Ecological transition: we can not (only) do it ourselves!

How to lead a more sustainable life? This question generates a lot of debate about what people can do to fight climate change. In many cases, responses focus on individuals, asking them to behave more responsibly, such as buying locally, isolating their homes or taking their bikes instead of cars … "But these individual responses raise the question of their effectiveness in the face of behavioral change that needs to be systemic", Explain Kris de Decker on Low-Tech Magazine (@lowtechmagazine).

There are three types of public policies to combat climate change: decarbonisation policies (encouragement of renewable energy sources, electric cars, etc.), energy efficiency (improvement of the energy ratio of appliances, vehicles, buildings …) and behavioral change (promoting more sustainable behaviors). The first two aim to make existing consumption patterns less resource-intensive, but all too often relying only on technical innovation, they forget social support, which explains why they have not led to a decrease in consumption. significant CO2 emissions or energy demand. Progress in energy efficiency does not take into account new patterns of consumption and the rebound effect.

Similarly, the development of renewable energy has not led to a decarbonisation of energy infrastructure because energy demand is growing faster than the development of renewable energy sources. For Kris de Decker, this highlights the need to focus more on social change. If we want efficient energy efficiency and decarbonisation policies to be effective, they must be combined with social innovation: hence the importance of behavior change policies!

If the instruments of behavior change are numerous, they are mostly carrots or sticks, when it is not a sermon. But these instruments (economic incentives, norms and regulations, information …) are based on a vision of individuals as rational beings: people would engage in a pro-environmental behavior for self-interested reasons (because it's nice or it saves them money) or for normative reasons (because others do). But many actions generate a conflict between these two visions: the pro-environmental behavior is often considered less profitable, less pleasant or longer, hence sometimes a mismatch between what people think and what people actually do . To respond to this, we can reduce the cost of pro-environmental actions or increase the cost of actions harmful to the planet. Or, strengthen normative behavior.

Still, the results of these behavior change policies have so far been rather limited and disappointing.

The problem, writes Kris de Decker, is that these behavior change policies are based on the recognition that what people do is essentially a question of individual choice. But, the fact that most people eat meat, drive cars or are connected to the electricity grid is not just a question of choice: people are actually locked into unsustainable lifestyles. What they do is conditioned, facilitated and constrained by social norms, public policies, infrastructures, technologies, market, culture … As an individual, we can for example buy a bike, but we can not not develop bike infrastructure. If the Danes or Dutch use the bike more than others, it's not so much because they are more environmentally conscious than others, it's because they have excellent bike infrastructure, because it is socially acceptable to ride a bike and because motorists are very respectful of bicycles, especially since the motorist is always considered responsible in the event of an accident, even if it is the cyclist who made a mistake. Without this support infrastructure, we can see that it is more difficult to get a large number of people to ride a bike. Similarly, individuals do not have the leisure to modify the speeds of the Internet or reduce the energy supply of the power plant on which they depend. "If individuals can make individual pro-environmental choices based on their values ​​and attitudes, and inspire others … they have no opportunity to act on structures that facilitate or limit their options".

Behavioral policies send individuals back to their responsibility and guilt, exonerating the political and economic responsibilities of institutions and economic actors, at the risk of making these policies more dissuasive than anything else: meat eaters or motorists are singled out without we question the food system or the infrastructures that favor these behaviors. Emphasis on individual behavior change is therefore much more of a political position than anything else.

Another way of looking at things is therefore not to focus on individuals and their choices, but on the social organization of everyday practices: like cooking (for example, fighting the scourge of waste generated by take-away meals or by reintroducing deposit systems), the washing, the displacements … It means tackling at the same time what makes for example the possible automobile practice (cars, roads, car parks, petrol stations …) and with their social significance … The public action can then moving: for example, motor advertising all promote individual freedom and far outnumber cycling promotions. Similarly, developing bike paths or limiting car use is another public action on infrastructure that can change the situation.

For Kris de Decker, nothing will move if we do not address the problems more systemically than individual.

"Individual change policies have the same shortcomings as strategies that promote efficiency or innovation. They do not call into question infrastructures or social conventions that are not sustainable. "


Just as the recycling of garbage does not question the production of waste (see, on the contrary, the legitimate), "Behavior change policies reinforce the status quo". The societal innovation that is relevant in terms of sustainability is that which is systemically established in all areas of everyday life.

For Kris de Decker, we need to imagine what the "new normal" world of a sustainable world should look like. Social change is about transforming what we consider normal. We've done pretty well in terms of cigarettes or seatbelt use, very quickly and even dramatically, he says. A sustainable and systemic policy requires moving from "how to change the behavior of individuals" to "how to change the functioning of society", which leads to radically different interventions. It is by changing our infrastructure of lives, the goals of the institutions and businesses that shape them, the cultural conventions that underpin them, that individual behavior will change in turn! Not the opposite.

The ecological journalist of Guardian, George Monbiot (@georgemonbiot), recalls in one of his excellent standsthat we will not save the land by adopting better consumption patterns, such as replacing our use of plastic disposable cups with disposable cardboard or corn starch cups. "Of course, we should try to minimize our own impacts, but we can not cope with climate change and the resource crisis simply by taking responsibility for what we consume". Disposable coffee cups made of corn starch perpetuate the problem rather than solve it. For him too, "Defending the planet means changing the world".

Hubert Guillaud

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