Sustainable Lifestyles: Great Theory, Impossible Practice?

Pressure on the worlds resources means we are increasingly encouraged to consume less power, water, even food. But few of us make more than a minimal effort to change our behaviour. Is a sustainable lifestyle great in theory but impossible in practice? That was the question discussed at a British Library debate last week attended by the BES policy team.

Dale Southerton, Director of the Sustainable Practices Research Group (SPRG) and Professor of Sociology at the University of Manchester, gave a talk entitled “Bad Habits Die Hard”. He suggested changes in practices rather than changes in individual’s behaviour is required, and that habits are not the problem of the individual, but are a response to social customs.

Professor Southerton cited the freezer as an example of a technology that had significantly altered social customs. From originally being an invention to “beat the seasons”, it now dominates the kitchen and supermarket is an “appliance of convenience, storing pizzas and a glut of frozen peas”.

In conclusion, Professor Southerton suggested that individuals cannot make the planet sustainable and that changing social, economic and cultural organisation of practices is required. To achieve this is a need for adaptive policy programmes that target practices and habitual actions.

The final speaker of the event was Ian Christie, Research Fellow and Coordinator, Sustainable Lifestyles Research Group, Centre for Environmental Strategy (CES) at the University of Surrey. His talk was entitled “Sustainable Consumption: Mission Not-Quite Impossible” and talked about, among other things, rebound effects, the idea that up to one third of emission savings are cancelled out by rebound spending. For example someone may reward themselves for greening their house and reducing their carbon footprint by then booking an overseas holiday. Or someone putting in an energy saving light bulb may use that as an excuse to leave the light on for longer.

Overall, Dr Christie suggested that a sustainable lifestyle is not impossible, but stressed that if we rely on the emergence of technology, such as more efficient forms of renewable energy generation, then we will indeed be on an impossible mission.