In San Mateo County California, where I live, advocates worked hard to create a new public electricity supplier that would provide everyone electricity from renewable sources at no extra cost. I turn off the light when I leave a room, but my personal carefulness does not come close to the impact of the work people did together to bring us the new electricity supplier.
In the past twenty years, recognizing the power of collective action, and concerned with the race and class biases in the environmental movement, environmental advocates have shifted their focus from the individual lifestyle choices of people with money and a lot of choices, to the social systems and structures that drive environmental devastation, and that provide fewer and worse choices for low-income people and people of color.
There is a lot each of us can do to shift policies: we can find any institution we are connected to and push it to shift to more sustainable practices, we can engage in electoral politics and push elected officials to do more, we can protest to create to a sense of urgency for change, and we can expose the forces that are driving the crisis.
And there is no doubt that regulations, policies, and shifts in our infrastructure are the most important things needed to get us to a carbon-free future. But we can’t get there without also shifting some ways of living that are more based in personal consumption choices than they are in institutional practices. At the same time, our individual consumption choices take place in a web of relationships that make some choices easy and others hard. Thus, advocates must proceed along both tracks at once, to change the context and so making sustainable choices is easier, while also pushing for those lifestyle changes that, in the aggregate, will make a big difference. For example, if I can’t have a garden—maybe because I live in an apartment—it only makes sense to compost my trash if my town has a composting system. But I can set an example by composting anyway, and I can advocate for municipal composting.
This back and forth is just as necessary for the three most important consumption choices that I think people should consider: how much we fly, how much meat we eat, and whether or not we drive a gas-powered car. It is easier to not fly if you live someplace with good rail. It is easier to not eat meat if you live in a place where a lot of other people don’t eat meat. It is easier to not own a gas-powered car if you live someplace with good transit or with good electric vehicle charging infrastructure. And yet everyone who has a high consumption lifestyle should also shift their own practices because in doing so they can help shift the social context to make those changes easier for others as well.
According to Evans, McMeekin, and Southerton in their article “Sustainable Consumption, Behaviour Change Policies, and Theories of Practice,” “many existing approaches to sustainable consumption frame the problem as a matter of sovereign consumer behavior and present the solution as one of influencing choices and persuading individuals to behave in ways that are less environmentally damaging. In contrast, they argue that people make choices within the context of shared social practices, and so it is important to look at the way individual consumer choices are wrapped up in networks of action that involve “the dynamics of everyday life; social relations; material culture; socio-technical systems; cultural conventions; and shared understandings.”
In their article they share the example of “Cool Biz,” a very successful program in Japan to reduce the use of air conditioning in government offices. The government could have done a campaign to tell everyone to turn down the AC. Or they could have created a rule that it must be turned down, and made people miserable and resentful of environmental regulations. But policymakers realized that part of what was driving the need for extreme cooling was the standard dress code for men to wear full business suits, even in summer.
And so, the government did integrated work to shift the whole matrix of the practice that was driving wasteful air conditioning use.
A new dress code was instituted in which ties and blazers were replaced with lightweight summer clothing made from ‘breathable’ fibers. In order to promote and normalize this dress code, the Ministry worked with designers and retailers to develop appropriate attire as well as organizing fashion shows in which high profile ministers and attractive young people modeled the garments.
The authors explain the implications of this for policy makers: if you want to shift a practice, you need to investigate the ways that aspects of social actions are interconnected, and not focus on individuals as your main unit of analysis. Those wanting to shift a social practice need to focus on “the importance of targeting the multiple activities and components which together configure practices as entities.”
The strands of individual and collective action are woven together in many complicated ways. Years ago, my students were involved in a campaign to bring bus rapid transit (BRT) to the highly suburban area where our college, De Anza, is located. The organizers we were working with were very clear that people would stop driving only if the bus could be faster than a car, and if people could come to see riding the bus as a positive option. Part of the campaign was to improve the BRT busses’ image: they had Wi-Fi and comfortable seats, and looked nice. Part of the advocates’ job was to change the rules so that the busses would be faster, the other part was to make riding the bus cool.
As my students at De Anza were advocating first for bus passes, and then later for BRT, many of them rode the terrible bus system we had. For some who couldn’t afford a car, it was their only option. But a few others rode the bus as a matter of principle. I always thought that for those few students, the work they did to transform the system was more important than their individual choice to ride our underfunded bus system, and that their actual riding was unnecessary. And yet, I have come to see that there was something important about their living the reality of a slow bus system every day. The more obvious effect was to give them credibility in the fight for a better system. But the other part, that I had not really taken seriously enough, was that by riding the bus they were seeing every day the barriers that needed to be overcome to improve the system. There is a kind of knowledge that comes only from close experience with the ways that systems fail, and activists with that detailed knowledge are in a good position to advocate for ways to change those systems.
Living the reality of a change you want others to make can be complicated. I recently decided to not fly unnecessarily. When I mention that I am not flying, I hope it encourages some of the people I speak with to ask themselves if they should fly as much as they do. But I also know that I need to be careful, because it is also quite possible that my personal choice might trigger feelings of guilt or resentment and might actually encourage others to fly more to spite people like me.
