10 misconceptions about lifestyle changes

Text by Mathieu Saujot, researcher at IDDRI and Sarah Thiriot, sociologist at ADEME

In 2020, Bon Pote presented the 12 “discourses of climate delay” and how to respond to them, based on a scientific article that has since reached a large audience. In this work, 12 discourses that “accept the existence of climate change, but justify inaction or inadequate efforts”, were identified and analysed.

Among the different types of action needed to address climate change, the issue of more sustainable lifestyles seems to us to be particularly prone to this type of discourse. Reactions to the concept of sufficiency [1]In French the word “sobriété” is used in this context, a word that does not have a straightforward English equivalent. It is often translated as “sufficiency” and refers to the idea of … Continue reading are a good example, an issue that is often regarded as a taboo that can be either dismissed or diluted by confusing it with efficiency, or even neutralized by the mention of degrowth. We therefore find ourselves in a situation where an increasing number of political declarations recognize the need to change our lifestyles, but where obstacles arise as soon as the changes to be implemented are practically addressed.

Accounting for these concerns and knowing how to respond

This work of identifying the arguments of resistance to change and the possible responses is not only a matter of political communication: it reveals elements of what changing lifestyles represent and what must be implemented collectively for such change to become an acceptable and desirable reality.

The authors of the discourses of climate delay article point out that these discources “build on legitimate concerns and fears as societies move closer to addressing climate change. We argue that they become delay arguments when they misrepresent rather than clarify, raise adversity rather than consensus or imply that taking action is an impossible challenge.”

We therefore respond to these arguments to enhance our ability to make these lifestyle changes possible. To this end, we believe that it is essential to enlighten and guide the debate with knowledge and experience from human and social sciences.

1/ These changes are unacceptable

This argument discredits any climate action that would require lifestyle changes by considering that the population would find them unacceptable. We generally refer here to changes to our transport, heating, consumption and food practices, tourism, use of digital technology…

– Possible responses –

Reversing the burden of proof

This argument, similarly to others, can be persuasive because it disregards the current situation and shifts the burden of proof completely onto the transition project. To state that transformative changes are unacceptable implicitly conveys the idea that current lifestyles are essentially reasonable and that the transition is the only problem.

This is clearly a fallacy. There are many aspects of our lifestyles that when identified and criticized, particularly by NGOs, spark debate in society. For example, consider the impact of animal welfare associations and their revelations about our current food practices, concerning the mass production of cheap animal products, which have practical implications for animal welfare. We can also think of the textile industry’s failures in terms of social rights, for example the Dhaka factory collapse in 2013 that killed more than 1,000 workers. This event has been linked with the pressures being placed on workers arising from the demand for low-cost production, according to the fast fashion model, which ultimately stems from our clothes shopping habits. While on a daily basis our ways of moving around are strongly dependent on the internal combustion engine, resulting in high levels of air pollution in urban areas, which has a detrimental impact on health. Obviously, condemning the negative impacts of our current lifestyles does not equate to making future changes acceptable. But it should enable us to hold the discussion on a level playing field: our current lifestyles have qualities as well as faults, and they also raise moral and ethical issues that must be taken into account. This rebalanced analysis encourages us to think about change. The debates that it can generate within society are certainly a way forward.

Preferences are malleable

What do we consider to be unacceptable? Does the end justify the means? The question of whether sufficiency is acceptable is often raised. A question that does not have a simple answer given that the concept is not at all straightforward. 

For example, on a rainy morning, if you were to ask your neighbour, a habitual car driver, to take your bicycle for his or her five-kilometre commute, there is a good chance that they will find this offer unacceptable. But if these same circumstances occurred six months after the inauguration of a new cycle path in their suburban village, during a trial of electric bikes by their office, following a doctor’s advice regarding the risks of a sedentary lifestyle and a discussion with their children who cycle to school… (along with the purchase of a good raincoat!), then the answer will certainly be different.

Why the change of attitude? Quite simply because our preferences, our representations of what is possible, positive and desirable are malleable, as highlighted in the recent IPCC report[2]Technical summary, IPCC, AR6, WGIII: “Preferences are malleable and can align with a cultural shift. These changes can be stimulated by a set of levers in the hands of political decision makers, private decision makers and citizens. Regarding the bicycle, for example, the figure below and this series of articles on Bon Pote enable us to identify these levers.

Let’s talk about bikes – Fédération des Usagers de la Bicyclette.

The “Transition(s) 2050” forecasts carried out by ADEME discussed these societal choices with around thirty French people, providing important lessons. Firstly, it shows that the question of acceptability cannot be raised without several possible futures being made tangible and comprehensible. It also shows that scenarios that integrate sufficiency are no less acceptable than scenarios that gamble on major technological deployments to maintain our individual consumption patterns.

