Living Well and Within Limits

Put simply, sustainability is about living well, within certain limits. For this to happen, across a global population approaching 7 billion and expected to reach 9 billion by 2050, people's patterns of consumption have to change.51

Achieving this is a colossal task. But it is not an impossible one. A proper understanding of the relationship between individual desires and the social good is vital here. As noted earlier, consuming comes naturally to humankind. Restraint does not. Change requires a supportive social environment. People are torn constantly between self-enhancement and self-transcendence. There is little individuals can do to shift their underlying nature. But the balance between self-serving and social behaviors is malleable at the social level. In one social context, selfishness will imprison us, impoverish people's lives, and may ultimately destroy the living environment. In another, the common good will prevails and people's lives will be richer, more satisfying, and more fulfilling.

There is clear evidence of an appetite for change. During an 18-month project, the Sustainable Consumption Roundtable in the United Kingdom identified a strong desire for collective action. I Will If You Will—the title of the Roundtable report—was a common

The Challenge of Sustainable Lifestyles theme emerging from a range of social research. This effect is not confined to the United Kingdom. The evidence on downshifting and simplicity, reactions against consumerism, the high levels of commitment to change (even in developing countries) found in the HSBC survey, a rising interest in alternatives to consumerism: all these are real, demonstrable effects. But good intentions are not enough, and they will continue to be undermined unless physical infrastructure, institutions, and social structures change.52 Who is capable of influencing these wider structures? Ultimately, of course, all sections of society must take responsibility for change. Government, business, and consumers all have some role to play; the media, community groups, religious institutions, and traditional wisdom are all essential influences on the social environment. But without strong leadership from government, change will be impossible. Individuals are too exposed to social signals and status competition. Businesses operate in competitive markets. A transition from self-interest to social behaviors requires changes in underlying structures— changes that strengthen commitment and encourage social behavior. Government is the principal agent in protecting the social good. A new vision of governance that embraces this role is critical.

Two or three key tasks are vital here. In the first place, policies need to support an infrastructure of sustainability: access to reliable public transport, recycling facilities, energy efficiency services, maintenance and repair, re-engineering and reuse. Systematic biases against these facilities have to be dismantled and policies to encourage them brought into place.53

The second key task lies in establishing fiscal and institutional frameworks that send consistent signals to businesses and consumers about sustainable consumption. A core exam ple of this is the role of a "social cost of carbon" in providing incentives for investments in low-carbon technologies and behaviors. The Stern Review on the economics of climate change suggests that this cost might be as high as $85 per ton of CO2. There is no doubt that internalizing this cost in market prices and investment decisions would have a major influence on reducing carbon emissions. The review also cast doubt on prevailing discounting practices, suggesting that zero or even negative discount rates might be appropriate when looking at projects with long-term impacts on the environment.54

But the role of government is not confined to fiscal frameworks. The way energy industries are regulated, for instance, has a profound effect on the incentives for demand management and energy service companies. Product policy can have a significant influence on access to durable, efficient products that minimize environmental harm. Recent EU legislation, for example, has already led to progressive improvements in the efficiency of energy-consuming appliances. Australia pledged early in 2007 to outlaw incandescent lightbulbs before 2010. The 27 EU nations have now followed that example. Surveying evidence of policy successes, the Sustainable Consumption Roundtable found that progressive standards, clearly signaled to manufacturers in advance, are a particularly effective instrument for moving toward more-sustainable consumption.55

The influence of government on social norms and expectations is, at first sight, less obvious. Policymakers are uncomfortable with the idea that they have a role in influencing people's values. But the truth is that governments intervene constantly in the social context. Myriad different signals are sent out, for example, by the way education is structured, by the importance accorded to economic indicators, by guidelines for public

The Challenge of Sustainable Lifestyles sector performance, by public procurement policies, by the impact of planning guidelines on public and social spaces, by the influence of wage policy on the work-life balance, by the impact of employment policy on economic mobility (and hence on family structure and stability), by the effect of trading standards on consumer behavior, by the degree of regulation of advertising and the media, and by the support offered to community initiatives and faith groups. In all these arenas, policy shapes and helps create the social world.

