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Overcoming Barriers to Sustainable Consumption

Our country is set up structurally to oppose voluntary simplicity. – Michael Jacobson

Our lifestyle decisions, especially our consumption decisions, are not made in a vacuum. Instead, they are made within social, economic, and political structures of constraint, and those structures make some lifestyle decisions easy or necessary and other lifestyle decisions difficult or impossible. Change the social, economic, and political structures, however, and different consumption practices would or could emerge. With a practical focus, this new paper examines the extent to which people in consumer societies are ‘locked in’ to high consumption, energy-intensive lifestyles, and it explores ways that structural changes could facilitate a societal transition to practices of more sustainable consumption.

This subject should be of interest to all those broadly engaged in work on sustainability. But it should be of particular interest to those who have been convinced that the richest nations, if indeed they are serious about realising a sustainable world, ought to be initiating a degrowth process of planned economic contraction, with the aim of moving toward a socially desirable, ecologically sustainable, steady state economy. It barely needs stating that a degrowth or steady state economy will never emerge voluntarily within societies that are generally comprised of individuals seeking ever-higher levels of income and consumption. It follows that any transition to such an economy will depend upon people in those societies transitioning away from consumer lifestyles and embracing lifestyles of reduced and restrained consumption.

In this paper I focus on six ‘obstacles’ to sustainable consumption: (1) transport; (2) working hours; (3) product labelling; (4) advertising; (5) social relations; and (6) housing.

I’ve posted the first page below and the full working paper can be downloaded here.

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Degrowth implies Voluntary Simplicity: Overcoming Barriers to Sustainable Consumption

The global economy is exceeding the sustainable carrying capacity of the planet, and it has been for some time (Global Footprint Network, 2012; Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005). This ‘ecological overshoot’ is being driven by the escalation and expansion of Western-style consumer lifestyles, which are highly resource and energy intensive. It is now commonplace to acknowledge that humankind would need more than five planets if North American lifestyles were universalised (e.g. Scott, 2009: 2). With the global population expected to reach 9 billion by mid-century, it is increasingly clear that these high consumption lifestyles are unsustainable and certainly not universalizable. The science of climate change, furthermore, implies that we must decarbonise consumer lifestyles without delay (Hansen, 2011), and the spectre of ‘peak oil’ suggests that the supply of cheap petroleum upon which consumer societies and their growth-orientated economies are based, may be coming to an end (Heinberg, 2011; Alexander, 2011a). All this means that ‘business as usual’ is simply not an option, and it may well be that the persistent delays in responding to these serious issues means that it is now too late to avoid some form of ‘great disruption’ to life as we know it (Gilding, 2011). What makes this admittedly gloomy situation even more troubling is that empirical research shows that many of those who have attained the Western-style consumerist ideal may not be finding such lifestyles all that fulfilling (Lane, 2000). Technological progress and economic growth, it would seem, cannot solve all our problems or answer for us the question of how we ought to live. For these reasons, among others, it has never been more urgent to rethink contemporary practices of consumption.

But the news is not all grim. The fact that many in the global consumer class are not finding high consumption lifestyles particularly fulfilling raises the tantalizing possibility that people could increase their quality of life by voluntarily reducing their material and energy consumption. This is sometimes called the ‘double dividend’ of sustainable consumption (Jackson, 2005), for the reason that ‘simpler’ lifestyles of reduced consumption can benefit the planet while also being in the immediate and long-term self-interest of the individual (Brown and Kasser, 2005). Exchanging some superfluous consumption for more free time is one path to this ‘double dividend.’ Reducing superfluous consumption can also open up space for a ‘triple’ or even ‘quadruple’ dividend, on the grounds that low-consumption lifestyles of voluntary simplicity have the potential to generate communitarian or humanitarian benefits too (e.g. by leaving more resources for others in greater need). It has even been suggested that lifestyles of voluntary simplicity, focusing as they do on non-materialistic forms of meaning and fulfilment, might provide something of an antidote to the spiritual malaise that seemingly inflicts many people within materialistic cultures today (Alexander, 2011b; Myers, 2000). But if indeed there are multiple dividends to sustainable consumption, including self-interested ones, why does the global consumer class consume so much? Are we not free to step out of the rat race and simply consume less?

Unfortunately, things are not that simple. Our lifestyle decisions, especially our consumption decisions, are not made in a vacuum. Instead, they are made within social, economic, and political structures of constraint, and those structures make some lifestyle decisions easy or necessary and other lifestyle decisions difficult or impossible. Change the social, economic, and political structures, however, and different consumption practices would or could emerge. With a practical focus, this paper seeks to develop some of the theoretical work that has already been done in this area (Jackson and Papathanasopoulou, 2008; Jackson, 2003; Sanne, 2002; Ropke, 1999). More specifically, this paper examines the extent to which people in consumer societies are ‘locked in’ to high consumption, energy-intensive lifestyles, and it explores ways that structural changes could facilitate a societal transition to practices of more sustainable consumption.

