How to live a more sustainable life? This question generates a lot of debate that is focused on what individuals can do in order to address problems like climate change. For example, people are encouraged to shop locally, to buy organic food, to install home insulation, or to cycle more often.
But how effective is individual action when it is systemic social change that is needed? Individuals do make choices, but these are facilitated and constrained by the society in which they live. Therefore, it may be more useful to question the system that requires many of us to travel and consume energy as we do.
Climate Change Policies
Policies to address climate change and other environmental problems are threefold: decarbonization policies (encouraging renewable energy sources, electric cars, heat pumps), energy efficiency policies (decreasing energy input/output ratio of appliances, vehicles, buildings), and behavioral change policies (encouraging people to consume and behave more sustainably, for instance by adopting the technologies promoted by the two other policies).
The first two strategies aim to make existing patterns of consumption less resource-intensive through technical innovation alone. These policies ignore related processes of social change, which perhaps explains why they have not led to a significant decrease in energy demand or CO2-emissions.
Advances in energy efficiency have not resulted in lower energy demand, because they don’t address new and more resource-intensive consumption patterns that often emerge from more energy efficient technologies.  Likewise, renewable energy sources have not led to a decarbonisation of the energy infrastructure, because total and per capita energy demand are increasing faster than renewable energy sources are added.
Consequently, the only way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is to focus more on social change. Energy efficiency and decarbonization policies need to be combined with “social innovation” if we want energy use and carbon emissions to go down. This is where behavioral change policies come in. The third pillar of climate change policy tries to steer consumer choices and behaviors in a more sustainable direction.
Behavioral Change Policies
Instruments and policy packages designed to achieve behavior change vary greatly, but most can be categorized either as “carrots, sticks, or sermons”. They can be economic incentives (such as grants for “green” products, energy taxes, soft loans), standards and regulations (such as building codes or vehicle emission standards), or the provisioning of information (more detailed energy bills, smart meters, awareness campaigns).
All these policy instruments are focused on what are thought to be the determinants of individual behaviors. They assume that either individuals take rational decisions based on product price and information (the homo economicus model), or that behaviors are the outcomes of beliefs, attitudes and values (various value-belief models). According to these dominant social theories, people engage in pro-environmental behavior for self-interested reasons (because it is enjoyable or saves money), or for normative reasons (because they think it’s the right thing to do).
However, many pro-environmental actions involve a conflict between self-interested and normative reasons. Pro-environmental behavior is often considered to be less profitable, less pleasurable, and/or more time-consuming. Consequently, people need to make an effort to benefit the environment, and this is why, according to behavioral change researchers, pro-environmental values and attitudes are not necessarily matched by individuals’ behaviors – a phenomenon they call the “value-action gap”.
To close this gap, two strategies are proposed. The first is to make normative goals more compatible with self-interested goals, either by decreasing the costs of pro-environmental actions, or by increasing the costs of harmful actions. The second strategy is to strengthen normative goals, in the hope that people will engage in pro-environmental behavior even if it is more expensive or effortful. This is usually pursued through awareness campaigns.
However, the results of behavioral change policies have been disappointing so far. Two decades of climate-change related awareness campaigns have not decreased energy demand and carbon emissions in a significant way. The reason for this limited success is that existing attempts to change behavior rest on a very narrow view of the social world.
Behavioral change policies are based on the widespread agreement that what people do is in essence a matter of individual choice. For example, whether people pick one mode of travel or another, is positioned as a matter of personal preference. It follows that agency (the power to change) and responsibility for energy demand, consumption, and climate change are ultimately thought to lie within individual persons.
It is this concept of choice that lies behind strategies of intervention (persuasion, pricing, advice). Given better information or more appropriate incentives, “badly behaving” individuals are expected to change their minds and choose to adopt pro-environmental behaviors.
Obviously, individuals do make choices about what they do and some of these are based on values and attitudes. For example, some people don’t eat meat, while others don’t drive cars, and still others live entirely off-the-grid. However, the fact that most people do eat meat, do drive cars, and are connected to the electric grid is not simply an isolated matter of choice. Individuals do not exist in a vacuum. What people do is also conditioned, facilitated and constrained by societal norms, political institutions, public policies, infrastructures, technologies, markets and culture.
