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Do environmentalists and governments hold back sustainable lifestyles?
Tom Levitt and Kara Moses
4th August, 2010
Misguided images of sacrifice may be putting people off living more sustainable lifestyles. But reversing that may require policymakers to start encouraging wider metrics of success and happiness
Who wants a sustainable lifestyle? Well actually quite a lot of people, apparently. Far from being a niche concept, a major new study on sustainability from the UNEP says the idea is ‘misunderstood as a rich nation choice’.
While the desire to enjoy western living standards is strong, the study picks out a range of sustainable living ideas being developed across the world. It says one of the biggest barriers to more people achieving them may be how we celebrate and communicate these ideas.
Most definitions of sustainable lifestyles talk about three key areas; minimal environmental impact, not undermining the carrying capacity of resources (i.e. using only those that are renewable or replaceable over time) and helping people interact with the communities and places in which they live.
But, as the UNEP study points out, 'people will only change their lifestyles in exchange for a better one', so perhaps a fourth point could be just as important: making them desirable.
Solitaire Townsend, co-founder of sustainability consultancy Futerra, says making them desirable may be easier than we think. She points to some of the activities that people trying to live sustainably become involved in, such as cycling and changing the way they eat.
‘People living sustainable lifestyles are often healthier, they’re more connected with their communities,’ she says. ‘There are also many desirable aspects of a sustainable lifestyle which are hidden, such as sleeping better and spending more time with your kids, which we don’t focus on.
'We focus on the environmental boundaries rather than on the social desirability.’
Poor image of sustainability
The UNEP study says much of the communication around sustainable lifestyles has tended to be from environmental groups and government and either 'prescriptive, patronising or disapproving'.
'Rather than turn people on to the vast opportunities and enjoyment sustainable lifestyles can bring, they have turned people off,' says Townsend.
What’s lacking, she argues, is a vision. ‘Nobody aspires to live a policy. People aspire to what they can see, feel, touch; something tangible. We don’t have a passionate, eloquent, visual description of sustainable lifestyles, so people don’t know they want them.’
Futerra's 'Sell the Sizzle' report, taking its name from a salesman’s advice to ‘sell the sizzle’ rather than the sausage, argues that while the science may be what policymakers want to talk about, it is not what people want to hear about.
‘For years we’ve tried to ‘sell’ climate change, but a lot of people aren’t buying,' Townsend says. 'Threats of climate hell haven’t seemed to hold us back from running headlong towards it. We must build a visual and compelling vision of low carbon heaven. And this vision must be desirable.
‘If [it] isn’t more desirable than what we’ve got now then why bother reaching for it?’
Reaching a bigger audience
However, creating a single 'desirable' vision of a sustainable lifestyle won't be enough on its own, according to Dr Michael Peters, from the Research Group on Lifestyles Values and Environment (RESOLVE) at the University of Surrey.
‘Initiatives that attempt to connect with people and engage in more sustainable ways tend to attract people who are already ‘switched on’ environmentally, so there’s a big barrier in connecting with people for whom environmental issues are not a key priority,’ he says.
Peters says that in some cases the peripheral benefits of lifestyles that exert less impact on the environment should be highlighted, such as the savings that can be made by running an energy efficient household.
‘If the moral environmental argument doesn’t resonate, then perhaps the financial savings could.’
Others believe that the issue goes deeper than simply selling the benefits or desirability of a sustainable lifestyle - the biggest barrier of all may be social pressures and how we measure a happy and successful life.
In the industrialised world especially, this tends to be gauged in terms of material wealth. The traditional yardstick is that of consumption, typically viewed as an indication of well-being and wealth by economists with GDP regarded as the last word in measuring progress, development and prosperity of a society.
But, as the UNEP study on sustainability points out, GDP is not a reliable indicator of happiness or satisfaction. A quick look at the New Economics Foundation's (NEF) Happy Planet Index reveals that those countries with the highest GDP are not ranked as the happiest.
In fact, the top ten countries are all Latin American or Caribbean (bar Vietnam), with Costa Rica topping the ranks. Rich industrialised nations fall somewhere in the middle – the UK ranks 74th behind Germany, France and Italy, while the USA is way behind at 114th out of 143.
Juliet Michaelson, a researcher at the NEF, agrees that the perception of what drives happiness presents a barrier to people living sustainable lifestyles.
‘As long as signs of success, both individually and at a societal level, are to do with material possessions and wealth then there is a big incentive to gear our behaviour towards producing those things,’ she says.
‘Those things are not the biggest driver of well-being. Things such as your social relationships have a much bigger role to play.’
Michaelson says more people than we think may already have moved beyond the policymakers' definition of progress. She points to a public poll by market researchers GfK NOP from 2006 where 81 per cent of people supported the idea that the Government’s primary objective should be the greater happiness not the greater wealth.
‘Eight-one per cent is not just one section of society so it’s not just a middle-class thing.’
Tim Cooper, Professor of sustainable design and consumption at Nottingham Trent University, says there is already plenty of evidence of people taking decisions which improve their quality of life over their income, such as working part-time. But he worries that momentum may be lost by a lack of enthusiasm for sustainability among current politicians and policymakers.
There have been concerns that green issues will be ‘downplayed’ across Government following the scrapping of the well-respected watchdog, the Sustainable Development Commission (SDC).
Professor Tim Jackson, author of the groundbreaking ‘Prosperity without Growth’ report for the SDC, agrees that there is alarm about whether the progress made over the past decade will be lost. However, he says that the reaction of the devolved administrations – the Welsh Assembly Government in particular was outraged at the SDC decision – suggests that the understanding and prioritisation of sustainability is growing.
He also points to Defra’s now annually published Sustainable Development Indicators as evidence that some parts of Government are at least able to think about measuring progress using something other than GDP.
Professor Cooper agrees, but says things need to go further. He worries that most Government departments are still stuck with ‘old-fashioned’ views of economic growth.
‘There is that potential out there - people don’t always maximise their incomes - but that seems to be the only message the Government seems to be able to give. If it did take a slightly different approach and gave a nuanced message that might help people move.’
He points to education as the key sector and says sustainability should be embedded across the school curriculum, ‘at the moment we train them for society as it is rather than a vision for how it could be,’ he says.
UNEP: Task Force on Sustainable Lifestyles
Defra's Sustainable Development Indicators
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