This subject should be of interest to all those broadly engaged in work on sustainability, for the reasons outlined in the opening paragraph. But it should be of particular interest to those who have been convinced that the richest nations, if indeed they are serious about realising a sustainable world, ought to be initiating a degrowth process of planned economic contraction, with the aim of moving toward a socially desirable, ecologically sustainable, steady state economy (Kallis, 2011, Alexander, 2012a). It barely needs stating that a degrowth or steady state economy will never emerge voluntarily within societies that are generally comprised of individuals seeking ever-higher levels of income and consumption. It follows that any transition to such an economy will depend upon people in those societies transitioning away from consumer lifestyles and embracing lifestyles of reduced and restrained consumption. This may seem like an unlikely cultural revolution, and it is, but if it is a necessary cultural precondition to the emergence of a degrowth or steady state economy, then it is an issue of critical importance that ought to be given due attention. In short, a macroeconomics of degrowth imply lifestyles of voluntary simplicity, in much the same way as a macroeconomics of limitless growth imply lifestyles of insatiable consumption. If it is the case, however, that contemporary consumer societies are structured in such a way to oppose lifestyles of voluntary simplicity, then it is important that those structures are exposed and challenged. Put otherwise, we must understand how our societies function to lock people into high consumption lifestyles and then set about changing those structures to better facilitate practices of sustainable consumption. Structural change will not be enough, on its own, of course; there also needs to be a shift in values (Murtaza, 2011). However, it is tragic to think that there are some people living consumer lifestyles today who genuinely want to consume more sustainably, but who find it difficult or impossible, for structural reasons, to actually live lives of voluntary simplicity and put those values fully into practice. It is more tragic still if those consumerist structures are inhibiting people from increasing their quality of life through reduced consumption. This paper seeks to deepen the understanding of the relationship between consumer behaviour and the structures which shape that behaviour, in the hope that the existing barriers to sustainable consumption can be overcome.

The full working paper can be downloaded here.

 

                   

 

 

3 Responses to “Overcoming Barriers to Sustainable Consumption”

  1. [...] http://simplicitycollective.com/overcoming-barriers-to-sustainable-consumption Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. ← Great things are happening [...]

  2. Angie says:

    Hi Samuel.
    I’ve posted links to this essay and to the Simpler Way Action Plan on our site @ cultivatingreslience.net.au. Yours is such great stuff to spread around!
    With thanks,
    Angie

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  5. EO says:

    This is another important paper … we really must give much more attention to the very real barriers to sustainable consumption.

    In the public transport area it is not just a question of whether there are accessible options [from both a locational and financial perspective] and frequency of service issues. The detailed design of train stations and bus/tram shelters can make all the difference as to whether these options are really available. I have had the opportunity to use [test!] public transport systems in two major cities [Melbourne and Brisbane] and one regional centre [Southport]. One can only conclude that the designers of these systems can’t possibly be public transport users; the problems are just SO obvious. Many stops and stations are very poorly lit at night. If a bus/tram stop is not well lit, timetables are impossible to read … and bus drivers will occasionally fail to see potential passengers. And again, there is the security/safety issue. Many years ago I remember catching a train one night at the Croxton Station [Epping Line in Melbourne] … and the station was in total darkness. Fortunately I knew that the last train had not been and gone … and this train had good lights! But, if our transport planners think that I’d EVER use a station in total darkness again, they must have rocks in their head.

    I agree that the acquisition of suitable housing presents almost insurmountable barriers. Here, all the problems that apply to inadequately described products seem to be magnified one hundred fold. I am constantly flabbergasted at how poorly the real estate industry describes property for sale [both built and off the plan]. Over the last twelve months or so, my attempt to locate suitable accommodation in Melbourne has been quite disillusioning. Just a few examples of poor information on internet sites …
    – often there will be no plans accompanying property adverts; and, even when provided, they will sometimes be without a North sign. The orientation of windows is such an important sustainability consideration. I remember visiting one small unit in Carlton, an area I know well, and the Agent was unsure where North was [it was wrong on the plan!]
    – information about outgoings [rates, owners corporation fees and utility charges] is sometimes non-existent or vague. When questioned, agents are sometimes unsure whether water is separately metered, and if not, how it is paid for
    – price guide information is often totally misleading. How agents can get away with establishing a property reserve price that is NOT within an estimated price range is quite beyond me

    I could go on. The barriers to accessing suitable housing are considerable indeed.

    Keep up the good work

  6. LP says:

    Samuel – thanks for this very interesting and thoughtful paper.

    I’m a former town planner who now writes in the area of urban environmental planning. A few of my reactions to your paper may be of interest, given that it touched specifically on urban issues:

    1. Challenging our socio/political systems as you have done at the macro-level is a vital activity and should continue. However, I’m becoming more inclined to Paul Gilding’s view that we’ll only see real change further down the unsustainable track, as nowhere is there a broad public discussion of potential ‘de-growth or steady state’ agendas. Just the other day, I received a copy of a book, ‘Managing Urban Disasters’, edited by Prof Ed. Blakely, with a chapter by our local Dr. Peter Fisher. So I suspect that ‘thinking disasters’, prevention and management, is now where we should be at.

    2. Below, I’ve included an email which I sent recently setting out some lines of thought. Basically, I’ve put down two suggestions, one for practical action at the local scale, the other a more analytical one suggesting approaches for further research. Both I believe to be very important directions for action.

