Why social change for sustainability may be ‘difficult’. 2014

Why social change for sustainability may be ‘difficult’.


Many people accept that ‘we live in interesting times’, and for example that liberal democracy in the west is facing both internal and external threats.  An internal threat is the democratic deficit in which people are beginning to feel the pointlessness of voting in the face of growing disparities of income and wealth. China’s economic success challenges notions of free market, politically liberal capitalism while at the same time the so called Arab Spring shows signs of disintegration. The IPCC’s 2013 fifth report on ‘Climate change, the physical science basis’ has not yet radically altered our dependence on fossil fuels. In contrast, investment in fracking and Canadian tar sands continue unabated while carbon reaches towards 400 parts per million, a figure last noted over 415,000 years ago (planet for life). In the UK the debate over energy is characterised by its cost and fuel poverty rather than production, efficiency or reduction in use. Sustainability solutions are being developed, but social change lags behind the unceasing rise in carbon emissions, ocean acidification and deforestation. This paper addresses the questions about our social responses and suggests that our ‘lock in’ to high carbon economies are related to unreformed, and possibly unreformable, consumer and finance capitalism.


When considering social change we need to think about who are the ‘communities’ who will be involved. The Transition Towns ‘movement’ is an example of a community who are already committed to some differing vision of the future based on building resilience to issues around peak oil. Grid-group culture theory, and the locking in of communities to ‘high carbon systems’, both suggest that top down education and clearer explanations do not work. Another perspective is that of Baumann’s (2001) idea of ‘liquid modernity’ in which society is characterised by atomism, individualism, fragmented social bonds and consumerism. If Baumann is right about ‘liquid modern’ society, if the ‘lock in’ is correct, and if there are competing cultural world views as suggested by grid group theory, then the future is indeed bleak for humanity because each suggests change towards a sustainable future faces major challenges.

What follows is a brief discussion around consumer and neoliberal capitalism, high carbon systems and the social ‘lock in’ (Urry 2011), and grid-group culture theory. We need to understand that human behaviour change around sustainability means accepting that that this is a ‘wicked problem’ (Rittel and Webber 1973) requiring ‘fuzzy’ solutions. This is not therefore a positive narrative with easy solutions. Baumann’s liquid modern society needs to be discussed elsewhere.


The high carbon economy-society.

Sociologically, we can make the following observations about our current ‘high carbon economy-society’ (Urry 2011):

The starting point for an analysis of why a society, and hence communities within that society, engages in particular practices and habits is the observation that energy is the base commodity upon which all other commodities exist (Urry 2011). We need to consider ‘commodity’ as a starting point because it is the fundamental analytical unit for understanding capitalism and capitalism is the base process that drives social forms. Commodity production, distribution and exchange forms the basis for the current ‘economy-society’, it is the infrastructure upon which the socio-cultural superstructure is based. The economics of commodity production, distribution and exchange has been dominated in western countries by neo-liberal economic theory, and the process of globalization, since about the 1980’s. Social relationship within capitalism are played out within commodity production, distribution and exchange through markets. The kind of commodities societies develop, or have access to, underpin much of social life.



Consider a society that does not have or has never had access to coal, gas or oil. All they have is the wind and water for energy. You don’t have to imagine it, those societies have been well documented and some still exist. Their habits and social practices are then based on the energy form that water and wind gives them. This is not to say that the energy commodity determines the social forms they create otherwise they would all look the same.

At the risk of being too marxist-determinist about this, any understanding of why we do what we do has to take the mode of production, e.g. capitalism, and the energy forms that underpin it, into account. Since the discovery of steam power based on coal, and then power based on oil and gas, our western societies were able to develop in particular ways until we designed a society that needs this form of energy. Thus, our community behaviours are implicitly locked into various high carbon systems that are taken for granted: 1) Energy system: coal, gas, oil which support the 2) Transport system 3) the high carbon military-industrial complex 4) Urban housing and domestic technology system, 5) Tourism, e.g. airlines and 6) food, supermarkets, agribusiness system.

These are all high carbon systems with which we have become enchanted, entranced and encapsulated, made manifest in and by our everyday attitudes and behaviours. Some of these have become very fashionable and have become embedded into everyday practice. The material physical world, its energy source, and our relationship to it, is therefore the basis for analysis here.

However we have had a problem with economics as a discipline in telling this narrative. Orthodox economics has forgotten is ‘political economy’ roots – it is as if Marx, Smith, Ricardo, Keynes, Veblen, Galbraith, to name a few, have been forgotten. However, there are signs that there is a growing realisation that this is a deficit in mainstream economics courses. Economics undergraduates at the University of Manchester have formed the Post-Crash Economics Society in an attempt to critique the ‘free market ideology’ of neoliberal capitalism taught in many Universities.

