Sustainability is a big deal – but it can be tackled in small ways

Niki Harré

Niki Harré

Professor Niki Harré teaches in the School of Psychology at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. The author of The Infinite Game: How to Live Well Together and Psychology for a Better World talks to ING about how individuals and companies can make sustainability a reality.

In the seven years between the first and second editions of Psychology for a Better World, have we used psychology to create a better world?

People have not fundamentally changed between 2011 and 2018, and we still live in a culture that largely promotes unsustainable practices in the goods we consume and the transport we use. But since 2011 I’ve given numerous talks and workshops, including to businesses, which has helped me to better understand how people think about sustainability and that has allowed me to hone my message.

What is that message? 

That sustainability is an ongoing task, and it is critical we encourage people to participate. When people do what they can in the settings in which they live and work, we grow a sustainability culture where we can respond to each new issue. There have been some shifts in people’s habits and opinions in this regard; you now see people carrying their reusable bag into the supermarket, for example, and there is more widespread awareness of threats such as climate change and species extinction.

I have also increasingly realised that the social and the environmental are entwined. We can’t address sustainability unless we address the massive inequality in our world. If people don’t trust the system, they won’t participate in improving it. Instead, as we’ve seen with the rise of populism, they will look for a leader or a group that they perceive represents their interests; and interest groups are no way to build a society.

How can the world become more sustainable?

We need to take a step back and ask ourselves: what is sustainability? In a literal sense it means to sustain or keep going – but to sustain what? When you put people on the spot they invariably say they want to sustain communities, healthy young people, music, learning and the natural landscapes around them. They want a world that is full of life. It’s a big ask to address both environmental and social challenges in one go, but it’s our job as humans to think about what real sustainability looks like. Capitalism has a good track record of solving technical problems and it may well solve some relating to climate change through carbon storage, for example. But even if we successfully reduce the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, we will still face numerous other issues. Sustainability is about learning how to respond in a way that keeps what we value in play. 

You champion small individual actions, such as buying fairtrade coffee, as a strategy to advance sustainability. But is there not a risk that we become complacent?

It’s important to recognise that what you do individually is seen by other people. When you ride your bike to work, you’re not just keeping X amount of carbon out of the atmosphere. People see you, and that encourages them to do the same; individual actions are not just individual.

Also those actions tend to lead to other actions. When people decide to shun single-use plastic they don’t just mentally tick a box for the environment and stop there. Instead, that action becomes part of their identity and then they are open to further changes. This gradual incremental change means that collective action can happen all of a sudden, as we’ve seen with the school strikes on climate change around the world.

At the same time we need to think about people’s real lives. If someone works all day, needs to commute by car and struggles to spend a couple of hours with their kids in the evening, what can we expect of them in relation to sustainability? Are we going to tell them it is their duty to become a climate activist, write letters to their member of parliament and organise mass rallies? Well, I am not going to tell them that! We need activists, but we also need ordinary people to do what they can. This might be listening to their children’s fears for the future, voting for the parties that support change, and refusing plastic bags when shopping.

Ultimately, we can’t bully people into action on climate change or any other issue: we need individuals to act in ways that are feasible for their situation. Small individual actions prepare the ground for bigger changes. Carrying a non-disposable water bottle may feel like a small thing, but it creates the possibility of a tipping point where legislative changes are enacted that result in sizeable change.

Is this true of business or is there a different dynamic at work in companies?

Every person I know has a nagging feeling that things are going wrong. This anxiety exists because it’s true; we are doing huge damage to the life systems on which we depend. But it also makes people receptive to practices that build a more sustainable culture. Obviously, businesses don’t have feelings, but people in business have the same sense of angst. And there are many individuals within businesses trying to do authentic work and promote change.

Companies are necessarily focused on facts and figures; they need to make a profit and grow. How can anxiety about sustainability influence their strategic decision-making?

The people in companies who want to promote change will probably do so more effectively if they get together with like-minded others. At a basic level they can establish sustainability panels or committees. Ideally, it is good for such a group to be endorsed by management – even if it is seen as voluntary and people have to get together in their lunch hour. Once such an entity is up and running, people can act as sustainability advocates and push for change with the support of a recognised group. It is important for the group to take practical actions such as start a compost system, or research and liaise with sustainable suppliers, as these actions build the group’s credibility. Then the advocacy can begin, starting with something small such as calling for bike racks to encourage people to cycle to work and then moving on to the big issues that have an impact on core business practices.

Does the plethora of sustainability reports published by companies represent progress or is it just greenwashing, where ‘green’ language is used but little changes in reality?

If people get together to promote change within companies, even if it is on a small scale, that’s good. If it is then co-opted into glossy reports about sustainability, that might not be so bad. Progress is being made. Greenwashing is irritating and it can backfire, but at least it keeps the importance of environmental action alive. 

How should morality come into our actions on sustainability?

I hope I never tell people what to do, but I do try and help sustainability advocates understand how people operate. And one aspect of our psychology is our sense of right and wrong. Across all cultures people gravitate towards ideas of fairness and not harming innocent others. These basic principles make sense to people, and it can be useful to refer to them when discussing both the problem and solutions. The devil is in the detail however, as cultures interpret these principles in various ways. We in the West have become very muddled about the difference between the good life and acquisition. Having comfortable, materially rich, middle-class lifestyles is often assumed to be the good life, and we worry about denying that good life to countries like China and India. Is it fair to deny them the material wealth that we supposedly treasure? But material wealth comes at an enormous price. Many cities in China and India have air that is toxic to their residents – and for what? So we can overload our children with plastic toys and upgrade our cell phones every year? As the world becomes increasingly middle class it needs to learn the essence of living well and strip away the things that aren’t essential. We need to concentrate on quality of life, which doesn’t mean foreign holidays and more possessions, but does mean closer communities, improved health, nutritious food and more opportunities to enjoy art and culture.

By focusing on individual actions and local communities, aren’t we denying the global nature of sustainability challenges like climate change?

Climate change is clearly a global problem, but as a psychologist I am interested in what role each person can play. Are China and India really the problem of that Western citizen who has a long commute, works all day, and has a couple of hours with their children in the evening? The point is to do what we can in the niche that we are in. That could be becoming an activist, joining a political party or supporting international talks. Or it could be offering your school or business café an alternative to disposable plastic trays. Action on sustainability is about every level and every sector of society. It is about encouraging people to care and to show they care through their actions and to then drive governments to make the changes that the world requires.

Climate change is this generation’s nuclear war – it prompts fear and dread. But it’s important to remember that the richness of life goes on at a micro level (just as it did during the Cold War): life needs to be maintained and nature needs to be cherished. Part of the human condition is to focus on macro threats – they are our collective conversation. But ultimately addressing these threats is about individual people doing what needs to be done.

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