Given social inertia and pockets of resistance, how do we get to sustainability? Why is it not possible to simply invent the technology, quantify the lifestyle changes necessary, and be on our way? Why do humans so stubbornly resist change? A new book, Innovations in Sustainable Consumption, explores these questions using three theoretical umbrellas: the so-called “new economics,” socio-technical transitions theory, and social practice theory. (Full disclosure: Maurie Cohen, one of the volume’s editors, is also the SSPP Blog editor, and the book came out of a conference sponsored by the Sustainable Consumption Research and Action Initiative (SCORAI), with which I am affiliated.) The social path to sustainability is complicated, amorphous, and ever-shifting, like some huge beast that refuses to be comprehended by any one perspective. Thus, the editors’ introduction admits that each theoretical perspective for change “has its strengths and weaknesses, but jointly there is potential that they might provide useful” ways forward for understanding and policy.
What some scholars and practitioners have dubbed the new economics adds a broader social perspective to ecological economics, which considers the human economy as a subset of the biophysical environment. Because the new economics encompasses both social and technological change, it is a wise choice to open the volume. The section begins, however, with a discussion, by Jonathan Harrison, of the old economics, specifically John Maynard Keynes’ argument that, when capitalism fails, government investments are needed to restore confidence to the economy. As confidence improves, capitalism returns to its normal functioning. At the heart of Keynesianism is a continuing growth paradigm. Ecological economists, by contrast, believe that growth itself is no longer tenable given environmental constraints, but that current development is enough to sustain humanity. Harris tries to harmonize the two positions, arguing that a “green Keynesianism” can be adopted, roughly through 2050, followed by a steady state economics. For Harris, if used to stimulate only green projects—for instance wind farms instead of coal plants—Keynesian growth can be decoupled from environmental harm. While I agree that a burst of “green Keynesianism” is necessary to end the worldwide recession and to move to environmentally friendly technology, I do not understand the 2050 transition date. If one must set such a date, 2020 is more realistic, or even 2015. Actually, though, I do not think we have the space for a separate transition to a steady state economy. That transition must begin today (actually ten years ago, or even fifty years ago), and must include such factors as smaller houses, transit-oriented development, and greatly reduced meat consumption, although it may work best parallel to a temporary green Keynesianism.
The rest of the contributors to the economics section are more skeptical of Keynes. Inge Röpke argues that schemes such as green Keynesianism do “not question the need for classic economic growth…biophysical limits are not acknowledged and the need for global redistribution is not addressed.” She also discusses some of the possibilities of localism and an informal economy, as well as its drawbacks (basically, a loss of economy of scale). John Stutz adds to a chorus of voices calling for shrinking working hours as productivity increases, and suggests that incessant growth stops delivering benefits to the average family, that “living agreeably and well” is “the appropriate objective for an affluent society” (as Keynes pointed out in some of his work).
Emanuel Ubert and Michael Bell argue that the need for businesses to pay employees as little as possible—undercutting their ability to consume—conflicts with the need for consumers (who are also employees) to buy as much as possible. Credit fills the gap, but is eventually unable to sustain itself, as we have recently seen with the housing bubble. Capitalism by its very nature thus faces recurrent crises. While Ubert and Bell’s analysis of the problem is more cogent than their solutions (not surprising in a short essay), they seem to believe that a sustainable economy will resolve this contradiction by ending growth and thus help the environment at the same time. Alas, I am not certain how—the new economics seems to me still utopian, though perhaps it will increasingly take shape in the future. Not that there is any question we need a transformation, but the way forward is murky.
Green Keynesianism calls for widespread technological change, but this is not possible without great social change. People must accept the new technology and use it efficiently. Socio-technical transition theory asks what leads to the widespread adoption of a new technology, such as the steam engine or the automobile. The problem is not just technological; as the name implies, social change is also needed. Thus, instead of a brilliant technological breakthrough, the Segway has become relegated to odd niche uses. Historically, most technological innovation has led to a more environmentally destructive regime, and hence away from sustainability. With energy- and resource-saving and pollution-reducing technology increasingly available, the question is how to make its use routine. One framework is for such attempts to begin as niches, small, local experiments that pave the way for wider use.
Sabine Hielscher and her colleagues discuss community-led initiatives to adopt sustainable practices, contrasting them with larger, government- or corporate-led projects. An initiative such as a wind-farm typically has “minimal interactions with local communities and [is] implemented by ‘distant and closed institutions.’” By contrast, grassroots-community projects are often “based on a strong sense of social cohesion and trust”; they, therefore, seem more likely to spur deeper social change.
