Nudging individuals will never be enough

This is a guest post by Professor Tim Jackson, author of Prosperity without Growth?. It is adapted from his foreward to the Sustainable Development Commissions’s recent report ‘Making sustainable lives easier’ 

Nudging individuals cannot possibly be enough to bring about sustainable living. This is because individual behaviours are deeply embedded in a social context. We are guided as much by what others around us say and do and by the ‘rules of the game’, as we are by personal choice. We often find ourselves ‘locked in’ to unsustainable ways of living by the physical and institutional constraints around us.

Those who do make an effort to live more sustainably often find themselves swimming against the tide or, worse still, cast as second class citizens in a society hooked on unsustainable growth and seduced by material expansion. Good intentions are continually undermined by relentless signals to consume and the absence of real opportunities for people to flourish in less materialistic ways.

Role of government
Ultimately, of course, all sectors of the ‘big society’ must take some responsibility for change. Business, the media, community groups and citizens all have a role to play. But many of the respondents in the Sustainable Development Commission’s study made one thing very clear: Change will be impossible without strong leadership and investment from governments. Individuals are too exposed to social signals. Businesses operate in competitive markets.

A transition from unsustainable self-interest to socially and ecologically responsible living requires urgent changes in underlying structures.

• Changes that strengthen long-term commitment.
• Changes that support the infrastructure of sustainable living.
• Investments in low-carbon transport, effective recycling, energy efficient dwellings.
• Maintenance and protection of common assets, public buildings and green spaces.
• Fiscal and institutional frameworks that send consistent signals to businesses and consumers about sustainable living.

There is no neutral option
Policymakers may be uncomfortable with the idea that they have a role in influencing people’s lives and values. But it is fanciful to suppose that Government can ever be entirely neutral in the social context. A myriad of different signals are sent out. For example by the importance accorded to economic indicators; the way education is structured; guidelines for public sector performance; public procurement policies; the impact of planning on public and social spaces; the nature of regulation of advertising and the support offered to community initiatives and faith groups.

In all these arenas, policy shapes and helps to create the social world.

The transition to sustainable living demands changes in underlying structures – changes that strengthen social behaviour and support the social good. Government is the principal agent in this task. Our evidence confirms a mandate for this role which extends across the business community, third sector organisations and the public. A new vision of governance which embraces this role is vital.

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