The Limits of Individual Choice
As individuals, we may have degrees of choice, but our autonomy is always limited. For example, we can buy a more energy efficient car, but we can’t provide our own cycling infrastructure, or make car drivers respect cyclists. The Dutch and the Danish cycle a lot more than people in other industrialized nations, but that’s not because they are more environmentally conscious. Rather, they cycle in part because there’s an excellent infrastructure of dedicated cycle lanes and parking spaces, because it is socially acceptable to be seen on a bike, even in office wear, and because car drivers have the skills and culture to deal with cyclists.
For example, Dutch drivers are taught that when they get out of the car, they should reach for the door handle using their right hand – forcing them to turn around so that they can see if there is a cyclist coming from behind. Furthermore, in case of an accident between a car driver and a cyclist, the car driver is always considered responsible, even if the cyclist made a mistake. Obviously, an individual in the UK or the US can decide to go cycling without this supporting infrastructure, culture, and legal framework, but it is less likely that large numbers of people will follow their example.
People in industrialized countries are often locked into unsustainable lifestyles, whether they like it or not. Without a smartphone and always-on internet, for example, it is becoming difficult to take part in modern society, as more and more daily chores depend on these technologies. Once the connected smartphone is established as a ‘necessity’, an individual can still choose to buy an energy efficient device, but he or she can’t do anything about the fact that it will probably stop working after three years, and that it cannot be repaired.
Neither do individuals have the power to change the ever increasing bit rates on the internet, which systematically add to the energy use in data centers and network infrastructure because content providers keep “innovating”. An individual can try to consume as little as possible, but he or she shouldn’t expect too much help because the dominant economic system requires growth in order to survive.
Blaming Each Other
In sum, individuals can make pro-environmental choices based on attitudes and values, and they may inspire others to do the same, but there are so many other things involved that focusing on changing individual “behavior” seems to miss the point. Trying to persuade people to live sustainably through individual behavior change programs will not address the larger and more significant structures and ideas that facilitate and limit their options.
In fact, by placing responsibility – and guilt – squarely on the individuals, attention is deflected away from the many institutions involved in structuring possible courses of action, and in making some very much more likely than others.  The discourse of sustainable “behavior” holds consumers collectively responsible for political and economic decisions, rather than politicians and economic actors themselves.
This makes pro-environmental “behavior” policies rather divisive – it is the other individuals (for example meat eaters or car drivers) who are at fault for failing to consume or behave in line with particular values, rather than politicians, institutions and providers which enable unsustainable food and transport systems to develop and thrive.
As this example makes clear, individual behavior change is not just a theoretical position, it is also a political position. Focusing on individual responsibility is in line with neoliberalism and often serves to suppress a systemic critique of political, economic and technological arrangements.
Beyond Individual Behavior
If significant societal transformations are required, it makes more sense to decenter individuals from the analysis and look at the whole picture. Other approaches in social theory suggest that rather than being the expression of an individual’s values and attitudes, individual behavior is in fact the observable expression of the social world, including socially shared tastes and meanings, knowledge and skills, and technology, infrastructure and institutions. As such, behavior is just the “tip of the iceberg”, and the effects of intervening in behavior are limited accordingly.
A much better target for sustainability is the socially embedded underpinning of behavior – the larger part of the iceberg that is under water. This might entail focusing not on individuals and choices but on the social organization of everyday practices such as cooking, washing, shopping, or playing sports. How people perform these practices depends not only on individual choice, but also on the material, social and cultural context. 
For example, the practice of car driving requires “stuff” (cars, roads, parking spaces, gasoline stations, oil refineries), competences (driving skills, knowledge of traffic rules), and meanings (ideas of freedom, car driving is the “normal” thing to do, not having a car means you have failed in life). It makes little sense trying to convince people to drive less (or not drive at all) when these systemic issues are overlooked.
If social practices are taken to be the core units of analysis, rather than the individuals who perform them, it becomes possible to analyze and steer social change in a much more meaningful way. By shifting the focus away from individual choice, it becomes clear that individual behavior change policies only represent incremental, minimal or marginal shifts at the level of a practice. At the same time, it reveals the extent to which state and other actors configure daily life.
For example, the idea that a car equals personal freedom is a recurrent theme in car advertisements, which are much more numerous than campaigns to promote cycling. And because different modes of transport compete for the same roadspace, it is governments and local authorities that decide which forms get priority depending on the infrastructures they build.