‘Free market’ Economics tries to explain human behaviour using overly ‘instrumentally orientated, rational planning, utility maximizing’ model of human behaviour, populated by ‘homo economicus’. John Urry critiques this for failing to address the fundamental relationship between people and the material physical world:

most of the time people do not behave as individually rational separate economic consumers maximising their individual utility from the basket of goods and services they purchase and use given fixed unchanging preferences…(we are) creatures of social routine and habit…fashion and fad…(we are) locked into and reproduce different social practices and institutions, including families, households, social classes, genders, work groups, schools, ethnicities, generations, nations…. (Urry 2011 p4).

The material conditions of economic life that we are locked into and so dominate our thoughts and actions are carbon based. For example, how we move physically in our locality is now almost exclusively by the use of the motorcar. We simply do not walk, much. It is as if cars have taken on a quasi-spiritual ‘Top Gear’ meaning for us, moving beyond simply a means to a travelling end. Being asked to give up the car is like being asked to give up sex. Unthinkable. So the social practices of meeting up together, employment, going shopping, sport and entertainments, are very often mediated through the use of the motorcar.



To date we have to accept that much of social science has been ‘carbon blind’ and has analyzed social practices without regard to the resource base and energy production that we now know are crucial in forming particular social practices. We have to now realize that social practices are in a dialectal relationship with the high carbon economy-society and that individuals within it have internalized this economy-society so that it becomes who they are. This explains persistence of behaviours within certain economies.


Social and Individual behaviour change within high carbon economy-societies.

Social change results from myriad, often competing factors such as class struggles, for example between labour and capital;  from ideological struggles, for example over Austerity economics; the technological, for example the ‘washing machine (Chang 2010), and from the pragmatic availability of material resources at hand. The task facing us is assisting in some small way the unlocking of communities from some aspects of these high carbon systems and of ideological commitments to forms of economy that trash the planet and also encourages inequalities in income and wealth that are socio-politically damaging (Wilkinson and Pickett 2009).

So, we live in societies that are locked into high carbon systems. We are also being asked to change our behaviour to adopt low or zero carbon habits, fashions and social practices. “Deep greens” ask us to fundamentally change everything about how we live. This rejects all high carbon systems, and that means rejecting totally consumer capitalism. ‘Mainstream’ sustainability adopts a less radical approach including the idea that capitalism can be reformed. The focus in the latter is not on complete system overhaul but on incremental individual behaviour change while encouraging and being encouraged, or ‘nudged’ by governments and corporations to do the right thing.

A technology of behaviour change is the UK’s ‘Pro-environmental Behaviours Framework’. Social conduct can be divided up into segments, e.g. our travel behaviours, which are then amenable to intervention. We can re-engineer choices step by step. Behaviour forms under certain conditions which then can be manipulated using social marketing techniques. Concepts include: ‘Behavioural entry points’, ‘wedge behaviours’, ‘behavioural levers’, ‘choice editing’. There is a set of 12 headline behaviour goals categorised within 3 areas of consumption: 1) personal transport 2) homes and 3) Eco-products.  This is the ‘change the lighbulbs approach’ to climate change and sits within a taken for granted neoliberal paradigm which sees the citizen consumer exercising their freedoms within deregulated markets. This is a technical-rational approach that assumes that there is no contradiction between greening our lifestyles and the capitalist system’s need for growth and consumption to increase.  This focus on changing the individual’s behaviour also obscures questions of collective social responsibility and power. Thus we have the project of the ‘carbon calculating’ consumer who may be nudged to do the right thing, to exercise choice within frameworks of governance that does not challenge the fundamentals of consumer capitalism chasing GDP growth.


Neo-liberal consumer capitalism

The paradigm within which all of this sits is that of neoliberal consumer capitalism. This requires, or rather has to have, 3% growth on capital accumulation (Harvey 2010), deregulated markets and accelerating consumption. GDP growth is the central goal of economic policy. This form of capitalism also externalises costs, has cycles of crises due to the surplus capital accumulation problem (Harvey 2010) and relies on technological solutions (Ben-Ami 2010). It also wishes to rely on individual responsibility for health, welfare and social problems, e.g. Big Society solutions. Baumann calls it “a parasitic form of social arrangement which may stop its parasitic action only when the host organism is sucked dry of its life juices” (1993:215). The contradictions between consumer capitalism and sustainability are obscured, power and collective responsibility issues are marginalised. It produces two main approaches to carbon reduction:

1. Macro economics: e.g. cap and trade systems, e.g. the EU’s Emission Trading System.

2. Micro economic techniques designed to encourage pro environment consumer choice.

It does not however look to itself to change.

