The key debates for sustainable living

The public’s attitude, how to implement change and where the responsibility for sustainability lies are three vital issues that need to be resolved if the country is going to move into a greener future

Behaviour matters. The choices individuals make every day about what to buy, what to eat, how they warm their homes and how to travel all have implications for sustainability. As we must address unsustainable practices upstream, including the urgent decarbonisation of our energy supply, so we must address them downstream. On this there is consensus. However, beyond this, there lies much debate.

In future contributions to this site I will delve into some of the areas that hold greatest promise for advancing sustainable living. But first I focus on three crucial debates:

1. Is it attitudes or behaviour that needs to change?

Ultimately it is the outcome of peoples’ behaviour that matters. However, some argue that to focus purely on changing behaviour, appealing to the immediate needs and self-interest of people and not on challenging materialistic and consumption-oriented attitudes, is self-defeating. For example, you might persuade someone to install insulation because it will save them money, but if you haven’t changed their attitudes towards sustainability then they may use the money to pay for an extra flight abroad, undoing any carbon emissions saved.

The problem is that people don’t tend to want their attitudes changed and to attempt to do so smacks of paternalism and self-righteousness. The promotion of a commitment to sustainability as being a somehow “enlightened” or “higher” purpose has been a key barrier to these values making it into the mainstream. When sustainability comes across as “smug”, as focus group participants described to me in 2009, it will never sell.

Moreover, the relationship between attitudes and behaviour is complex. While a change in attitudes might lead to change in behaviour there are always many reasons why it might not (for example the behaviour costs too much or is highly impractical). Also, perhaps less intuitively, a change in behaviour can lead to a change in attitudes; someone who regularly performs a behaviour, through a process of post-rationalisation, can increasingly adopt values that align with the behaviour

2. How can change be brought about?

If behaviour could be changed merely by raising awareness then sustainable living would be far more advanced in the UK. Compared with other countries, public belief in human culpability for climate change and the need for radical action, notwithstanding significant falls in recent years, is strikingly high in the UK. At a more micro-level, energy performance certificates, intended to drive homeowners to improve their household’s energy efficiency by raising awareness of poor performance, are consistently ignored.

Other techniques are required. Spurred on by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s 2008 book Nudge, the potential for interventions based on the insights of behavioural economics are very much en vogue. Examples of nudges for sustainable living include: choice editing – such as removing or underemphasising the most resource intensive options for consumers; using the power of social norms – for example showing people how their domestic energy use relates to their neighbours; and making things easy – such as offering kerbside collections for recycling.

But there is strong evidence to suggest nudges alone are not enough. Consider the example of smoking: are the large decreases in the number of smokers due to the pictures of diseased lungs that have been introduced on cigarette packets, or the banning of smoking in public places and the high levels of tax on cigarettes?

As inconvenient as it may be for many within the current government, and indeed for many companies, regulation, as well as nudges, is often required.

3. Who should take the responsibility?

Underpinning the proceeding debates is the question of responsibility. Sustainable living is essentially about the behaviour of people, so is it not people who bear the greatest responsibility to drive change? Perhaps, but as it is companies that make the products people buy is the responsibility not theirs? This may also be true, but then the fundamental unsustainability of the economy is due to market failures, with the costs of externalities like carbon pollution being omitted from everyday accounting, and so is it not the government that needs to act?

While each can point a finger at the others, and indeed often does, ultimately the responsibility is shared. There is no silver bullet with which to bring about sustainable living – just a long, slow iteration in the right direction. Long-term rises to the costs of resources will help, but as the big fluctuations in the market price for oil and the increasingly lucrative business case for developing shale gas reserves show, they cannot be relied upon.

There is one final debate, which is potentially the biggest of all, although its scale does not necessarily equate to its significance – that is, to grow, or not to grow? (Or to consume or not to consume?) At a time when the lack of growth in the economy is of key concern to all – not just bankers or politicians, but the 2.57 million people looking for work in the UK – the arguments for a steady state economy seem like another attempt by some environmentalists to paint themselves as wholly irrelevant. My colleagues at the IPPR have provided an eloquent advocacy for green growth elsewhere; at its crudest we need growth and we need it in industries that can create jobs, wealth and increase sustainability in the process.

While achieving growth in these sectors will not be easy, with the right policy framework in place sustainable living provides big opportunities for the country and companies alike.