People will need to lead less materialistic lifestyles if we are to transition to a green economy, but the challenge in changing actual behaviours and lifestyles lies in overcoming our ingrained notions about consumption, success and happiness.
That’s according to Ricardo García Mira from the University of A Coruña in Spain, who is leading an EU-funded project looking at how to encourage people to behave in a pro-environmental manner.
How will our individual lifestyles have to change over the next 10 years if we are serious about reducing climate change?
‘If we are serious about climate change we would definitely have to reduce our overall levels of consumption, besides the advances in eco-efficiency that will reduce our ecological footprint on the production side. But we should not see this as a sacrifice.
‘In our European societies, people are increasingly experiencing a sense of dissatisfaction with current consumerist lifestyles and the fast pace of modern life. Research shows that we have an increased sense of wellbeing when we enjoy higher levels of time affluence, and when we dedicate that time to spending time with others and in activities that are meaningful and normally removed from materialistic understandings of a good life.
‘In 10 years, European citizens could have more time to take part in community activities, we would re-use and share products, adapt cities to extensive public transport and to possibilities of walking and cycling, we would have electric car-sharing services, we would have urban gardens that would provide us with fresh food, and we would enjoy slow time around organic and seasonal food that we could cook ourselves. Things like that.’
Why does time affluence matter in changing people’s environmental behaviours?
‘We as a society seem to increasingly experience an accelerated rhythm of life, and this seems to be driven by increasing demands on our work and leisure times, the blurring of boundaries between the two. Material wellbeing is considered to be necessary for happiness – but we see that after a certain threshold (of wealth), research does not support this assumption. And we feel more alienated, and have less time for what we deem important.
‘More and more, people are realising that happiness and wellbeing depend not on material things, but being with others. Spending less time on running after material affluence and trading it for time to spend in our communities, share resources, and go to economic models that do not need to be based on individual consumerism.’
How can we get people to change their behaviours?
‘Changing behaviour is obviously not easy, although there are examples of areas where behaviour does change rapidly. Think about things such as the use of the mobile phone or social networks. We need to design policies that make sustainable options the first ones people see and think about, such as those based on the principles of nudging (encouraging people to do things through the choices they are offered).
‘We also need to use campaigns based on social norms research, that is, showing people that more and more of our society is deciding in favour of sustainable options. And it is also important for people to be aware of the situations in which their choices are sustainable, as making conscious choices contributes to building a personal identity that includes seeing ourselves as a pro-environmental person, which, in turn, leads to more sustainable choices.’
What difference does identifying as a pro-environmental person make to someone’s behaviour?
‘Identities are based on our belonging to certain social groups and they are also developed through the observation of our own behaviour. If we come to define ourselves as the type of person that acts pro-environmentally or for whom the environment is important, we are likely to act more sustainably.
‘Our aspirations might also be related to our identity. We are discovering that people want to spend more time in their communities, or to have time for the ones they love or for volunteer work. And this is influenced by a different set of aspirations than desires for a consumerist lifestyle. Also, when people experience these changes, they report higher levels of personal satisfaction and wellbeing, and they also tend to act more sustainably.
‘Our pro-environmental identity can be strengthened when the individual is part of a likeminded community. Aspirations for having time for your community in particular appear to be influential in driving desires for sustainable lifestyle changes.’
How can community play a role in adapting to an environmental lifestyle?
‘When Greenpeace started, for example, the group was a minority, and was revolutionary. Nobody paid much attention, its actions were considered very radical.
‘But now, being an environmentalist is not perceived like that. It is much more normal. In some circles, it is now considered irresponsible and lacking in solidarity to not be environmentally minded. It is impolite not to be environmental.
‘We know from historical experience that a minority can have an important influence over majority thinking. And psychological research shows us the mechanisms through which this happens.
‘For example, people can be involved in lifestyle initiatives that have to do with sustainability. They can be active in rejecting products not made in a sustainable way, such as not buying clothes made by children in some developing countries, or not buying products that have a lot of environmental impacts in the amount of packaging or air miles they will have flown.
‘People can contribute by signing petitions for environmental protection and be active in the decision-making process.’
What are the main challenges of getting people to change their lifestyles?
‘The main stumbling block is our own economic system, which is oriented towards intensive consumption and extensive resource use. This comes from the times of the Industrial Revolution, when that was not a problem, and we expanded our industrial system through intense resource consumption. But now population has increased tremendously. And we think we need to have a car, we need to travel, we need to go on holiday to faraway places, we need a flight to get to a meeting – the system works in these ways. But we believe changing our economic system would mean bankruptcy – and that does not need to be so. We want to evaluate the impacts of significant lifestyle and economic changes in terms of macroeconomic and environmental effects and see what would happen.
‘We expect from our work with economists that we can estimate the effects of important changes.’
You’re involved in the GLAMURS project, which has been funded by the EU to explore how Europe could transition to a low-carbon society. Could you tell us about that?
‘The objective is to explore the complex interactions between psychological, economic, social and technological factors that support or hinder sustainable lifestyles and the transition to a green economy.
‘People are realising that the way we are living is in many aspects unsustainable, not only from an environmental perspective, but also because we feel increasingly alienated, lonely or lacking meaning in our lives. We are recording this through interviews, surveys and other methods. We attempt to develop and evaluate a comprehensive model of lifestyle changes and to look at different transition pathways to a green economy.
‘The macroeconomic approach of the GLAMURS project looks at how lifestyle initiatives at a small level can be upscaled to a national or even global level, and what needs to change in our economies to make them green and sustainable.
‘We also explore the types of conflicts people experience when they would want to make sustainable choices but it is hard, because other constraints and reasons push them in a different direction. We explore what types of governance mechanisms could support solving such dilemmas in a sustainable direction.
‘The final goal (is) to provide recommendations to the European Commission and policymakers in general, as well as to sustainable initiative practitioners and citizens interested in living a more sustainable life.’