Friday, June 3, 2011

Understanding consumer society is critical to addressing sustainability

Here's the real reasons why all of us have not been able to live sustainable lives - a very interesting article by Tim Jackson, University of Surrey, England. Tim Jackson is director of RESOLVE and the Sustainable Lifestyles Research Group at the University of Surrey, England. This content is from Guardian Professional. 

Tim Jackson argues that we need to shift our thinking from a blind faith in technology to a deeper understanding of the links between our lifestyles and the environment

We need to understand the links between our lifestyles and the environment rather than having blind faith in technology.
"Sustainability doesn't come naturally" to the human species, the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins once remarked. His implication was that somehow it's our collective patterns of behavior that are leading us astray, our natural aspirations for the good life that divert us inevitably from success in addressing ecological challenges.

It's certainly tempting to agree with this idea, as we ponder the failure of decades of environmental policy to make headway on climate change, deforestation, species loss, fish stocks, resource depletion. In the years since 1990 (the Kyoto baseline year), global carbon dioxide emissions actually increased by over 40%, to take just one example. And this happened despite another characteristic of the human species: our undoubted technological ingenuity.
Faith in technology is probably our single most obvious "backstop" belief. If all else fails, we are a clever species, right? We have extraordinary powers of creativity and innovation. So when it comes to saving our vision of social progress in the face of declining environmental qualities, it's our own technological capability that we reach for.
But the implications of Dawkins's remark suggest that technology alone just isn't enough. And this is a conclusion we should already have drawn if we'd paid enough attention to the historical evidence. To be sure, the average energy intensity of global economic activity decreased by a third across the world in the last three decades – as we might expect in an economy that prizes efficiency. But these predictable efficiency improvements just didn't deliver reductions in energy use – or carbon emissions. As we've seen, the opposite happened.
The truth is, without paying attention to the dynamics of society, to the logic and story of people's lives, it's impossible to differentiate realistic hopes for sustainability from a simplistic faith in technology. Businesses have an incentive to create efficiencies in the use of inputs. The case is unequivocal. But they also have an incentive to expand the markets for their outputs. And banking on a market revolution driven by green consumers is too forlorn a hope.
People do indeed hold deeply felt motivations to protect the environment. Occasionally they can even save money by doing so. But powerful psychological forces still hold them in thrall. The creeping evolution of social norms and the sheer force of habit conspire to lock us into expanding material aspirations.
Scale wages a continual battle against efficiency. And, historically at least, it's almost always scale that wins. Putting scale itself under the spotlight may be unpopular for all sorts of reasons. Not the least of these is critical contribution that expanding demand plays in achieving conventional economic growth. But shifting the focus attention away from a blind faith in technology towards a deeper understanding of consumer society, of people's lives, is critical in addressing sustainability.
Over the past five years, the ESRC Research group on Lifestyles, Values and the Environment (RESOLVE) has been doing just that. A path-breaking cross-departmental collaboration at the University of Surrey, RESOLVE has achieved international recognition as a center of interdisciplinary excellence. Its overall aim has been an exploration of the complex links between our lifestyles and the environment. An explicit goal has been to provide robust, evidence-based advice to businesses, NGOs and policy-makers who are seeking to understand and to influence energy-related behaviors and practices.

The RESOLVE work program is organized around five complementary themes. One strand maps the carbon complexity of modern lifestyles, teasing out how much carbon is associated with different areas of our lives (home, travel, leisure and so on) and how this has changed over time. Another strand addresses the psychology of climate change, exploring not just our motivations and values but the relationship between these and our carbon behaviors.
One of the clearest lessons about human behavior is its inherently social nature. A third strand delves explicitly into the sociological dimensions of modern lifestyles: how demand is constructed, how daily life is negotiated, how "environmental resistance" survives and sometimes even thrives. The final themes cover the question of environmental governance (and in particular the role of community in achieving this) and the exploration of different scenarios for low-carbon living.
Since RESOLVE was launched in 2006, the importance of low-carbon living has gone hand in hand with burgeoning media and policy interest in the subject. The Climate Change Act set in motion an ambitious program of targets and timescales for carbon reduction.
The Department of Energy and Climate Change's My2050 scenario tool allows ordinary people to engage in designing a low carbon future. An interesting feature of these scenarios is that the user inevitably ends up making choices not just about technologies but also about lifestyles. Once again, it becomes clear that technology alone won't achieve our targets.

What My2050 leaves unexplored is what these targets mean for people's lives. Which areas of our lives will need to change? What will this mean for ordinary people? How are people beginning to negotiate those changes? How effective are policy interventions? Which forms of governance are most successful? None of these questions is easy to answer, particularly in the context of fast-moving politics and a changing economic climate.

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