As this chapter suggests, the drift of these influences over the last few decades has been away from encouraging commitment and in favor of encouraging consumption. But there are some striking counterexamples: places where strenuous efforts have been made to rein in consumerism and focus more specifically on well-being. Several nations, including the United Kingdom, Canada, and China, have begun to develop "well-being accounts"—new ways of measuring national progress alongside or in place of the GDP. (See Chapter 2.) In late 2007, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the European Commission, and several nongovernmental groups cohosted a major international conference, "Beyond GDP," designed to look at more effective measures of social progress.56

A crucial arena for action lies in advertising, particularly ads directed at children. Global advertising expenditures now amount to $605 billion (with the United States alone accounting for $292 billion). The figure is growing at the rate of 5-6 percent a year, with online advertising growing faster than any other sector, at between 30 percent and 40 percent a year. The impact of this, particularly on children, is pernicious. Marketing pressure has been linked explicitly to rising childhood obesity.57

At an international conference in 2006, the World Health Organization stopped short of banning advertising to children, but Scandinavian nations have taken a more proactive stance. In Sweden, TV advertising to children under 12 is banned. Norway, too, has restrictions on children's advertising, and the Consumer Ombudsman has an educational role in Norwegian schools. Recent advertising guidelines in Norway include a ban on advertising cars as "green," "clean," or "environmentally friendly." Although a Norwegian plan to develop anti-consumption adverts failed to attract funding in the United Nations, the nongovernmental group Adbusters, based in Vancouver, Canada, remains a focus of resistance to commercial advertising. Perhaps most striking of all, Sao Paulo, Brazil, the fourth largest city in the world, has recently become the first city outside socialist economies to ban outdoor advertising.58

Australia pledged early in 2007 to outlaw incandescent lightbulbs before 2010.

Religious leadership has declined substantially in industrial countries. But traditional wisdom is still an important influence on the debate about living well. In less secular societies, religion plays a number of roles. It warns against material excess; it provides a social and spiritual context for self-transcendence, altruism, and other-regarding behavior; and it offers a space for contemplation in which to make sense of people's lives in deeper and more meaningful ways than those provided by the fleeting consolations of consumerism.

One thing is clear: if a part of the function of consumerism is to deliver hope—as indicated earlier—then countering consumerism means building new avenues of hope that are less reliant on material goods. In countries

The Challenge of Sustainable Lifestyles where religious institutions are still strong, this task is much easier. In Southeast Asia, for example, in response to the economic crisis of the mid-1990s, the King of Thailand revived the traditional concept of the Sufficiency Economy, built on Buddhist principles, and provided a much-needed frame of reference to help countless microenterprises in rural villages survive the economic shocks of the recession and build a sustainable future in its aftermath. In the mountain Kingdom of Bhutan, progress is being reconceived in part as a spiritual endeavor. In many Islamic nations, the framework for moral restraint is already in place. From a western perspective, this framework is often seen as oppressive of individual freedoms, particularly for women. But Islam—and other religious traditions— are important sources of understanding the limits of relying on human nature to protect the public good.59

In the final analysis, the consumer society offers neither a durable sense of meaning in people's lives nor any consolation for losses. The erosion of religious participation in the West offers one more example of crumbling commitment devices. The examples in this chapter bear testament to the desire for change and the visionary courage of individuals, communities, and a handful of political leaders prepared to initiate that change. Millions of people have already discovered that treading more lightly allows them to breathe more easily. And it offers a new creative space for social change—a place where family, friendship, community, and a renewed sense of meaning and purpose are possible.

A sustainable world is not an impoverished world but one that is prosperous in different ways. The challenge for the twenty-first century is to create that world.


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