Of course, there are unknowns surrounding any changes to our lifestyles, consumption and travel patterns, but prolonging our current habits through the intensive use of technologies also raises a whole set of uncertainties in the eyes of citizens. This brings us back to the idea of going beyond the word “acceptability” to better understand what lies behind this term: the desirability of the scenarios, their feasibility, and ultimately the conditions necessary for their implementation.

2/ Changes are socially unjust

This argument is in line with the criticism of a so-called “punitive” ecology. It is based on a simplification: the transition would inevitably be made to the detriment of the most vulnerable, especially when aiming to reorient behaviours and lifestyles. The example of the carbon tax, which is  a reality (see these works that show the unequal impact and our article on the issue), is used to reject the whole transition project.

– Possible responses –

Inequalities are real… but mostly independent of the transition

Once again, this argument tends to implicitly blame current inequalities and social problems on those leading the transition. Let’s consider a few examples: the gilet jaunes crisis that highlighted the issues of car dependency and vulnerability to fuel prices (a problem identified in research carried out between 2000 and 2010, prior to the introduction of a carbon tax); poor housing conditions and the fight against energy inefficient homes that affects hundreds of thousands (see Rénovons collective); and food precariousness and insecurity which is having an impact on millions of French people (see the recent report on the question). These issues show that the transition is not only about the environment, but also about the quality of life. It shows that our societies are already being torn apart by inequalities and social injustice. The main cause of inequalities is not the transition, they are in fact the result of current and past policies.

In this context, while it is important to question the potential negative impacts of the transition, it should also be viewed as a source of solutions. Indeed, research on sustainable living and related proposals  is increasingly adopting an approach that puts issues of social justice, equity and equality at the heart of the matter. They start from the principle that it is necessary to ensure basic needs for all, making reference to the concepts of “social floor”, “basic needs” and “social threshold”, which would provide a framework for progress for the poorest. Such work also emphasizes the fact that the greatest efforts will have to be made by the wealthiest members of society who are currently responsible for the highest levels of consumption and emissions. The case of air travel is emblematic because a minority of the population accounts for the majority of flights, which means that a measure such as a tax that increases with the frequency of flights would primarily impact the wealthiest. See the “Equitable 1.5 Degree Lifestyles” article by the Institute for Future-Fit Economies for a good summary of what the research says about the issue of equity in lifestyle transition.

Building new public action frameworks

Reframing the transition so that it does not impact the most vulnerable and, on the contrary, fosters social progress is obviously essential and can also be explored at the sectoral level. In the case of agriculture and food, we need to think about the evolution of the sectors, farmer income and the most financially constrained households, which means anticipating the necessary public policies. Solutions already exist and can be implemented to address these concerns. The challenge is not therefore impossible.

Four philosophies of action to ensure the affordability of healthy and sustainable food. IDDRI Blog

Beyond conventional wisdom

It is also crucial to go beyond preconceived ideas surrounding these issues of inequality. For example, contrary to a vision in which sustainable food is the prerogative of affluent and educated people, there is evidence that people of limited means express an interest in healthy, quality and sustainable food and are not absent from consumption trends, such as organic food. The crucial issue is therefore the need for inclusion and cohesion in the way the transition project is conceived, presented and implemented, which can take very tangible forms, particularly at the local level (see, for example, the “Territoires à vivres” project).

Finally, once again, care must be taken to avoid double standards: no one, for example, has been alarmed by the potential additional costs for low-income households that will be incurred by the rapid development of 5G technology, despite the fact that mobile phones are now a prerequisite for all, including the most financially constrained, for inclusion in social, economic and professional life. The fact that this trend in digital technologies does not raise more concern is only because we have become accustomed to this innovation race, and because lifestyle changes caused by digital technology have been triggered and deployed by a multitude of public and private actors (see La numérisation du monde, F. Flipo, 2021).

The problems of inequality are crucial and many works seek to resolve them within the framework of the transition. This issue cannot be summed up by the idea of a “punitive ecology“, which is a divide that French people are ready to overcome.

3/ Our freedoms are under threat

– Possible responses –

Freedom… within a very constrained environment

Let’s start with a paradox: “everyone is free but everyone does the same thing!”. In other words, our lives are largely governed by strongly organizational and structural frameworks: infrastructure, specific products and services, organization of time, social norms, the “social imaginary”, regulations… This explains why our lifestyles have such a high degree of regularity: for example, we refer to Western, French or suburban lifestyles. This doesn’t mean that individuals don’t have a certain amount of leeway to develop their own lifestyle, but it does translate into a predominantly shared framework, which puts into perspective the idea of totally unconstrained lifestyles.

