Do environmentalists hold back sustainable lifestyles?

5/8/2010 Guardian  Misguided images of sacrifice may be putting people off living more sustainable lifestyles.But reversing that may require new measures of success and happiness, say Tom Levitt
and Kara Moses  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
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.’
Measuring happiness

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.’

Encouraging alternatives
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.

Useful links
UNEP: Task Force on Sustainable Lifestyles
Defra’s Sustainable Development Indicators
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