When the focus is on practices, the so-called “value-action gap” can no longer be interpreted as evidence of individual ethical shortcomings or individual inertia. Rather, the gap between people’s attitudes and their “behavior” is due to systemic issues: individuals live in a society that makes many pro-environmental arrangements rather unlikely.
The New Normal
In conclusion, although individual behavioral change policies purport to address social and not just technological change, they do so in a very limited way. As a result, they have exactly the same shortcomings as the other strategies, which are focused on efficiency and innovation. Like energy efficiency and decarbonization policies, behavior change policies don’t challenge unsustainable social conventions or infrastructures.
They don’t consider wider-ranging system level changes which would radically transform the way we live – and that could potentially achieve much more significant reductions in energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. For example, recycling garbage does not question the production of waste in the first place, and even legitimizes it. By diverting attention away from systemic issues that drive energy demand, behavioral change policies frequently reinforce the status quo.
In contrast to policies aimed at individuals, policies that frame sustainability as a systemic, institutional challenge can bring about the many forms of innovation that are needed to address problems like climate change. Relevant societal innovation is that in which contemporary rules of the game are eroded, in which the status quo is called into question, and in which more sustainable practices take hold across all domains of daily life.
Social change is about transforming what counts as “normal” – as in smoke-free pubs or wearing seat belts. We only need to look back a few decades to see that practices are constantly and often radically changing. A systemic approach to sustainability encourages us to imagine what the “new normal” of everyday sustainability might look like.
A sustainability policy that focuses on systemic issues reframes the question from “how do we change individuals’ behaviors so that they are more sustainable?” to “how do we change the way society works?” This leads to very different kinds of interventions.
Addressing the sociotechnical underpinnings of “behavior” involves attempting to create new infrastructures and institutions that facilitate sustainable lifestyles, attempting to shift cultural conventions that underpin different activities, and attempting to encourage new competences that are required to perform new ways of doing things. As a result of these changes, what we think of as individual “behaviors” will also change.
 Shove, Elizabeth. “What is wrong with energy efficiency?.” Building Research & Information (2017): 1-11.
 Labanca, Nicola, and Paolo Bertoldi. “Beyond energy efficiency and individual behaviours: policy insights from social practice theories.” Energy Policy 115 (2018): 494-502.
 De Decker, Kris. “How (not) to resolve the energy crisis.” Low-tech Magazine, 2009
 Shove, Elizabeth, Mika Pantzar, and Matt Watson. The dynamics of social practice: Everyday life and how it changes. Sage, 2012.
 Martiskainen, Mari. “Affecting consumer behaviour on energy demand.” (2007); Steg, Linda, et al. “An integrated framework for encouraging pro-environmental behaviour: The role of values, situational factors and goals.” Journal of Environmental Psychology 38 (2014): 104-115; Evans, Laurel, et al. “Self-interest and pro-environmental behaviour.” Nature Climate Change 3.2 (2013): 122; Turaga, Rama Mohana R., Richard B. Howarth, and Mark E. Borsuk. “Pro‐environmental behavior.” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1185.1 (2010): 211-224; Kollmuss, Anja, and Julian Agyeman. “Mind the gap: why do people act environmentally and what are the barriers to pro-environmental behavior?.” Environmental education research 8.3 (2002): 239-260.
 Hargreaves, Tom. “Practice-ing behaviour change: Applying social practice theory to pro-environmental behaviour change.” Journal of consumer culture 11.1 (2011): 79-99.
 Shove, Elizabeth. “Beyond the ABC: climate change policy and theories of social change.” Environment and planning A 42.6 (2010): 1273-1285; Southerton, Dale, Andrew McMeekin, and David Evans. International review of behaviour change initiatives: Climate change behaviours research programme. Scottish Government Social Research, 2011. Shove, Pantzar and Watson, op cit.
 Shove, Pantzar and Watson, op cit.
 Shove, Elizabeth 2017, op cit.
 Spurling, Nicola Jane, et al. “Interventions in practice: Reframing policy approaches to consumer behaviour.” (2013); Mattioli, Giulio. “Transport needs in a climate-constrained world. A novel framework to reconcile social and environmental sustainability in transport.” Energy Research & Social Science 18 (2016): 118-128.