Moreover, the freedom to which these arguments refer is above all the freedom to consume, which is only one of our freedoms. Clearly, the debates raised by the health crisis and the measures impacting our liberties, such as those concerning press freedom in a context of economic concentration (which led to a commission of inquiry by the French Senate) call for the adoption of a more global perspective regarding the protection of our liberties. Let us consider in particular the work of François Sureau on our public liberties.

One of a set of illustrations representing the 12 discourses of climate delay (see all 12 here)

Moreover, our freedom to consume is itself limited by the existing offer: nobody is free today to buy a low-cost car without electronics, it is simply not produced; we cannot do without digital tools either; and having everyday objects repaired is not always possible. The current situation is also influenced by advertising, which locks us into stereotypes and dated representations, and depicts an imaginary world that the average person cannot afford. This can be illustrated for example by winter sports, which are widely covered by the television media, even though only 10% of the French population actually participate in such sports, and also by the idea of owning a detached house or buying a new car… What freedoms do French people actually have, especially those with limited incomes, to conform to the representations conveyed in advertising and the media?

Changing these representations in a way that is consistent with the environmental crises is an essential issue, and such changes do not necessarily imply a loss of freedom (see for example the recent EPE report). Furthermore, we should remember that advertising is often funded by huge budgets, that are much higher than those available to public policies that are nevertheless criticized for their erosion of liberties. In 2014, for example, the public communication budget on nutrition and health amounted to  4 million euros, while the media investment by the food industry reached 2.4 billion euros. Moreover,  food industry advertising is strongly oriented towards nutritionally poor foods that are discouraged by public health programmes. In the automotive sector, more than $35 billion is spent worldwide on advertising, including a total of $5 billion for France, Germany and Great Britain.

To put it succinctly: no one is free to live a sustainable life today, because being part of society requires the consumption of certain indispensable goods and services (communication, transportation…) and because the systems that produce these goods and services are not aligned with sufficiency principles.

Rewriting our collective histories

The evolution of our social norms also partly relativizes this questioning of our freedom to desire and to choose. Current social norms, the result of history and conventions, are as much a glue that holds together our collective lives as they are constraints on our daily practices (e.g. a proper family meal should include meat; successful people do not ride bicycles). We can therefore see the transition to new ways of living as a collective redefinition of what is desirable and positive[3]In response to a question about the green dictatorship, P. Bihouix replies: “Desire is mimetic: I only desire what others desire. […] Tomorrow, it will be aberrant to drive a car that … Continue reading, something that humanity is constantly doing, more or less explicitly. As Y. N. Harari explains, the essence of humanity is to collectively believe in the stories it tells itself, and these stories change.

Finally, it is the conceding of a part of our freedoms to the State and to our fellow citizens, within the framework of a social contract, that constitutes the basis of our collective lives. This is one of the results of the ADEME survey on lifestyles carried out in the “Transition(s) 2050” forecast: citizens questioned clearly perceived the challenge of reducing the freedom to consume. But for these people consumption was not the main principle underlying the idea of freedom. What ultimately matters most to them is the organization of social life, particularly the management of inequalities and the ability to influence one’s future or that of one’s community. The ecological transition reactivates the need to ask ourselves these questions: what are we prepared to give and receive, in terms of rights and duties, within the framework of a new social contract allowing us to remain within planetary boundaries? And what would become of our freedoms in a world severely impacted by climate change?

4/ Government does not have the legitimacy to act on our lifestyles

According to this argument, governments are overstepping their role by seeking to transform our lifestyles for the transition. Such action goes against the notion of a free and responsible individual. In a globalized economic context, where the discourse focuses on self-regulation by the market, State and public action is inappropriate.

– Possible responses –

A legitimate role as a guide for community life

This argument may constitute an obstacle (or an excuse for inaction) for policy makers. Let us consider the example of agriculture: given that public authorities cannot legitimately act on the demand for meat or are not capable of doing so, a policy of reducing meat production would not be desirable because it would lead to an increase in imports that are more damaging from an environmental point of view (the demand remaining fixed). This argument, which delegitimizes action on demand, blocks the implementation of changes to the supply.

In the previous section “Our freedoms are under threat”, we explained that collective frameworks dominate the organization of our lifestyles. Public power, particularly that exercised by States, is not the only source of action on this reference frame, which is driven by all actors with an involvement in our social life: companies, media – social or not -, citizens’ movements, artists, financial actors, etc. Public action can play a particular role, that of a guide for prioritizing the interests of all and improving the ways of “living together”. Thus, public policy, by definition, frames practices or lifestyles to enable groups of individuals to live together.

While the legitimacy of State action on lifestyles can be defended, the question of the limits of intervention will remain a constant topic of debate in democratic societies, and should not be questioned in a theoretical manner, but must be put into context: what will be considered as legitimate public action depends on the convictions and values of each citizen, but also on the principles on which a State justifies its intervention in one field or another, and on the modalities of action (which public policies are implemented).

