, this article from George Monbiot is surely one of his best!

  5. “In book two of The Nature of Order, “The process of creating life”, Alexander goes into some length in describing a pond that really works – one with clean water, with fish, plants to oxygenate the water, rocks, etc. He describes it in terms of the structural properties of the pond and the processes that generated it – and all of that is *exactly* what Permaculture teaches us to do to make a really good pond. So your pond, as a Strong Center itself, is intensified when you surround it with the many things that contribute to a pond’s little ecosystem.

    It is very heartening to see that Permaculture’s practical teachings are not just “things that happen to work”, but also fundamental aspects of how the Universe works itself.

    Permaculture and Jane Jacobs would both teach you that you as a person are not an independent being, but you are completely part of the environment in which you live. Alexander would teach you exactly the same – you yourself are a peripatetic Strong Center, always in contact with your surroundings, and therefore what you do good for your surroundings will benefit you as a center.”

    See comment six by Federico here:

    I think we should look at our self like if we were a pond, the more we integrate with our surroundings, the more we nurture our self. A pond full of life is like a person full of life, it has a deep both way relationships with its surroundings. The stronger a pound appears as a center, what Alexander calls A Strong Center, the healthier is the pound. The same is true for a healthy person; he/she lives like A Strong Center (healthy pond).

    The deep truth of Alexander is that the stronger you appear as a center, the less selfish you are, or related to the article, the stronger are your intrinsic values.

    I’m very grateful to Federico showing me this wisdom, and this connection between the teaching of Alexander and permaculture.

    The tragedy of today’s modernistic world is that it doesn’t consist of an integrated design, and hence it becomes difficult to live true integrated lives, and your life or your person will be weakened as A STRONG CENTER.


  6. For those who don’t know much about deep ecology I’ll recommend this Introduction to Deep Ecology:

    It’s a pity, my governments uses so much money for promoting our export of oil, gas and salmon fed on gene modified food (soon I’ll guess the salmon itself will be a GMO), but not one krone for the export of our most valuable export article, the deep ecology, founded by the Norwegian mountaineer Arne Næss.

    The answer of the deep questioning of deep ecology is permaculture!

    The alternative for green consumerism is permaculture!

    Permaculture; Design for Living:

    And here is one more old Context Institute article related to George Monbiot’s article: SRI’s Values and Lifestyle Program. VALS — a look at the culture through people’s diverse attitudes, needs, wants, beliefs, and demographics:

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