The cultural mindset wherein to consume more is to have higher status is one of the biggest obstacles to tackling climate change. Industrialized economies have reached their position on this very proposition. There is a growth fetish prevalent in society, which feeds off and is fed by the ‘great’ institutions. The listening public prick up their ears when the FTSE falls or rises (do most people have a view on whether markets are perfect or imperfect and therefore, really, does it matter what happens on a day-to-day basis?). Government ministers fall over themselves when talking about GDP movement. The press are full of the lifestyles of the rich and consumptive. We celebrate our ability to consume, because it means we have beaten the normally frugal and marginal existence, fraught with hunger and death, with which we associate life before the modern economy came into existence.
So what is the answer? The phrase “we might as well all return to the cave” as a marketing slogan just won’t do it. Yet a low-carbon lifestyle needs to become the cultural norm. Indeed, it needs to be the lifestyle of aspiration. How to achieve that? Below are a few key pointers:
- Create cultural resonance: Focus on linking low carbon living with a cultural association which has resonance – this will vary from community-to-community, nation-to-nation, class-to-class and individual-to-individual;
- Provide information, but reduce the choices: For example, provide people who are buying a house with information about the energy performance of the property but also ensure that it reaches a higher level of thermal performance through imposed improvements using prescribed funding, such as that being proposed under the Community Energy Savings Programme or the Conservative Party’s Low Carbon Economy green paper. We’re getting one part of the equation right in the growth of labels, but there is still too much choice;
- Make carbon saving visibly attractive: The Wattson is the iPOD of home energy monitoring equipment. It is visually attractive. The information it provides via softly glowing lights, £ per annum spend, Watts currently consumed, or combinations of the above make this the talk of a middle class dinner party. Subsidize, covertly or overtly, technologies that support this angle. Play on the competitive drive between people to gain status through having more attractive baubles, in this case fewer KWh softly radiated from their Wattsons to jealous neighbours;
- Recognise that homo economicus is dead: there are enough examples in our current economic calamity to indicate that the markets are far from perfect and therefore don’t adequately price-in risk. Rationality is bounded – live with it and form policies that deal with it;
- Create protected socio-technical niches during incubation: where the markets fear to tread, spend to develop the technologies that are needed and then let the above forces take control. But point 2 is crucial here in order to drive widespread adoption.