 De Decker, Kris. “Why we need a speed limit for the Internet.” Low Tech Magazine. (2015).
 Shove, Pantzar and Watson, op cit.
 Shove, Elizabeth 2010, op cit.
 ibid; Shove, Pantzar and Watson, op cit; Hargreaves, Tom, op cit;
 Spurling et al, op cit.
 ibid; Hargreaves, op cit.
 Labanca et al, op cit.
 Shove 2010, op cit; Southerton et al, op cit; Spurling et al, op cit.
 Shove 2010, op cit.
 Spurling et al, op cit.
Image credit: Todd Mecklem (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
This post originally appeared in Low-Tech Magazine.
Sean Keller says
A brief coda to Kris’ excellent piece: As we see it here at Local Futures, the best way to influence the “social organization of daily life” involves supporting policy shifts in favor of economic localization. If the goal is to create new societal institutions and systems that support ecologically sensitive modes of living, we should be putting our energy 100% behind efforts to bring economic activity back to a scale that’s small, decentralized, comprehensible, and ultimately human. This would go a long, long way to creating the conditions under which ecologically sound choices might start making economic sense to everyday people.
“the fault dear Brutes is not in the Stars, or those Dancing with the Stars but in
our own selfish selves.
Blaming the System or the Ideology of Control is inconveniently much too
Forget about the 5 billion people who don’t have clean water or sewage, or
decent shelter or adequate food. They don’t really effect CLIMATE CHANGE.
They are the victims of CLIMATE CHANGE which is caused by the unsustainable
self-absorbed consumptive life stylings of the top 2 billion.
Cut back by half your addiction to Unnecessary Necessities (i.e., all APPLE products
made by wage slave labor in CHINA), and 40 percent of fossil fuel consumption
will immediately become a reality. GRETA and all the polar bears will thank you.
Jeff Alexander says
I attended a seminar that stated that if everyone lived like an American it would take 5 earths to sustain that lifestyle, a French individual – 3 earths. The nation that was around 1 earth was India. Doubtless the resources that India uses could be more efficiently and carefully used, resulting in a richer lifestyle for the average person, but it would be a huge change for many in the first world countries to live within those limits. Assuming the accuracy of these statistics has anyone figured out what a sustainable lifestyle looks like on the individual and family level?
REAL Green says
Behavior is indeed the key to constructive change but it must first start with the Kubler Roth of acceptance. This acceptance then accepts destructive change is the paramount force now in the paradigm change of planetary decline. The acceptance is all humans are in a vicious circularity of a carbon trap with path dependencies. This is a circular economy and social system that is a trap not a solution like often pitched by greens with a circular economy. There is no circularity in nature with ecosystems. They are always evolving and entering succession.
This goes to the very heart of the matter with the first step of denial and the second of anger and the third of bargaining. We see denial in a significant portion of the population. There are the most obvious with the Brown DENIALIST. These people dismiss the science for a variety of reasons or cherry-pick science to prove a false point of there are no problems with growth. A Brown DENIALIST will advocate growth as the only solution and they are right to a point. Entropy does not allow degrowth of complex systems except in destructive change. Brown forget about limits though.
We have FAKE Greens which represent the vast majority of greens who accept the science but are in denial of the solutions and bargaining with the false claim that renewables and an EV car culture can work with our carbon predicament. There are other FAKE Greens advocating degrowth but then are in delusional bargaining with the economic consequences of collapse that economic abandonment represents. They ignore the destructive dysfunctions and the irrational behavior which become powerful forces with economic abandonment. The narrow specialists found in academics and science fall into these categories also by proposing and supporting unsound techno and social policy. The unsoundness is believing we can geo engineer or solve techno problems with techno solutions. Then there is the social belief we can all eat plants and save the planet and at the same time pitch vertical farming and organics behind a techno society. It comes down to a culture that bargains with “failure is not an option” when failure is the underlying planetary trend of succession of complex ecosystems, we are trapped in.
There is then the awakened ones who have gone to the acceptance phase. I call these people REAL Greens. A REAL Green accepts the science, is not in denial of the solutions, and passes through the depression phase of failure by going forth in adaptation and mitigation. A REAL Green is an optimistic pessimist and it is the paradox of that juxtaposition that becomes a truth that can be manifested locally and in small groups. A REAL Green understands that in an overpopulated world in global overshoot caught up in a competitive cooperative of globalism there can’t be reform of the macro status quo. This status quo is self-organizing and complex with complicated nodes. What supports such a large population and also nodes of production and control are dependent on high consumption is the essence of a trap. Even those areas that are subsistence and in poverty are at risk for a cascading collapse. There are no refugees nor solutions to predicaments of this type.