Discussing ways to act

We can therefore discuss the ends as much as the means. The table below lists eight philosophies for  taking action on lifestyles, linked to a range of ideological biases, which will then be translated into the policies implemented. In the view of the authors, this seems to be a useful basis for democratic debate on the means of implementing the transition. For example, for a particular issue (e.g. mobility), citizens may consider that taking action through a carbon tax is less acceptable than through regulation. The democratic debate, as illustrated by the Citizens Convention for Climate, is then useful to identify the means of action that seem legitimate and fair.

Eight interpretive frameworks for considering lifestyle changes

Drawing on historical examples

A historical review is also useful to challenge this idea: in his accomplished chronicle of consumption, F. Trentmann shows that history is full of examples of State intervention in our consumption patterns, such as for food, how much money we save (e.g., Japan implemented very strong incentives to save during post-World War II development), and in our mobility. For example, in the United States, following World War II, the State had agricultural surpluses that it needed to use; it thus developed the idea that all children should have at least one good meal a day, which it delivered as a public service via schools, thereby directly affecting the lives of millions of children. Nixon’s presidency brought an end to this policy: the measure was transformed into aid for only the poorest, and was later privatized. There was then a move away from the idea of a healthy meal, with fruits and vegetables being gradually replaced by fattier, sweeter products, thus preparing generations of consumers for these new food types. To the historian, it is not true to say that the State has no ability to act and that the consumer is sovereign.

5/ We must protect our current way of life

This discourse is associated with the idea that our current lifestyles are the most progressive and developed in existence. It largely refers to a representation that perceives societal development as an upward linear progression, where economic and social development are closely linked to technological progress. Thus, certain scenarios adopt the idea that major developments in technological solutions to achieve carbon neutrality will enable early 21st century lifestyles to be maintained. This argument is implicitly based on the idea that our lifestyles are in a golden age, and that they therefore deserve protection.

– Possible responses –

Are we in a golden age of lifestyles? Everyone, depending on their generation, has their own nostalgia for a particular era and way of life, which does not prevent the constant evolution of lifestyles. The most striking recent change is obviously the place that digital technology has occupied in our daily lives and in the organization of society. Communication, information, entertainment, consumption, education… have all evolved within a short period of time. Should we have protected our pre-digital lifestyles?

Maintaining the current lifestyles of our societies in this way would lead to a reliance on technological changes and economic transformation to achieve carbon neutrality. This reasoning ignores the fact, which is well established particularly in the sociology of technology field, that technological evolution inevitably leads to lifestyle changes: technology and society are interdependent, they co-evolve. We can see this if we think about how living with cars for 70 years has shaped our territories, our relationship to space (e.g., car transport infrastructure has enabled the extension of the peri-urban area) and to time (e.g., the question “how far is it?”, usually means “by car”).

This is also true of the evolution of our economic systems (new jobs, new ways of organizing work, changes to the role of the State and the market…): for example, the industrial revolution led to the emergence of cities with large working class populations, the progressive transformation of the agricultural world (decline in the number of agricultural workers, concentration of fields) and major changes to landscapes (land consolidation).

Over the period 1980-2000, globalization and the digitalization of the economy led to a tertiarization of the French economy and a polarization of the labour market (multiplication of forms of employment), a metropolization of the French territory and an increased amount of travel in the lifestyles of the most affluent (air and train travel, weekend trips to European capitals, etc.).

6/ Our lifestyles cannot change

To this discourse of protecting our current lifestyles we can add the argument that “changing our lifestyles is idealistic, and quite possibly even impossible”: an argument that draws from the frequently implicit idea of our lifestyles being permanently fixed.

– Possible responses –

However, this argument is not borne out by recent history, which is full of examples of lifestyle changes. Let’s consider a few examples, some of which are the result of political decisions:

  • A circular dated 8 August 1956, signed by the French Minister of National Education, “relating to drinks served with meals in boarding schools and school canteens”, banned the distribution of alcohol in canteens for children, a practice that had been quite common until then. Instead, the daily consumption of milk was tested for its nutritional virtues. Today we understand the importance of childhood and education in the formation of eating habits, and can see that measures of this type inevitably have long-term effects.
  • The law of 13 July 1965: married women were permitted to have a job without needing the consent of their husband, and could open a bank account in their own name. This had major implications for the feminization of the workplace[4]Women’s employment in France since 1960 – IRES http://ires.fr ‘ index.php ‘ item ‘ download, and ultimately on lifestyles.

Other changes are linked to new products and services that are part of our consumption practices:

  • The spread of the smartphone, as illustrated in the graph below, has profoundly and rapidly changed the way we communicate, inform ourselves and consume.
Forecast of the smartphone penetration in Europe from 2010 to 2025 – Statista
  • The food sector has also undergone an evolution of practices, with the marketing of new products and changes in daily routines: the consumption of ready-made meals, for example, has increased threefold in 30 years[5]Credoc, Food consumption sheet, 16/09/2019, indicating a change in our relationship to the preparation of meals and to food.