What this seems to imply is that consumer capitalist societies will not address carbon reduction other than within this paradigm. If we are locked into clusters of high carbon systems, and given the limits to growth (Meadows, Randers and Meadows 2004), the crossing of ‘planetary boundaries’ (Rockstrom et al 2009) and ecological devastation,  then we will need to focus more and more on disaster management. David Selby made this point in 2007 in ‘as the heating happens’.  Behaviour change technologies such as the pro-environment behaviours change framework cannot address the fundamental driver of carbon emissions in anything like the time frame required because neoliberal capitalism will always outrun sustainability due to its need for growth and consumption. Its very mechanism is antithetical to sustainable living.


Resistance to Change.

Webb (2012) suggests citizen consumer knowledge on climate change is patchy at best. Short term concerns over the practicalities, convenience and cost of domestic and social life unsurprisingly dominates longer term concerns. Surveys demonstrate that we on the one hand identify with the need to adopt a low carbon future but on the other hand adopt high carbon choices. This ‘value-action gap’ is seen by government as a non reflexive fact about self interest, we don’t think about the contradictions in our answers, which is then seen as a barrier to change. In other words, self interest is supposed to drive behaviour but from a governments point of view we are not seeing our self interest as lying towards a low carbon future. We are paradoxically acting against our self interest. We value a low carbon future but we act as if we don’t because we are not reflecting on the connections.

However, surveys do not pick up the ‘situatedness’ of our response and the meaning we give to questions about low carbon living; cultural perspectives, social institutions and political values mediate the responses to attitudinal surveys and interpretations of climate science (Leiserowitz et al 2010). Therefore survey responses cannot be taken to be any true account of our actual preferences because our actual social practices are bounded by the material life we live in, the sorts of houses we have, the cars we drive, the products we buy.


Despite ‘sustainability’ seeming to be mainstream, vis the Climate Change Act 2008 and various initiatives and policies such as those of the NHS Sustainable Development Unit, the continuing existence of and adherence to the high carbon systems are implicated in the lack of progress towards a low carbon future. This will not change until enough individuals and organisations can free themselves. To do this we will need to encourage the development of perceptions that do not encourage social threat. For sustainability to become fashionable it has to be non-threatening or else change will be resisted.

Knowing the science, knowing the role of carbon in social practices is not enough. A personal commitment to a more sustainable lifestyle requires dealing with the direct threat this imposes to current values and behaviours that are experienced socially. If one’s family is not similarly committed, if one’s job or career is threatened by behaviour change such as reducing hours worked or changing to a more sustainable but lesser paid job, then the personal price may be too high to pay even for those who who ‘buy in’ to the sustainability agenda.

For those who do not yet accept or know that there is an issue, appealing to rationality, explaining the science, does not work because we are not rational and we have different ways of understanding the world. Individuals, with varying emotional drivers, vested interests and differing ways to rationalize behaviour, will collect together perhaps virtually as well as physically, and form groups that support their interests and knowledge. Social groups thus form around their various orientations to social cohesion and how they consider what are solutions to social problems. This brings forth various forms of resistance to change as outlined in ‘Grid-Group Theory’.

Grid-Group Culture Theory

‘Grid-Group’ Culture Theory (Douglas 1992) describes individual perceptions of societal dangers and then the response to them. Individuals tend to associate societal harms with conduct that transgresses societal norms. Sustainability practices may seem to many to be just such a transgression of norms. For example, the social norm of, say car ownership in a rural community, is transgressed by those advocating active transport, e.g. walking, cycling. Regardless of the actuality, public transport in rural areas is seen as non existent and current lifestyles demand a car – walking is just not an option. So, a social harm caused by giving up the car may be perceived to be the lack of communication with needed services in the countryside that is poorly served by public transport. This tendency to equate social harm, Douglas argued, plays an indispensable role in promoting certain social structures, both by imbuing a society’s members with aversions to subversive behavior such as ‘Transition Town Behaviour’ or selling the family car, and by focusing resentment and blame on those, e.g. sustainability advocates, who defy such institutions such as the petrol/steel/car  privatized Transport system.

The second important feature of Douglas’s work is a particular account of the forms that competing structures of social organization assume. Douglas maintained that cultural ways of life and affiliated outlooks can be characterized within and across all societies at all times along two dimensions, which she called “group” and “grid”. A “high group” way of life exhibits a high degree of collective control, whereas a “low group” one exhibits a much lower one and a resulting emphasis on individual self-sufficiency. A “high grid” way of life is characterized by conspicuous and durable forms of stratification in roles and authority, whereas a “low grid” one reflects a more egalitarian ordering.