A REAL Green then realizes that he can make a difference locally with small groups and small footprints. A REAL Green can build networks, skills, and structures of resilience and sustainability. Not many are capable of going REAL Green because so many are locked into survival in the status quo. They are path dependent prisoners. Many don’t have the education or the wealth to do it. Those who do should do it but many don’t because the enjoyment of affluence is too great. This includes a many of the affluent FAKE Greens. Any FAKE Green has the potential to be REAL. A REAL Green will leverage the status quo with things like fossil fuels and Amazon to leave it. He will dive into permaculture with a hybrid of the best of the old like the Amish and the best of the new with simple and effective techno solutions like renewables. It may have to be a hobby or passion so he quits vacations and luxuries as needed in sacrifice.
It all starts with behavior first for a REAL Green. A REAL Green accepts failure as the starting point then goes forth in relative effort based upon his local of people, place, and position in adaptation and mitigation. This is done with local life boats of resilience and sustainability along with hospices of empathy and understanding for those who are not awakened. It includes regeneration of the local land a REAL Green inhabits. The hospice is human and natural and both will suffer the final chapter of the Anthropocene but that does not mean they cannot be regenerated to be better able to face the coming decline. So, behavior is the key but behavior that is honest with science and human nature. This behavior becomes a physical and mental monastery of seeds that might be a flap of a butterfly’s wing into seeds of recovery post collapse.
Helmut Stange says
“People are encouraged to shop locally, to buy organic food, to install home insulation, or to cycle more often.” I think that that is very, very important. The problem often is that we think: … either … or. Is it this or is it that ? But it is both ! Both ! Or even more. The world is complex and it needs complex solutions. And if we think with good deliberation then we can find that the solution can be rather simple and easy and cheap. Like going by bicycle or electric bicycle. It is individual choice. Certainly. But the choice depends. Of course. And what we also find in good deliberation is that there are many, many solutions. And only all of them will solve the big problem.
I think that this is a rather good article that helps to get us out of the trap and delusion of just individual choice or behavioral change. But systemic thinking means that that cannot be excluded. It is both. Behavior is a product of individual choice, individual choice is a product of deliberation, deliberation is a product of the media environment, of education, of socialisation, of practical thought, of social affirmation or repression, of needs and of social norms or customs. And so on. And a product of quite a few restrictions or opportunities given by the different systems of society. And human beings are connected to these systems in quite different ways. And it does not help to not see these differences, sometimes really big differences. So the other person might not think as I do. If we want to find solutions we have to take into consideration all these aspects of the complex world human beings live in. And look how there are different solutions for different people in different positions in society. … And one more remark: just looking only at the systems side may prevent good education and socialisation as for individual choice, free decision in a free society. Actually the US in many respects is not a free society. It is full of violence and coercion, full of competition and fighting. It is full of delusions and illusions produced by all kinds of mass media. It is full of unsatisfied basic needs. It is full of addiction. In these cases people have no space for thinking about the climate crisis or about solutions. So solving the climate crisis means creating a humane society in the first place. The good decisions will follow. The climate crisis is produced by a specific type of society and economy. So society and economy have to be changed to take away the foundation, so to speak, of the climate crisis. Looking at the US that task is indeed not a small one. But there is no alternative. Where are the departments of societal development ? The US needs development. Further development. Desperately.
Susmita Barua says
Nice article. We have hidden opportunities amid competing but similar challenges of individual and society, public and private institutions, for profit and non-profit companies. Sustainability as the overarching goal must put priority of the well being of people, planet, animals and climate over prison, industrial, factory farming, big-pharma, big-gov, global banking and related military-intelligence complex. Where is the united voice of ‘we the people, women and men’ and not ‘we the institutions’ of divide and rule’? Democracy is not serving the people or planet. What is a more powerful idea than ‘a single vote for each citizen’ that can change the system from bottom up? Just my two cents.
Susmita Barua says
Some pointers for the unchallenged paradigm of continuous material growth and the pursuit of endless economic expansion.