    3. It may help your analysis if you made a clear distinction between dealing with the built metropolis as we have it now, and dealing with new development now or about to occur. The latter will only be a percent or two of what we have already – so people in situ will be the overwhelming constituency for change. And that includes the much maligned suburbanites who will need to be the main receptors of your ideas for change.

    4. Some practical for examples: do you know of Michael Mobbs community action in Chippendale Road in Sydney? In a fairly densely settled area, he has initiated a scheme for gardening in a median strip, communal compost bins in the street. Paul Mees is a great source of ideas for upgrading of public transport now: better management of timetables, no new freeways. Then what to do with our McMansion frame of mind – a product of a period of high income growth, poor garden ambitions due to heavy workloads, and simplistic, developer supported reductions of lot sizes resulting in sites where tree-shading, vegetable -growing is not easy/possible? A disaster scenario might see cash-strapped residents altering houses to accommodate more residents – that’s if the kids ever leave home!!!. Less emphasis on the Melb CBD and surrounds (where large government and private capital is being expended) and more emphasis on sub-metropolitan centres, with special attention to the metro-areas creeks/biolinks, so that people with more leisure time as you sensibly support have strong natural attractions near to home. And strong action to argue against big population scenarios as inevitable – these scenarios are pulled out at every opportunity to stamp on suggestions that we can’t have (urban) economic growth forever.

    5. These are just some follow-up thoughts. The below outline might present further ideas to mull over.

    Best wishes and thanks,

    A discussion was held on a film entitled ‘The End of Suburbia’. The film was based on the theme of peak oil. I couldn’t make it to the discussion, but sent in the below.
    Here are my thoughts – for your interest.

    “I feel there are two broad approaches that a group such as the Centre might take towards useful action on the problems that a reducing oil availability may have on suburban/urban/city life. One approach is local and activist, the other describes an attempt to change government urban policies and planning – a more analytical emphasis.

    1. There is much to be done by activist groups around the metropolitan area in terms of gearing-up, training, instituting tasks to make local areas self-sufficient: community and backyard gardens, Michael Mobbs’s Sydney median strip food-growing project, and the like; pressing governments for better provision and arrangements for public transport, bike tracks, support for smarter car technologies, etc. I’m sure that the Centre is well in tune and working on some of these or many others. Sources where some of these activities are discussed include Geoff Lacey’s ‘Sufficient for the Day’, and Paul Gilding’s ‘The Great Disruption’, esp. chapter 19, ‘The Future is Here’. If the group thinks this is where its strengths lie, then I’d say, ‘keep going!’

    2. My more analytical suggestion goes like this: In his paper, ‘Back to the Future – A road map for tomorrow’s cities’, the US urbanist, James Howard Kuntsler (Orion magazine July/August 2011) cites what he calls ‘the urgent issues of our time – climate change, peak oil, ecological destruction, the crisis of banking and money, population overshoot, and war.’ (There may be others your group would like to add. My personal add-ons are food and water shortages and the massive land destruction through mining and deforestation.) Why I mention Kunstler’s list is because I wouldn’t like to see your discussion limited to only one issue that’s driving change, that is, peak oil. Certainly that one is very significant, but to focus in too firmly on just one future change factor might be to miss what is certainly on the cards, and that is a cascading-in on us of multiple nasties. These are what I think Gilding is getting at in his brilliantly entitled ‘The Great Disruption’.

    So approaching your quest as an analytical task, my starting point would be with Gilding, and Kuntsler translated carefully for Australian conditions. Then I would look conceptually to Thomas Berry’s writings, especially his three chapters in ‘The Great Work’, chapters 11,12,13: ‘The Corporation Story’, ‘The Extractive Economy’, ‘The Petroleum Interval’. These chapters give us a penetrating view of how and what has got us into the situation we’re in. But at the same time, move back and forth to Berry and Brian Swimme’s great vision of ‘the sacred universe’ – because without that vision, I feel we miss out on a telling contemporary story to guide our spiritual growth. Theirs is a story that transcends the usual division of social, economic and environmental factors and brings them all under a single spotlight.

    One more thought: I wouldn’t like to see the group go down the simplistic path of saying: ‘large-scale population growth is unstoppable; sprawl is bad; the motor car is the culprit; peak oil will force a stop to all of that; we must build high density cities’. In fact, something like that is already seeping through into most State government planning positions. With some prominent texts giving these positions an air of credibility, e.g., US Edward Glaeser’s ‘Triumph of the City’. My aversion to these positions, apart from the business-as-usual economic scenarios they foresee, is based on an acceptance that Australian cities, in their current form, ALREADY EXIST. Adaptations to accommodate change can and must be made that allow their residents to face up to new realities – but with the strongest focus possible on helping people to live where they are, in and with a restored natural environment. In other words, go with the topographic, natural landscapes and plant and animal communities of your sub-metropolitan sector: can they be re-established, enhanced, linked in to people’s homes, etc? Higher density development is a hit-and-miss solution that cannot be relied on to produce inspired natural settings for all, especially for the less wealthy. That’s the reality.

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