At Greenfish, we actively look for the latest innovations and trends in sustainability. Each month, we organise our Impact Sessions, a sort of mini conference that aims to share knowledge and debate with specialists on sustainability-related topics. This is an opportunity for our consultants to learn more about their field and feel more integrated into our Greenfish community.

On Tuesday December 11th, our #9 Impact Session presented by Olivier De Schutter took place. A member of the UN Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, and teacher at the Catholic University of Louvain and Sciences Po Paris, his gripping speech was about the laws of inertia and how our behaviors can impact climate change, by exposing four narratives used when discussing transitions towards low carbon societies.

Impact Session 9

Today, there is a consensus that the pathway we have been following is simply not sustainable anymore. There are many representations showing that indicators became red, that we keep using resources the Earth won’t be able to provide anymore and producing waste that it cannot process.  

Whether it is carbon dioxide or methane discharges, greenhouse gas emissions accelerate global warming. Even though we all know that our lifestyles are unsustainable and how close the cliff is, we are unable to slow down. It’s like moving mechanically towards committing suicide, as if we were not clever enough to stop that process, but clever enough to explore Mars or send men to the Moon. Why don’t we do something? Here are four narratives that we usually use when we discuss transitions towards sustainable societies (low-carbon societies):  

First narrative

The first is the one saying that we shouldn’t worry too much because when the situation becomes bad, engineers will come up with great tech solutions. That is a very popular speech we hear about transition yet engineering results can sometimes be disappointing. We live in very complex systems with unpredictable reactions. According to Hans Jonas, we were unable to anticipate all the chain effects that would follow the introduction of new technologies. In his book, The Imperative of Responsibility, he concludes with the motto “in dubio pro malo” (if there are several possible consequences following the use of a technology, the final decision should be taken depending on the most pessimist hypothesis). It is a way of saying, since we cannot anticipate all the side effects of a new technology, “let’s not take the chance that the worst-case scenario happens”. It is a wise motto to keep in mind, but even recent history teaches us that technologies alone do not suffice to compensate for the evolution of lifestyles, demographic growth and ecosystems. Since the 1970s, we have become aware of greenhouse gas emissions and global warming’s impact, and we have a growth of GDP per capita that is slightly less carbon intensive over the years. 

However, the small gains of clean energy have been cancelled out by the increasing population, income, and greenhouse gas emissions. Population growth remains a reality. We now see that the increasing wealth and the growth of global middle class is leading to a universal adoption of waster lifestyles in countries that, until now, had a capita ecological footprint that was less important. The UN is talking about the middle-class effect: once a country reaches an average affluence level of around $6,000 per year and per person, the country aspires to this lifestyle. As a result, we triple our resources use between 2000 and 2050 because of demographic growth, but also because of urbanisation and the emergence of middle class in many developing countries. 

Though it is very important to develop technologies, it is not quite enough because of the rebound effect (refers to three phenomena – two economic and one more psychological):

  • The economic phenomena show that introducing new technologies will improve the object’s efficiency. Let’s take a car for example: you will drive and consume more because any point of consumption will be less costly thanks to the efficiency gain achieved. Moreover, even if you don’t travel long distances, you will use that money for another type of consumption, that will have a similar impact on your ecological footprint. These are the revenue and substitution effects that we see as we adopt cleaner technologies. 
  • The psychological phenomenon shows that when you adopt a technology that saves energy, you feel less guilty and you compensate by being less attentive to your behavior in other areas of life – for example, when you travel a lot, you eat healthier. We talk about the compensation effect. For all these reasons, technologies are not enough.

Some systems now help you calculate the ecological impact of our lifestyle based on 3 factors:

  1. Population growth,
  2. Affluence,
  3. And technology.

Developing countries do not want population growth to be questioned as they fear to be accused of having a growing population where it is seen as an asset. Rich countries do not want affluence to be questioned because that would mean questioning the lifestyle they’ve fought so hard to maintain. We thus put all our hopes on green technologies. It is not enough to bet on technologies alone to compensate for increasing income and population growth. There is a strong correlation between the growth of GDP per capita and the ecological footprint per capita: the richer the country is, the higher the population’s ecological footprint is. Despite this strong correlation, some countries show that the way we act and behave may have a significant impact (Switzerland, Austria, …). We are trained to believe that things are better than they are, we are wired to be optimistic. This optimism bias is also well documented in psychology (even though you have more chances of becoming an astronaut than winning the lottery, people keep buying tickets ;-).