Other changes are more systemic and result from many other societal changes.

Between 1980 and 2008, the daily distances travelled by French people increased by a factor of 1.5[6]ENTD survey, CGDD https://www.statistiques.developpement-durable.gouv.fr/enquete-nationale-transports-et-deplacements-entd-2008, while the size of large urban areas in France increased by a factor of 1.4 between 2000 and 2010[7]Chapter 2 – Urban area zoning – Insee https://insee.fr ‘ file ‘ imet129-c-chapitre2. It is therefore the tangible territorial and temporal framework of our daily lifestyles that has changed significantly in recent decades.

These illustrations are simply intended to show the diversity of changes that our lifestyles are constantly undergoing, for a variety of reasons and in a variety of directions. We could cite many more examples. This does not provide proof that our lifestyles can evolve rapidly enough to cope with environmental crises, but it is a sign that reinventions are always underway and that the transition can build on these reinventions.

Finally, we know that social changes are not totally linear: there are tipping points (see the Bon Pote article) that can accelerate changes, as stated in the recent IPCC report[8]“Between 10% and 30% of committed individuals are required to set new social norms”, p106, Technical Summary, WGIII, AR6. For example, once smartphones have been taken up by a certain proportion of the population, network effects[9]For a more complete analysis of the effects of networks on our lifestyles, see La numérisation du monde, F. Flipo, 2021, L’échappée make their use increasingly easy, beneficial and necessary, further advancing their deployment.

7/ Sufficiency is above all an “ideological” choice

This argument aims to discredit a sufficiency approach by presenting it as ideological (associated with subjective values) and unscientific (where an approach perceived as scientific is the result of rational  fact-based reasoning). An illustration of this rationale is the criticism of the work of the French négaWatt Association: their hypothesis of sufficiency, so the argument goes, stems from their “ideological” opposition to nuclear energy. Thus, in a situation where less electricity is produced, we would be obliged to “tighten our belts” and compromise our lifestyles.

– Possible responses –

An ancient concept…

This concept of sufficiency has ancient roots, which can be spiritual, religious, and philosophical, and has undergone a certain revival in modern times due to questions about the impacts of economic growth (Cezard and Mourad, 2019; Guillard and Ben Kemoun, 2019). It refers to ideas of temperance, moderation, frugality, as sources of happiness and emancipation. When it comes to thinking about the ecological transition, it is important to bear in mind that sufficiency concerns all systems, sectors and organizations and not just the individual at the end of the chain. This restrictive understanding of sufficiency proves ineffective: the individual is faced with implementing a logic of sufficiency that is at odds with the rest of society, which is based on abundance as shown above (the power of advertising, the organization of value chains that are not well adapted to the emergence of low-carbon products and services, modes of production and recycling, etc.).

In practical terms, we can define energy sufficiency as reducing energy needs by changing practices or habits, by changing the service provision at all levels of society. Sufficiency involves questioning the need (e.g. the area of housing or car size needed per inhabitant) or in changing the way a product or service is provided (e.g. increasing the share of plant protein, changing the mode of transport). The idea is, as far as possible, to reduce the need to mobilize resources or technical equipment at the source. This upstream step is complementary to energy efficiency efforts, which seek to improve the capacity of technical equipment to provide their service while minimizing their energy consumption (e.g. a car engine that consumes less fuel for the same output).

…increasingly cited by the scientific community

Global scientific analyses increasingly point to the need for sufficiency: the IPCC’s 1.5°C report already emphasized that striving for “low demand”, in addition to efficiency, would facilitate the achievement of climate objectives and the avoidance of uncertain carbon capture technologies. The 2020 UNEP Gap Report also emphasized the need to move towards a more sustainable lifestyle. The recent IPCC report reinforces this observation by highlighting the global mitigation impacts that could be achieved through demand-side actions[10]“Demand-side mitigation encompasses changes in infrastructure use, end-use technology adoption, and socio-cultural and behavioural change. Demand-side measures and new ways of end-use service … Continue reading.

This theme is becoming an increasing focus for research: the Enough network gathers European scientists working on these issues and identifies a growing body of literature on the subject, including many recent works seeking to identify the conditions for a “good life” (the preservation of all key social benefits) while remaining within planetary boundaries. Sufficiency is one of the preferred options for one main reason: the multiplicity of environmental crises (climate, biodiversity, resources…) as represented by the planetary boundaries framework, combined with the slow pace of current progress, means that the scale of the changes to be implemented is increasingly large and demanding, requiring the consideration of all possible levers.

