By Joern Fischer
In 2012, I led a paper on “Human behavior and sustainability”. Alongside that paper, I wrote a blog post encouraging people to reflect on what it is what we truly value. This was summarized in an open letter, which you can find here.
I thought it’s a nice time to reflect on where my own thinking on this topic is at. With a few years of distance between that initial paper and the open letter and now, some things I see much the same way – and others I see a bit differently.
In the open letter, I implied that many of us probably don’t truly value “ever more stuff” as their deepest life philosophy, but yet we are not actively pursuing what it is that we actually are interested in having more of in our lives. Much of humanity acts as a passive victim of the institutions it created in the past. We’ve locked ourselves into certain trajectories – starting with our mindsets, which are too uncomfortable to question, and our institutions, which are rigid and complex, and it’s hard to know where to even start to fundamentally change anything.
Despite its imperfections, I still think the central tenet of the letter from 2012 is right: we need to start having a conversation about what we truly want. And I think it’s still fundamentally correct that if the answer is “gluttony, even if it’s unjust”, then all is well in the sense that we’re moving in precisely that direction. But … for most of humanity, I don’t think “gluttony, even if it’s unjust” is the philosophy by which they would really like to live. People thrive on good social relations, on balanced time budgets, on a healthy environment, and on “enough” material wellbeing rather than ever more stuff.
Still, this is contentious. In the following, I want to highlight three ways in which my own thinking has slightly moved on since that original paper.
First, there appears to be a clash between two paradigms: the paradigm that we can’t change values, and therefore should work within existing value sets – versus the paradigm that changing values might be hard, but since this is the root cause of our problems, we’d better get started on engaging with this difficult topic. This clash was nicely exemplified in a discussion between Manfredo et al. and Ives and Fischer in a recent issue of Conservation Biology. We argued that value change within instants may not be likely, but social change including fundamental changes in value orientations has been common in human history – and to discount this possibility (when it looks like it’s a necessity) and the possibility of fostering such change seems … well … not so useful. Another nice idea related to societal change and value change is that of a “ripple effect”, which implies that changes in the world can permeate up and down scales – from individual to society, or from society to individual. Things (including values) can change, and do change, and we all play a role in it.
A second area in which I think we can poke around in more is that of deep leverage points – places in a system where small interventions can lead to major changes. Truly deep leverage points relate to shifting to new paradigms and on that basis, re-define system goals. This is very much in line with the idea of reflecting on what we truly value – if the goals of our global system of “gluttony for those who can afford it” are not actually in line with what we want, we’d better change them. This is not straightforward, but would be very influential as a leverage point for social change.
And finally, some colleagues and I have been thinking a bit about how to bring change in our inner and outer worlds into alignment. Sustainability science has firmly focused on our external worlds, but has largely discounted the hidden lived experiences within individuals. Arguably, those are the origin of external phenomena, and it’s only through inner change that stable changes for the better will emerge in the outer world. For now, I’ll just point you to an Abstract of a paper that Rebecca Freeth presented at Resilience 2017 – a full paper on this topic is in preparation.