Working paper

The (im)possibility of sustainable lifestyles: can we trust public opinion and plan for reduced consumption?

Working Paper No. 63
Sustainable living Consumer behaviour Conservation Australia
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Environmentalists hold that in order to achieve sustainability, the Western lifestyle must change - all the more so since it is also a model for people in other countries aspiring to a fast economic growth. But others claim that Westerners are so materialistic that reduced consumption is ruled out.

To escape this impasse, we need a better understanding of consumption: the attitudes to it, its cultural meaning in the rich Western countries and the role of consumption in the political and economic fields.

This paper starts with a model of three principal actors which are crucial for future changes towards sustainability: people, business and the political class. It is noted that the demand to reduce consumption challenges fundamental interests. But there are, on the other hand, attitude surveys from rich countries which seem to contradict the materialistic attitude. They rather indicate a composed attitude to material consumption and a corresponding preference for shorter hours and more leisure.

The relevance of these surveys is discussed, including some objections which can be raised against them. One point made is that such objections are part of the problem if they serve to explain away findings that do not fit into the ruling paradigm.

All of this implies that political infeasibility to change lifestyle and reduce consumption may not be due to failing public response as much as to structural factors in society. Planning may have to shift focus from assumed citizen resistance to the institutions which thrive on present consumption patterns. The last section hints at some perspectives of overconsumption which lead to various demands on the political decision process. A conclusion is that a sustainable development in the end would best be served by a continued reduction of the working hours.

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