This figure from the Summary for Decision Makers of the recent IPCC report describes possible demand-side actions, including sufficiency levers, and their potential

The notion of sufficiency covers two aspects, which are not contradictory but complementary. The first of these is ideological, concerning our religious and philosophical roots, of which the encyclical letter Laudato Si is a good recent example. This approach should not be seen as a refusal of technical progress but as an invitation to question the sources of human well-being and emancipation. The second aspect relates to that which is scientific and rational. In this latter perspective, it is necessary to examine all of the necessary solutions to limit the environmental crises, sufficiency being part of this range of solutions. For example, whatever technological solutions are used to produce energy or to move around, the upstream reduction of demand will be a relevant strategy for reducing environmental impacts.

Finally, the idea behind sufficiency is not as rooted in ideology as some would have us believe: a psychology article has shown that a climate discourse geared toward reducing waste works with conservative audiences and resonates with their values. So let’s all consider sufficiency as a generalized anti-waste policy!

8/ Individual responsibility should be emphasized

This argument puts forward the individual responsibility of consumers to reorient their behaviours and thus the whole economy. If such changes are impossible, it is because of the contradictions and inconsistencies of individuals: although surveys and polls reveal that people have concerns and aspirations for more sustainable lifestyles and consumption, their actions are not consistent with sustainable mobility, food and consumption choices. This status quo can be used as an excuse for inaction by public and private decision-makers, claiming an inability to act in this context.

– Possible responses –

Successive polls conducted by ADEME show that French people are aware of the need to change their lifestyles and are ready to do so. Other surveys, conducted at the international level, also identify the willingness of a significant proportion[11]The survey points out that for more engaging changes such as flying less and eating less meat, the majority has not been reached, but about 40% of respondents consider it likely. See also this Pew … Continue reading

However, these statements of intent are not necessarily reflected in actions. As observed by the authors of a study by the Behavioural Insights Team: “two-thirds [of consumers] want to consume less, and consume more sustainably, and yet most fail to act on this expressed preference”. Some scientists interpret this discrepancy as a value-action-gap and explore the associated individual psychological mechanisms. Their results indicate that public communication efforts to raise awareness about transition-related changes have limits, as intentions do not necessarily trigger actions.

Lamb et al. 2020 analyse the political risks of this discourse of individualism that redirects “climate action from systemic solutions towards individual actions, such as renovating one’s home or driving a more efficient car.” For these authors, the problem is that “this discourse narrows the solution space to personal consumption choices, obscuring the role of powerful actors and organizations in shaping those choices and driving fossil fuel emissions.” By directing responsibility solely at individuals, this discourse thus risks delaying action.

Individual and collective actions are two sides of the transition that must be thought of together

This is all the more true because the analysis through individual responsibility has limits and can have harmful political consequences. The human and social sciences provide good explanations for why our lifestyles and consumption patterns are dependent on collective patterns: an individual’s choices regarding food and mobility are dependent on the social norms of that person’s group (which are the things that are desirable and socially valued around that individual) and also on the actual products that are accessible to a person on a daily basis. This gap is not irrational and is in no way due to reasoning bias alone: but also due to infrastructure, private and institutional actors who set an example, social norms, etc.

Collective actions are needed to close this gap, and the recent IPCC report reminds us of the responsibility of companies and public authorities in the implementation of essential infrastructure (Chapter 5, WG III). Moreover, individuals are not just consumers, they are citizens who are waiting for a fair solution and a fair share of the effort: the ADEME survey shows that this is the number one condition for changing lifestyles. This was also the work of the 150 citizens of the Citizens’ Convention on Climate, which involved the definition of a set of public policies, acting at all levels, allowing for ambitious and acceptable action.

9/ Change will lead us to degrowth and the end of prosperity

The basis of this argument is that even if lifestyle changes towards sufficiency are possible, they would be undesirable, or even dangerous, due to the negative impact on economic growth and therefore on our prosperity. Less consumption and less production automatically means less economic resources to finance our social systems and our prosperity.

This argument is reflected in the contradictory guidance given to individuals during the pandemic. For example, praise for sufficiency during the first lockdown was followed by a call to spend more to revive the economy, since the economy is based partly on household consumption. It is by thinking jointly about the changes in lifestyles and the political and economic frameworks of our societies that we can really make the transition.

– Possible responses –

This is a major and evidently vast controversy and it is beyond the scope of this paper to settle the issue here, but we will at least show that this argument should not block the implementation of lifestyle transition.

Decrease of what? Prosperity for whom?

The first of these questions concerns the nature of what should be reduced and the implications for prosperity. Since T. Jackson’s important book “Prosperity without Growth”, many scientific works have explored the possibility of reducing the consumption of material and energy resources while maintaining good living conditions and well-being. Two principles explain this possibility: 1) beyond a certain threshold, consumption no longer or hardly brings additional well-being, and this is particularly the case in developed countries (idea of diminishing returns or saturation of needs); 2) what brings well-being are the services rendered (a mobility service, a food service) and not the resources directly, and it is possible to render the same services with more sufficiency and efficiency and therefore to use less natural resources.