I have been a vegetarian since I was 14. For almost my whole life, it has been common that when tell someone that I didn’t care to eat something because I was a vegetarian, they would start to tell me about their meat eating habits. And those stories always seem to come with a lot of guilt and discomfort. I always try to walk them out of their guilt and describe my choice to not eat meat in the most benign way possible, because I don’t want to be socially rejected as a self-righteous person who tries to make other people feel bad. And yet I believe that making the choices we think are right, and talking about them in matter-of-fact ways, without being aggressive or preachy, is important. Thoughtful messaging can avoid backlash and can lead to shifts in cultural norms.
Even more significant, though, is when we move outward from our individual consumer choices, and talking about those choices, to the ways that our individual choices are enabled and hindered by the fabric of practices that connect us to other people, and when we work to transform that fabric.
Part of the whole practice of going on vacation for middle-class people is wrapped up with wasteful forms of consumerism and driven by capitalist forms of desire and marketing. Middle-class people fly to faraway places, post about it on social media, and come home and share stories of how much fun it was. COVID-19 pushed many people to explore more intensively the places near where they live. Many people who fly for vacation have come nowhere near exhausting the possibilities in places nearby. What are the social forces that drive middle-class people to take vacations in faraway places? What do we need to do to develop a social imagination that builds and reinforces the fun of a “staycation”?
Many middle-class people also fly too much as part of their work lives. I am a member of an academic organization that has traditionally had a national conference somewhere in the US every two years. The organization had a virtual conference in 2021 because of COVID-19. There were a few good things that come from in-person conferences that I missed at the 2021 conference. There was none of the fun of going out for eating and drinking with new friends and old friends who I only see at those conferences. There were none of the chance conversations with people in the hallways or after a session. But I was also struck by the unexpected positives that came from the conference being virtual. I was able to invite comment on my work from a colleague from Mexico who never would have traveled for that conference if it had been in person in the US. There was also a whole crew of students who presented, who probably would not have had the funding to attend in person. The conference became cheap and accessible.
There is a movement developing to encourage people who organize conferences to make them more virtual. The journal Nature published the article “An Analysis of Ways to Decarbonize Conference Travel after COVID-19,” which outlined the importance of shifting to virtual conferences and the many of the benefits of doing so. It turns out that conferences are a significant source of global emissions. Someone sent me that article and I shared it with the organizers of my biennial conference and made the case for why the conference should be at least partially virtual, even if we are done with COVID-19 restrictions by then. My personal decision to not fly unnecessarily helped focus me on the network of relationships I am embedded in. I don’t plan to fly, and I don’t want to miss the next conference.
By making the changes ourselves we are more likely to advocate for larger changes; and in the meantime, we emit less carbon.
Goal Blue is an organization in China that focuses on shifting the cultural meaning of meat consumption and car driving. In much of the global south both of those things are high status forms of consumption, and as people get enough money, they generally shift to eating more meat and to owning a car. But of course, if everyone buys a car then everyone is stuck in traffic, and life is pretty miserable. And if everyone who is middle-class in the world eats as much meat ats the average US citizen, it will be impossible to cut emissions in half by 2030 and to zero by 2050.
Goal Blue’s slogan is “Good for me. Good for earth” and they use advertising techniques to make less wasteful practices look glamorous, ethical, and fun.
Since launching in 2016, Goal Blue has produced prominent public advertising campaigns featuring some of China’s most famous film and TV stars, gained tens of millions of video views with top trending topics on WeChat, brought nutrition and gardening education pilots into hundreds of schools, and partnered with numerous sports and entertainment companies to produce large-scale public events.
Like many organizations working to shift social meanings around consumption, Goal Blue does not focus on “being a vegetarian” or signing a pledge to never fly or never drive. Instead, the focus is on the benefits of engaging in other practices that are better for the earth. They want you to do more of the good things and less of the bad ones. Turning less carbon-intensive choices into an identity sets the bar too high, and creates barriers to the spread of better practices. In the US, many people are advocating for Meat-Free Mondays and the beauty of staycations, the value of taking public transit, biking, or walking once a week, rather than complete bans on carbon-intensive consumerism. As we engage in healthier practices and push to make those practices more convenient, we need to also work to shift the meaning of things, such that for example it is not a sign of success to drive a car, eat meat, or travel by plane on vacation. And we need to change the context that makes those better choices more convenient, more attractive, cheaper, and more socially acceptable.
Cutting global emissions by 50% by 2030 will take everything we have. Each of us needs to pull on every lever we can and be as big a part of that change as possible. The most important levers we can pull are those that change systems, such as taking away the power of fossil fuel and agribusiness companies have over our political systems, and working for sustainable practices in the institutions around us. While for most people, that kind of work is outside their comfort zone, it is in fact fairly easy to get involved in making a difference that way.
In addition to that system change work, middle-class people in every country need to reduce the emissions that come from a few key practices that they have control over. Meat eating, flying, and driving gas-powered cars are all areas where consumption patterns matter, and where those emitting more carbon than they need to can lower their own emissions by making personal changes. By shifting those habits, we are sending social messages to others that those low-carbon practices are desirable, and we see close up what is needed to make those low carbon options easy and desirable. By making the changes ourselves we are more likely to advocate for larger changes; and in the meantime, we emit less carbon.
None of us exists as an autonomous individual. Instead, we are all members of social networks which we create, enact, and reproduce everyday by our actions. Reweaving the webs of our relations such that we can all live well together is crucial for our survival. A small part of that reweaving should be to cut down on being wasteful consumers in places where we can.