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Why Don't Sustainable Technologies Automatically Lead To More Sustainable Lives?

A new study has found that people use domestic energy-saving systems in unexpected ways – often cancelling out any savings. it's not the first study to do so, raising the question: how can we encourage people to lead more sustainable lives?

 Unilever's idea of behaviour changeRight: Unilever's idea of behaviour change, from the multinational corporation's behaviour change strategy.

This particular investigation was part-funded by Economic and Social Research Council and carried out by researchers at Anglia Ruskin University. It sought to find out if people used sophisticated energy-saving technologies in the way their creators envisaged. Though it is acknowledged that the technologies work and can help people live more sustainable lives, the study focused on how they are really being used and why people live the way they do.

On one occasion, researchers met a family living in a purpose-built energy-saving home with a highly-efficient heating system who purposely turned their heating on during hot summer days. When questioned why, it turned out that they were passionate about baking bread and found that the surface of their boiler was perfect for proving the dough.

Perhaps that's a good reason – or maybe they didn't understand the alternatives or the intention behind their home.

"Sustainability research and policy initiatives need to focus more on the practices underlying how and why we consume resources rather than the technology,"  commented Dr Chris Foulds, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Anglia Ruskin University. "It's increasingly being recognised that people aren't pushed and pulled at the whim of technologies, nor does what people think always direct how people actually act."

During fieldwork, the researchers met a householder who had water-saving spray taps that were much appreciated for the quality of the bubbles they created when filling a bath. Consequently, the householder had more baths than before they had the taps – negating any water savings. They also talked with several householders using energy monitoring technologies and found one example where, though an energy user enjoyed recording and plotting how much energy they were using, they give little thought for how savings could be made.

When it comes to living sustainably, there are many social reasons why we live, work and play in the way that we do. Foulds is urging that the focus is taken off the technology and redirected towards social organisation, how resources are used, and the activities for which they are used. He wants to know if there are ways in which social practices and the consumption of resources can be changed in our daily lives. 

"Sustainability and built environment policies and research have for too long assumed that 'magic-bullet' technologies are the answer, or that we can encourage behavioural change by targeting people's attitudes, beliefs and how they think," says Foulds. "But people use technologies and consume resources to perform various practices, so we need to research how these activities have evolved and are organised if we are to find better ways to live our everyday lives sustainably."

Is it to do with our beliefs?

To answer the question, then: 'how do we engender behaviour change to within ecological limits?', I am wondering if it might help to find out what beliefs support such behaviour already. I have a book coming out next month which is subtitled "A Blueprint for the Future". The One Planet Life looks at some people who are living in low impact lives now.

In thinking about a follow-up book I was initially considering conducting research on what living practices bring the greatest reduction in environmental impact,, i.e. looking at households which claim to be living a one planet life, and then measuring whether or not they really are doing. But then I reckoned that we pretty much know what these activities are but we don't know why some people are drawn to living like this and others are not. 

Like the researchers from Angela Ruskin University I'm often intrigued by why people living in zero or low carbon houses actually have a higher than expected carbon footprints. Moreover, when doing the research for The One Planet Life I was struck by the fact that in several of the planning applications for one planet developments, the applicants spent many pages outlining their philosophy of life, with great passion and zeal.

They seemed to be appealing to the planners to sympathise with them in their desire to live harmoniously with the planet, not realising that planning decisions are not made on this basis.

I was also struck by the conversation I had with George Marshall about religion, and the chapter in his new book, Don't Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, on fundamentalist religion.

I am now wondering if it is the case that, as our brains are not wired up to think rationally about threats that are distant in space or time and adjust our behaviour accordingly, or even use technology in the way that their creators intended, instead that it might be belief in certain principles or ideals that can help us to so? Does there exist a culture or set of beliefs that fosters low impact lives that could be actively supported?  

Put another way, are there certain fundamental things you need to believe to live a committed, ecologically harmonious life?  People living such lives can be found who also entertain all sorts of ideologies or belief systems: from tribes of Indians to Taoist eco-activists in a Chinese city, Christians, Buddhists, New Age and Quakers, Tory, Labour, Lib Dem, anarchist and nationalist, as well as materialists. Equally, there are plenty of people who might hold these same beliefs who have an average or high ecological impact.

Unilever, on the web ink above, quote Bob Dylan, claiming that he understood the sustainability challenge long ago when he sang, "People seldom do what they believe in / They do what is convenient, then repent" in "Brownsville Girl.". They then go on to argue that brand loyalty can leverage the needed behaviour change. 

While I'd be the first to admit that consumerism has replaced religion in some people's lives, I'm optimistic enough to believe that it doesn't provide its adherents with all the features of spiritual belief.

So I am thinking about a research project to ask a sample of those who are doing it – not activists or campaigners, but people really living low impact lives – to see if they have anything in common.  I wonder what you think? Please leave your answers in the comments below.

The Festival of Social Science

Meanwhile Dr Chris Foulds and members of the Global Sustainability Institute will introduce the above ideas to children at a hands-on outdoor event entitled, 'Everyday sustainability: The 'extraordinary environment' treasure hunt', in Cambridge on 1 November. He will also lead a discussion about these issues at an event for members of the public entitled ' Everyday sustainability: negotiating carbon footprints', on 5 November. Both events are part of the ESRC's 12th annual Festival of Social Science.

This is to take place from 1-8 November 2014 with over 200 free events  across the UK. Run by the Economic and Social Research Council, the Festival provides an opportunity for anyone to meet with some of the country's leading social scientists and discover, discuss and debate the role that research plays in everyday life. With a whole range of creative and engaging events there's something for everyone including businesses, charities, schools and government agencies. A full programme is available at You can also join the discussion on Twitter using #esrcfestival.