Second narrative

The second narrative is about the following statement: Technology will not work, but still, I do not want to change my lifestyle. Governments will take care of it all. They will find a solution and put us back on the right track. But this cannot work. The commitments of States under the Paris Agreements lead us to a rising global temperature of around 3.4 degrees Celsius. Moreover, many of the countries are not complying with the commitments they made. Governments are proven to be seized by corporate interests.

Benjamin Page and Martin Gilens studied 1779 policy files which were presented to the US Congress. For each of them, they asked what solutions were favored by the public, and those favored by big corporations. By looking at the relationship between the percentage of the population supporting the measures and the probability that they are adopted, we see that there is barely a difference. This shows the indifference of the Politicians. 

What also explains the inability of Governments to act is the heuristic effect: after Lula Da Silva left the Brazilian presidency, it was found he had lung cancer. After this was revealed, many Brazilians tried to stop smoking in order to avoid lung cancer. Also, the number of Internet searches for “how to stop smoking” had a boom during this period. This heuristic effect makes you more attentive to a risk when you know from a close experience that it is real, rather than if you only read the statistics. The problem is that ecological degradation is a gradual process. It is a slow-motion change and most of us have never been directly affected by it. Thus, it is very difficult to really pay attention to climate change in the same way. 

Third narrative

We generally believe that the better information we provide, the more figures we give. The better the graphs we draw, the more people will be aware of the risks – such as climate change. The hope is that as science improves, risks will be perceived as real. We believe in green capitalism and critical consumption. Many big companies depend on anonymous shareholders buying their shares on the stock-exchange, who want to make quick profit. The short-term value rise of the individual share is often the most important. The dependence on the stock-exchange is a major obstacle companies face when they want to become more sustainable. During the past few years, CEOs have not only been paid a nice salary but have also been paid in stock-options. Many executives in these big companies explain that they don’t have the choice due to their competitors located all over the world who are not bound to the same constrains. They cannot afford to lose clients or market in a global competition. 

Fourth narrative

The citizen-led social innovation: the world can be saved by the citizens, by promoting social innovations in the area of energy, mobility or food, in order to make the world a better place. There are many food examples such as the growth of short food-chain linking consumers to producers or incredible edibles where you share the vegetables you grow. We have these urban vegetable gardens such as the Royal library’s rooftop in Brussels.

If we cannot trust neither the States, nor the companies, nor technologies, can we trust those citizens’ innovations?

The mainstream regime is what we cannot control, such as the way science has developed, or the evolving culture in a society.
We also have the niche innovations. Should those influence a regime change? How social innovations developed at a very small scale can influence the mainstream system? What can help social innovations to emerge?
The answer to the latter is
 cognitive dissonance. This psychological stress is the feeling of a difference between your attitude and your behavior. You suffer from this when you feel uncomfortable because what you do does not correspond to what you know, and you either must change your attitude or your behavior. It is to escape this discomfort that many people start social innovations.

However, they encounter obstacles such as the Kitty Genovese effect which is the story of how thirty-eight witnesses heard a woman screaming in the streets as she was being assaulted and no one came to help her. When many people could act to remedy a situation, we feel we have no responsibility to change things. Why should I do something while other people could? Therefore, lifestyles changes are difficult.

The second obstacle is a from a book, the Hacking of the American mind by Robert Lustig. This Neuropsychiatrist teaching in California tries to show how in the US, and here too, we were increasingly unable to be content and satisfied with our situation because our brains are constantly animated by likes, alcohol and tobacco consumption… many things that excite us in the short term but leave us craving more, leading us to become addicted to these short-term thrills. In more scientific terms, the dopamine is over-stimulated, making it much more difficult for other transmitters to be stimulated. We are in a civilisation in which we are addicted to being constantly thrilled by new stimuli and we’ve been unable to enjoy life without that kind of excitements.  That is a major obstacle because we are quickly bored when nothing happens in our lives. Boredom is the main issue: we are bored when we don’t work or consume. 

In conclusion, social innovations are developing fast and facing many obstacles, but they can make a difference as we know social norms can change very quickly…

This Impact Session closes our conference cycle for 2018.
Let’s meet again in 2019! More info soon.