The recent IPCC report, based on all this scientific work, therefore considers that demand-side actions (and therefore our lifestyles and consumption patterns) are consistent with improving basic well-being for all (“Demand side mitigation response options are consistent with improving basic well-being for all (high confidence))” (SPM C.10). This report also states that sufficiency policies are a set of everyday measures and practices that reduce demand for energy, materials, land and water while delivering human well-being for all within planetary boundaries. There seems to be room for solutions that combine decreasing energy and natural resource consumption with prosperity, which remain to be explored and developed.

What about economic growth?

Let us remember that GDP, while the guiding compass of our policies, is not the best indicator for understanding the distribution of wealth, development or human well-being. This is a well-established consensus in the human and social sciences. Firstly, this implies a greater emphasis on the real content of economic growth, as underlined in the recent analysis of ADEME’s Transition(s) 2050 scenarios. And secondly, an increasing number of works are focused on well-being or alternative indicators of prosperity in their analyses of planetary boundaries (see for example the “doughnut economy” by K. Raworth). At the same time, this does not totally avoid the question of economic growth because, as noted mischievously by T. Jackson (2017), “in an economy that is founded on growth, growth is essential for stability”: even if it is not the alpha and omega of our prosperity, economic growth is a pillar of the societies we have built around it. This leads to the question of the ability of developed countries to “decouple”, i.e. to reconcile a sharp fall in their emissions and consumption of natural resources with growth in their economic activity as measured by GDP.

Today it is highly uncertain whether decoupling at a sufficient rate to stay within planetary boundaries will be enough, which questions the “green growth” narrative (see T. Parrique‘s detailed analysis of the IPCC findings). At the same time, many actors are working to identify how to achieve the fruits of economic growth (social stability, social resilience, employment) without growth continuing to serve as the guide for public action (see article by the Zoe Institute).

What can be done? Accept the uncertainties about the future of economic growth and act now.

It is important to bear in mind that, regardless of the changes required to deal with the environmental crisis, there are uncertainties about future economic growth that we must be prepared to address, particularly to preserve our social system. This requires more political arbitration in the sharing of the fruits of our economic activity. The exchange between S. Hallegate and J. Hickel, the former a supporter of green growth and the latter an advocate of degrowth (understood as “a planned reduction of aggregate resource and energy use in high-income nations designed to bring the economy back into balance with the living world in a safe, just and equitable way”), is also rich in lessons on the different positions in this debate and allows us to highlight the points of disagreement but also the points where agreement can be found and on which we can act now to lead the transition, without having to wait for a complete resolution of these partly theoretical debates. Considering the issue from a sectoral perspective can also be very useful for understanding how things evolve. For example, in the field of agriculture and food, a decrease in quantity does not necessarily imply a decrease in global value: the “less but better” approach, for example, puts forward the idea of eating less meat in favour of the consumption of meat with higher production standards, which is therefore more expensive.

10/ Technological solutions will solve environmental crises

This argument simply dismisses the need to change our lifestyles on the basis of “technological optimism”. This idea has three variations, which are important to distinguish: the first advocates for energy and environmental issues to be regarded as solely technical subjects, which implies that they should not be debated collectively; a second variation overvalues the place of technology as a lever for solving ecological challenges, considering that it is useless, or even ideological, to question the transformations of our current lifestyles; and a third that implies that technical innovation is necessarily consensual, beneficial, and does not raise controversies, unlike other levers for the transition of society.

– Possible responses –

A technical change does not go without social change!

While commonly thought of as distinct, there is no technical change without social change. Many studies in the fields of humanities and social sciences have described how technical and social change go hand in hand. The researcher E. Shove, for example, dealt with these dependencies in many works and in many fields. If we consider the car for example: the technical development of vehicles and infrastructure has progressed in close association with changes to living areas (accessibility of suburban areas) and urban planning, consumption trends (development of shopping centres) and the way we live (detached housing), the representation of speed and time (“that city is 20 minutes away”, meaning by car) but also of what is comfortable and desirable… ADEME’s “Transition(s) 2050” forecast, conducted around the four scenarios, shows that whatever the path adopted, the objective of carbon neutrality implies both technical and social changes of great magnitude in both the short and medium term.

The energy efficiency paradox

Several studies show that energy efficiency gains do not necessarily lead to a reduction in energy consumption. This is illustrated by the Jevons Paradox which was first described in relation to coal in the 19th century: William Stanley Jevons observed that coal consumption increases as a result of  increases in coal-use efficiency, which enables the reduction of consumption for particular processes… along with the multiplication of the applications of coal, and therefore to its increasing consumption! More recently, several analyses have shown that energy efficiency gains achieved without questioning our practices and needs, lead to increased energy consumption. 

