The Anthropocene has been ushered in by capitalist modernity starting with the coal powered Industrial Revolution in the UK over 250 years ago. Although capitalist modernity has brought enormous benefits, it also holds within itself seeds of its own destruction. Plastic in the oceans is just one indicator of both progress and destruction. Change is therefore not only inevitable but necessary. Societies and individuals have to engage in critical reflexive thinking about the causes and consequences of current methods of production and social relationships if we are to adapt or avert potential catastrophe.
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. Whatever ‘community’ we work with, a principle has to be the facilitating self-organising systems and not being proscriptive in offering sustainability solutions. Rather we could aim to facilitate social networking whereby the community helps to connect and offer their own solutions.
Grid-Group culture theory and the locking in of communities to high carbon systems both suggest that top down, education and clearer explanation 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. Community movements such as ‘Transition Towns’ are trying to work against this social tide.
What follows is a brief discussion around high carbon systems and 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.
Climate Change and Society and Social Change.
I found the following analysis helpful in getting my head around the issues of community behaviour and attitudinal change.
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). But why start with discussing ‘commodity’?
Commodity production, distribution and exchange forms the basis for the current ‘economy-society’ which has been dominated by neo-liberal economic theory in the US and UK since about the 1980’s and the processes of economic globalization. It is this economic infrastructure that determines in the last instance culture and behaviours. I don’t mean to be too marxist-determinist about this but any understanding of why we do what we do has to take this into account. Thus, in the 21st century following on from the industrial revolution our community behaviours are implicitly locked into a series of interlocking clusters of high carbon systems that are taken for granted: 1) coal/gas/electric grid power 2) petrol, steel and cars 3) the military-industrial complex 4) suburban housing and domestic technologies, 5) airlines/foreign tourism and 6) food/supermarkets/agribusiness. 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.
To date we have to accept that much of social science has been ‘carbon blind’ and has analysed social practices without regard to the resource base and energy production that we now know are crucial in forming particular social practices.
Economics as a discipline tries to explain human behaviour, but has limits as it has an overly ‘instrumentally orientated, rational planning, utility maximizing’ model of human behaviour (‘homo economicus’). John Urry critiques modern economics 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).
This really muddies the waters, it requires understanding that behaviour change results from myriad inputs raging from the ideological and analytical to the pragmatic availability of material resources at hand.
So how do new habits form? What is fashion and what are the effects of this? Do we need ‘the fashionable imagination’ – is there a quality of mind that spots and encourages low carbon fashions which are supported by technologies and commodities that use less carbon based energy? The task facing us is assisting in some small way the unlocking of communities from some aspects of these high carbon systems. To do that, we also have to acknowledge, from grid-group cultural theory, the actualities of resistance and then plan accordingly.
Resistance to Change:
Despite ‘sustainability’ seeming to be main stream, 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 something (sustainability) to become fashionable is has to be non-threatening. Appealing to rationality, explaining the science, does not work because we are not rational and we have different ways of understanding the world. Social groups form around various orientations to social cohesion and the locations of solutions to social problems.
‘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, is transgressed by those advocating active transport (walking, cycling) in a rural community. A social harm may be perceived to be lack of communication with needed services in the countryside 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 behaviour (such as ‘Transition Behaviour’) and by focusing resentment and blame on those (e.g. sustainability advocates) who defy such institutions (such as the petrol/steel/car 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.
Diagram of Theory: Douglas and Wildavsky’s grid/group typology of world views
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 behaviour 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 systematized this argument (see below). In these accounts, group-grid gives rise to either four or five discrete ways of life, each of which is associated with a view of nature (as robust, as fragile, as capricious, and so forth) that is congenial to its advancement in competition with the others.
- The Collectivist
- The Individualist
- The Egalitarianist
- The Fatalist
- The Hermit
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.
Weak bonds between people
Strong bonds between people
Many and varied interpersonal differences
Low group cohesion, apathy, sense of disorder and trust
Strong regulation and rule bound institutions
Significant similarity between people
Privileges markets, unbridled entrepreneurialism, competition and deregulation
Mutuality, solidarity, communal governance, participative decision making
Grid-group cultural model
Let’s be realistic, in some communities where cultural shifts are being forced through on the back of austerity programmes many are locked into clusters of systems that will be almost impossible to break out of. This may lead to feelings of Fatalism. The fatalist culture has differences between and limited bonding between people. 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-high grid 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, as if one person takes advantage of others then power differences arise and a fatalistic culture would develop. Individualistic cultures favour market solutions, who accept competition, laissez faire, pragmatic materialism as answers to social and economic issues
However, as part of argument to explain global political unrest and cultural change, Mason (2011) suggests it is the coming together of ‘the graduate with no future’ and technology, e.g. web 2.0. Guy Standing’s ‘precariat’ are another group, fearful of change and riddled with insecurities (Standing 2011). These are the social realities we have to deal with. I think we just have to be realistic about who we are dealing with when designing interventions for social change.
The change to a more Sustainable Era within the Anthropocene is therefore not just about technological fixes…they may help but they may not come fast enough. We are dealing with huge cultural shifts and vested interests which requires active citizenship. However this may come at enormous personal costs.
Bauman, Z. (2000) Liquid Modernity. Cambridge. Polity
Douglas, M., Wildavsky, A.B. (1982) Risk and Culture: An Essay on the Selection of Technical and Environmental Dangers. Berkley, University of California Press.
Douglas, M. (1992). Risk and Blame: Essays in Cultural Theory. London: New York: Routledge
Mason, P. (2012) Why its kicking off everywhere. The New Global Revolutions. London. Verso.
Urry, J. (2011) Climate Change and Society. Cambridge. Polity Press.
Rittel, H, and Webber, M. (1973) Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning pp. 155–169, Policy Sciences, Vol. 4, Elsevier Scientific Publishing Company, Inc., Amsterdam [Reprinted in N. Cross (ed.), Developments in Design Methodology, J. Wiley & Sons, Chichester, 1984, pp. 135–144
Standing, G. (2012). The Precariat: The new dangerous class. Bloomsbury. London.