The Global Challenge of Encouraging Sustainable Living – by Shane Fudge, Michael Peters and Steven M. Hoffman

This post first appeared on Elgarblog

June 5th marks World Environment Day – an annual event that is aimed at being the biggest and most widely celebrated global day for positive environmental action:

“Through World Environment Day, the United Nations Environment Programme is able to personalize environmental issues and enable everyone to realize not only their responsibility, but also their power to become agents for change in support of sustainable and equitable development”.

In order to address the growing urgency of issues around environmental and resource limits, it is clear that we need to develop effective policies to promote durable changes in behaviour and transform how we view and consume goods and services. However, as Shane Fudge and his co-editors argue in their forthcoming book The Global Challenge Of Encouraging Sustainable Living, to develop effective policies in this area, it is necessary to move beyond a narrow understanding of ‘how individuals behave’ in order to incorporate a more nuanced approach that encompasses behavioural influences in different societies, contexts and settings.

While a strengthened focus on the regulation of consumerism, demand and behaviour has been apparent at least since the 1987 Brundtland Report, the struggle to engage a uniform policy response around sustainability has been noticeable, not only at the level of the individual, but also at the systemic level of local, national, regional and international politics.  The variable success of policies which have attempted to isolate and target individuals as realistic levers for change and transition suggests that behaviour-based policies must also be recognized as constituting part of the move towards wider, systemic change.  Whilst there is no doubt that individuals must play a role in addressing the increased urgency of climate change, empirical evidence offers a mixed record of success regarding the effectiveness of encouraging change, which has normally revolved around the use of individualized incentives such as savings tips, historical individual usage, real time energy usage and so on.

In order to address the growing urgency of issues around environmental and resource limits, it is clear that we need to develop policies that promote changes in behaviour and the ways in which we both view and consume goods and services. However, there is a good argument to suggest that, in order to make these policies effective, we need to move beyond a current narrow understanding of ‘how individuals behave’, in order to encompass a much broader, global understanding of sociologicalcultural and political agency and how this might be reconciled with more systemic change.

Sustainability and the role of the individual in policy

The urgency of environmental impacts and future availability of the Earth’s resources has seen an evolving focus on modifying individual and group behaviour as a more integral element in the design of appropriate policy strategies. In order to achieve meaningful reductions in energy-related CO2 emissions for instance, policy makers have begun to widen the previous emphasis beyond ‘top-down’, supply-side solutions, in order to embrace lifestyle trends and patterns of individual and cultural consumption as part of a strategic approach that places greater emphasis on demand management.  This more ‘bottom-up’ approach has been occasioned by the inability of conventional, mainly supply-side, energy strategies to achieve the type of long-term and enduring behavioural change required amongst households or firms.

Consider for instance the issue of climate change.  Historically, emission-reducing policies have focused on regulating large and readily identifiable contributors to greenhouse gas levels such as power plants and other so-called point sources.  While a number of countries have forced significant reductions, at least on a plant-by-plant basis, the limits of this approach are quickly being realized.  As a result, effective future-oriented climate policy must be based on an all-together different approach, namely, one that focuses on the myriad ways in which individuals, operating within the context of various collectivities, create strain in the ‘natural world’ through long-practiced consumption behaviours.

The global politics of behaviour

Changing people’s behaviour is, of course, no simple task, and the complexities around this become even more apparent if you consider the issue from an international perspective. The conflicts and divergent politics that exist around climate change in particular, illustrate the difficulties in brokering national, much less international, agreement on how to design and implement a behaviour-based policy approach.  Indeed, taken from this perspective, there often exists significant disagreement around whether policies which advocate behavioural change are necessary or even desirable – an argument which plays out in the global policy arena.  China’s negotiations in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change for example, has been based around the argument that its citizens have less of a responsibility to act on climate change than do American citizens, where the average consumer emits many times the carbon on a per capita basis than does her Chinese counterpart.  This has been a fundamental flaw in the UN process on mitigating climate change where disagreement over carbon emissions and responsibility revolves largely around whether effective policy implementation should revolve around adopting a ‘production’ or a ‘consumption’ perspective.  In Sweden, on the other hand, large numbers of citizens themselves are influencing political action on environmental matters, while the UK government is only now beginning to realize that it will not reach stringent targets on greenhouse gas emissions without the willing engagement of its citizens.  A number of surveys in the UK suggest that a large number of the population is genuinely concerned about climate change, whilst not necessarily being oriented in the direction of changing their behaviour.  Indeed, across the world, the involvement and participation of society, across a range of sustainability issues, has taken on different levels of focus and expediency.

Agency and sustainability: embracing complexity and avoiding reductionism

For all of the above reasons, encouraging people individually and collectively to adopt more sustainable, lower carbon lifestyle practices has proved persistently problematic and challenging – and is likely to continue to be so into the future. Part of the difficulty associated with this policy agenda reflects the reality that there isn’t any one point of intervention or any one practice or series or practices that a particular individual or household could necessarily adopt as a blueprint for transforming themselves into the ultimate sustainable citizen. In reality therefore, policy makers, practitioners, academics and others interested in the pursuit of influencing ‘energy consumers’ have to face up to the discrepancies, differences and complexities that exist in relation to people’s desires and motivations – and the diversity of expectations that individuals often hold around the subjective  ‘quality of life’ issue.

A narrow focus on providing information or appealing to financial motivations has typified the behaviour policy agenda during the last decade or so, both by state and non-state organisations.  This ‘reductionist’ approach has clearly not delivered the scale and depth of lifestyle change which would justify the claims that ‘every individual can make a difference’.  This is backed up by an extensive and growing evidence base of failed projects and sustainability programmes that only attract very weak levels of participation. It is clear that a much more broad-reaching and flexible suite of approaches will be required in order to both optimize the agency of individuals and also increase the effectiveness of behavioural and lifestyle change programmes as a key element in the decision-maker’s tool box.   Whilst this must include the actions of householders and community members, the scale and complexity of the sustainability challenge suggests that ‘transition pathways’ will only realistically come about as the result of a more negotiated shift that is played out through greater collaboration between governments, businesses, communities and individuals.

The Global Challenge Of Encouraging Sustainable Livingedited by Shane Fudge, Michael Peters and Steven M. Hoffman, will be published later this year.

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