In the digital sector, for example, technological dynamics have provided significant energy efficiency gains with each new generation of digital and data processing tools, meaning that it would have been possible to do more with the same level of energy consumption. However, these efficiency gains have led to an explosion in applications, for which energy efficiency alone cannot compensate. Another example is the building sector: energy efficiency work such as insulation and the installation of efficient heating systems does not always achieve the expected downturn of consumption. Any money saved is sometimes offset by having a higher heating temperature or by purchasing and using other equipment to meet the standards of domestic comfort. In the car industry, engine efficiency gains have been accompanied by an increase in the size and weight of vehicles. Other forms of rebound effects can be found in the consumption of goods and services: the fact that more people are using the second-hand market to sell their possessions can lead to a boost in the consumption of new products.

See B. Keller’s analysis: the very high energy efficiency gains of data centres have not reduced total consumption (which remains constant, green curve) but have compensated for the more than 10-fold increase in traffic. Graphical source.

To control these rebound effects, it is necessary to collectively question our needs in order to reduce our consumption of materials and energy, a consideration that does not belong to the technical field but to the democratic field. Without reflecting on our needs, and their moderation, which is similar to a dynamic of sufficiency, it is likely that multiple rebound effects will lead to lost time with regard to the ecological challenges.

Uncertainties concerning technical solutions among the scientific community and citizens

Uncertainties regarding technical solutions have been expressed by scientists as well as by citizens.

From a scientific perspective, some of the technical promises currently being promoted are controversial in terms of their ability to effectively reduce carbon emissions. How much can we rely on carbon capture and storage technologies without negatively impacting other environmental dimensions (e.g. impact on soils and biodiversity when these technologies are based on the use of biomass) and without causing other negative impacts (see the table of risks and impacts on page 96 of the IPCC’s Technical Summary)? The scientific community also has doubts about the ability to solve the environmental challenges associated with agri-food models (climate, biodiversity, water and soil pollution) based solely on technical changes: changing food practices seems essential to reduce global pressure on the biosphere (see for example: Eat the Lancet and the TYFA scenario).

From the perspective of citizens, the recent ADEME-led study on the four prospective scenarios “Transition(s)2050” shows that the most technophile scenarios raise different concerns among citizens. For example, in the scenario where digital technology and smart objects are used to regulate our consumption, citizens express fears about data governance and commodification. Moreover, in terms of the environment, citizens are also questioning the capacity of technical innovations alone to solve climate issues, raising the risks of lemming-like behaviour and greenwashing. They have also observed the need to move beyond these technological promises to question both their needs and the values that should be placed at the heart of society in order to rebuild a new social contract.

Références

Références
1In French the word “sobriété” is used in this context, a word that does not have a straightforward English equivalent. It is often translated as “sufficiency” and refers to the idea of frugality, and in the language of the IPCC to “demand-side” measures.
2Technical summary, IPCC, AR6, WGIII: “Preferences are malleable and can align with a cultural shift
3In response to a question about the green dictatorship, P. Bihouix replies: “Desire is mimetic: I only desire what others desire. […] Tomorrow, it will be aberrant to drive a car that weighs a ton or more. So what? Cars were much smaller in the 1960s and 1970s, which remain in the collective imagination as years of freedom. References and standards are constantly changing…” https://carnetsdalerte. en/2020/02/04/quelle-transition-ecologique/
4Women’s employment in France since 1960 – IRES http://ires.fr ‘ index.php ‘ item ‘ download
5Credoc, Food consumption sheet, 16/09/2019
6ENTD survey, CGDD https://www.statistiques.developpement-durable.gouv.fr/enquete-nationale-transports-et-deplacements-entd-2008
7Chapter 2 – Urban area zoning – Insee https://insee.fr ‘ file ‘ imet129-c-chapitre2
8“Between 10% and 30% of committed individuals are required to set new social norms”, p106, Technical Summary, WGIII, AR6
9For a more complete analysis of the effects of networks on our lifestyles, see La numérisation du monde, F. Flipo, 2021, L’échappée
10“Demand-side mitigation encompasses changes in infrastructure use, end-use technology adoption, and socio-cultural and behavioural change. Demand-side measures and new ways of end-use service provision can reduce global GHG emissions in end-use sectors by 40-70% by 2050 compared to baseline scenarios (…)”. SPM
11The survey points out that for more engaging changes such as flying less and eating less meat, the majority has not been reached, but about 40% of respondents consider it likely. See also this Pew Center consultation: of the population to implement changes. https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2021/09/14/in-response-to-climate-change-citizens-in-advanced-economies-are-willing-to-alter-how-they-live-and-work/

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