It might then be suggested that Conservatives are low ‘group’ advocates putting faith in individual action and freedoms and would therefore seek sustainability solutions in free markets and freedom from government diktat. Socialists tend towards high ‘group’ orientations seeking solutions in such things as international binding treaties and government action on climate change. Indeed some claim that climate sceptics are more likely to be conspiracy theorists and free market advocates.

Douglas and Wildavsky (1982) previously had focused largely on political conflict over air pollution and nuclear power in the United States. They attributed political conflict over environmental and technological risks to a struggle between adherents of competing ways of life associated with the group-grid scheme: an egalitarian, collectivist (“low grid,” “high group”) one, which gravitates toward fear of environmental disaster as a justification for restricting commercial behavior productive of inequality; and individualistic (“low group”) and hierarchical (“high grid”) ones, which resist claims of environmental risk in order to shield private orderings from interference, and to defend established commercial and governmental elites from subversive rebuke.

Later works in Cultural Theory suggested that group-grid gives rise to either four or five discrete ways of life, or ways of thinking and rationalising about life, each of which is associated with a view of nature: as robust, as fragile, as capricious, that is congenial to its advancement in competition with the others:


  • The Collectivist.
  • The Individualist.
  • The Egalitarianist.
  • The Fatalist.


There may be a fifth: The Hermit – those who withdraw from social life as completely as possible.

The model is a two-by-two table, though it must be emphasized that the lines are arbitrary — the two dimensions are spectra, not binary divisions.


Let’s be realistic, in communities where cultural shifts are being forced through on the back of austerity programmes, many are locked into clusters of high carbon systems that will be almost impossible to break out of. This may lead to feelings of Fatalism. The fatalist culture considers there are many differences, and only limited bonding, between groups people within society. A result of this is that those ‘who have’ feel little obligation towards the ‘have nots’. Individuals are left to their own fates, which may be positive or negative for them. They thus may become apathetic, neither helping others nor themselves. Those that succeed, however, feel they have done so on their own merits and effectively need those who are less successful as a contrast that proves this point.

Neoliberalism encourages low group (individualised) low grid (no external constraints) cultural forms, manifest in the perversity of the unemployed blaming themselves for being out of work during a time of austerity and recession! In an individualistic culture, people are relatively similar yet have little obligation to one another. People enjoy their differences more than their similarities and seek to avoid central authority. Self-regulation is a critical principle here and in the arena of health, self control and personal responsibility are emphasized. If one person, or an ‘elite’ takes advantage of others then power differences arise and a fatalistic culture could develop. Individualistic cultures favour market solutions, accepting competition, laissez faire, pragmatic materialism as answers to social and economic issues.

We are at a point in history where the struggle between these cultural forms are being played out within a Neoliberal hegemony. Western media and politics are dominated by those who proffer free market solutions to social issues. They are distrusting and accusatory of international solutions, fearing they are on the ‘road to serfdom’. These voices are low group, low grid cultural forms. Countervailing voices are denounced as socialist and communist responsible for the economic woes of western democracies. This is despite the fact that the financial crash of 2008 was precipitated not by social democratic policies but by the deregulation of financial markets and the encouragement of personal and sovereign debt. The result is that many people are now concerned not about ocean acidification or other potentially devastating environmental issues but by the immediate problems of job losses, low incomes and high personal and public debt. This is only to be expected whereby the immediate economics underpinning social relations bring forth certain cultural forms, behaviours and attitudes. It still is “the economy, stupid”.

One light is Paul Hawken’s idea of the ‘Blessed Unrest’.  Hawken describes a worldwide movement for environmental and social change; a movement largely unrecognized by the mainstream media and politics, but nonetheless are countervailing voices. This movement has no leader, no overarching organisation, no one constitution but it is coming from ordinary citizens and groups who share a different vision for the world based on social and environmental justice. Hawken calls this movement ‘unstoppable’.


The four rationalities expressed with grid-group culture theory explain why change is difficult. The issues are contested and even if agreed upon, the solutions will be very different. What will then be required is the development of cultural forms and politics that encourage all forms of rationality and solutions so as to harness the variances in people’s social orientations. However, a politics dominated by neoliberalism allows denial and individualism to trump necessary collectivist and egalitarian solutions to global problems. Ultimately though, grid group theory takes us only so far. It is an examination of political economy, such as that of neoliberalism and other variants of capitalism, that require analysis and social change. The challenge now is whether individuals and societies can adapt and develop fast enough to break out of high carbon systems before the full effects of climate change become potentially catastrophic.


Benny Goodman 2014











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