Nevertheless, institutional support at a larger level is also necessary to embed such practices. David Hess discusses how, in the transition to green energy, such social and institutional changes have been largely blocked, in the United States at least, by a counter-mobilization that has “reframed the green energy transition as without scientific basis, socialistic and too expensive at a time of economic hardship.” In addition, attempts to mitigate climate change cross purposes with current attempts at adaptation, as we might not have enough funds to pursue both at once. However, technologies exist that tackle both simultaneously, such as distributed renewable energy, which provides local power in the event of a disaster. Despite resistance, energy transitions are taking place, such as a cluster initiative in Worcester, Massachusetts discussed by Jennie Stephens and Stephen McCauley. Clustering uses geographic proximity to foster “collaborative learning, innovation and growth.” The Worcester project began in 2008 and has engaged government, grassroots organizations, and local businesses, a pairing of the cluster and niche strategies. Indeed, multiple strategies at all levels will be necessary in the push for a sustainability transition. Not just institutions, but minds, must change. As Stephens and McCauley argue, “individual and organizational choices are most likely to occur in the context of broader changes in values, lifestyles and cultural norms.”
Institutions must change, then, but so must hearts, and so must daily lives. Social practices theory lies somewhere between the poles of conventional thought that either posit the individual as autonomous master of her destiny, making rational decisions to advance her economic status, and the opposite idea that we are all victims of greater social forces that channel and control every aspect of our lives. Social practices theory, while starting with the idea that we are social beings acting according to the ideals of our group, does allow some agency for the individual to begin to create change. Nevertheless, Bente Halkier argues that “sustainable consumption patterns are predicated on the organization and conditions of the various relevant practices in people’s everyday lives.” Individual agency is channeled, first, by cultural assumptions, and second by infrastructure and technology.
Gert Spaargaren points out that traditional environmental proscriptions call for sacrifice, such as giving up meat or avoiding flying, so that “[t]o ‘do your bit’ means withdrawing from established behavioral routines that are fairly central to the everyday lives of major segments of the population.” Being an environmentalist seems like a punishment, engaged in only by a small group of green zealots. For a true transition, sustainable living must become part of everyday practice, normalized as the natural, and best, way of life. The transition must be both technological, in that the infrastructure must be present—for instance in a frequent, reliable network of public transit—and social, so that it seems like the routine way of life. Individuals and small groups, while socially channeled, can make a difference. For instance, people with “a source of inspiration—another family who mirrored their own choice to use sustainable transportation practices” are motivated to avoid excessive car reliance.
To show practice theory in action, Emily Kennedy and her colleagues describe two Canadian neighborhoods, one walkable and transit-oriented and the other suburban. In the latter, individual autonomy is limited, since “[t]he lack of visible alternatives to the vehicle...made those choosing sustainable transportation practices feel marginalized.” Social practices theory thus sees individuals “as carriers of practices, rather than as completely autonomous agents.” (As a somewhat marginalized environmental zealot myself, living in a neighborhood halfway between suburban and walkable/transit oriented, I can attest to this phenomenon. For instance, I feel a tinge of embarrassment when one of my students sees me waiting for a bus, rather than getting into my own car.) In their sample, however, Kennedy et al. found zero suburban residents without a car, while such a status was far more acceptable in the walkable/transit-oriented neighborhood. Their conclusion is that “urban design must be reconsidered if broad changes in sustainable transportation are to take place.” In this study, then, technology and infrastructure seem to trump social practices, or at least to decide what social practices are available.
Conversely, it seems to me, technology and infrastructure will never change without social change. This is because wider social preferences, along with activist pressure, are needed to alter our infrastructure, along with our daily habits. We had renewable energy in the 1970s, yet a combination of the availability of cheaper fuel, lack of political will, infrastructure lock-in, lobbying by the fossil-fuel industry, and inertia at the local level meant that it was never implemented. Hence our present crisis. Innovations in Sustainable Consumption discusses a plethora of interlocking ways to begin to move beyond it. Change is happening, but too slowly. Perhaps the volume will help stir discussion that leads to the breakthroughs we need.
Ethan Goffman is Associate Editor of Sustainability: Science, Practice, & Policy. His publications have appeared in E: The Environmental Magazine, Grist, and elsewhere. He is the author of Imagining Each Other: Blacks and Jews in Contemporary American Literature(State University of New York Press, 2000) and coeditor of The New York Public Intellectuals and Beyond (Purdue University Press, 2009) and Politics and the Intellectual: Conversations with Irving Howe (Purdue University Press, 2010). Ethan is a member of the Executive Committee of the Montgomery County (Maryland) Chapter of the Sierra Club.