The links between sustainability and wellbeing: concurrent and convergent thinking

Sandra Carlisle

Cultural influences on health and wellbeing in Scotland: scanning the literature(s)
Discussion paper 7

March 2008


Making the connections: individual psychology, social structures/cultural systems, and environmental threats
Unsustainable development and climate change
Public responses to climate change


This is the seventh in a series of discussion papers, and the second in 2008. As it builds on earlier insights into factors that affect wellbeing at both individual and social levels, a brief recapitulation of the thinking behind our study, and some of its findings, might be helpful.

In recent years, the value of promoting positive mental health and wellbeing has been recognised, not least because most people want a life that is satisfying, enjoyable and enables them to flourish. Whilst it is now widely understood that physical problems like obesity, diabetes and heart disease are diseases of modernity, it has been less well appreciated that modern culture can have consequences for our emotional lives, in the form of stress, many types of addiction and general unhappiness. The argument underpinning our research is that ‘modernity’ has brought us unprecedented levels of economic growth, wealth and lives of material comfort. Many of the causes of suffering that afflicted us in the past have been eliminated or reduced. At the same time, average levels of wellbeing in society have not increased and even among those who might be considered successful, large numbers apparently remain deeply unhappy.

Against this backdrop, it is not surprising that we all face challenges in promoting wellbeing and stand in need of a new set of insights to help us. An important part of our study has been the scanning of a range of writings from different disciplines in search of such insights. As readers of earlier papers will know, these can be found in very different sources, appeal to different explanatory causes or origins and postulate different levels of effect, though there are also inter-connections.

Neuroscience, for example, tells us much about the physiology of positive emotion and wellbeing. Brain scans and other techniques can tell us which parts of the brain, neurotransmitters and hormones are involved. Neuroscience also provides evidence of how techniques such as ‘mindfulness’ and meditation positively affect emotion centres in the brain. Evolutionary psychology informs us about aspects of our psycho-genetic heritage: psychologically, we are ‘stone-agers’ who have not yet adapted to life in the ‘fast lane’ of modern society. Deeply attached to pleasure and averse to loss, we are possibly predisposed to neglect aspects of life which contribute to a fuller sense of wellbeing. Other disciplines (such as public health and health promotion, positive psychology, epidemiology, nutrition, etc.) help us understand the importance of internal and external factors such as diet (before birth and during life), exercise, stimulating work and activities that create a sense of ‘flow’, nurturing relationships, supportive communities, effective parenting, the capacity to express gratitude and kindness, and much, much more.

Social and cultural theory, on the other hand, tells us much about the impact of social structures and cultural systems on our belief and value structures, which in turn shape what we generally take for granted as ‘natural’. The social sciences have much to tell us about the links between an increasingly globalised ‘modernity’ and contemporary insecurities and anxieties. Writers from such disciplines highlight how cultural traits of individualism, materialism and consumerism impact on our wellbeing both as individual and as social beings. The social sciences point to the vital importance, in modern society, of constructing an appropriate ‘identity’: a non-optional task but one which is fraught with risks, for example, around making the wrong ‘choices’ in life. For those faced with limited choices, usually because of limited income, life in consumer society can be particularly difficult, spurring many into debt.

Writers across very different disciplines suggest that we live in an age of multiple — and apparently multiplying — anxieties. One of these is that there is now irrefutable scientific evidence that we live in an increasingly polluted, over-populated and warming world, with profound implications for human health and wellbeing.  We also face the depletion of a key energy resource on which modern societies and cultures depend for their routine, everyday existence: oil. Modern economies have increased longevity, lowered infant mortality, improved health and reduced the need for manual drudgery. Their populations now spend an increasing proportion of their income in the pursuit of luxury goods rather than subsistence needs. All this is startling evidence of a species apparently free from the struggles which attend the rest of nature, at least in the developed economies of the West.

Yet, if the conventional view of economic progress is to be believed, it is only a matter of time before the developing countries catch up with western levels of affluence. In this paper we therefore consider the broader relationship between our wellbeing, as individuals and members of particular communities and societies, and global environmental change.

The overwhelming message from the modern environmental debate is that there is a price to pay for an affluent lifestyle. A number of writers have suggested that resource depletion, environmental degradation, and rates of species extinction possibly unprecedented in human history, are not so much an unfortunate side-effect as an inevitable accompaniment to modern consumer societies. These are profligate in terms of material usage and have economies which are founded on relentless growth.  As earlier discussion papers make plain, there is now a growing body of literature which demonstrates increasing awareness that Western-type socio-cultural systems are dominated by materialistic and individualistic values, illustrated by our obsession with economic growth, our seemingly endless quest for consumer goods, and a growing sense of social alienation and fragmentation. In the context of the broader literatures we consider, the combination of climate change, ‘peak oil’ and subsequent moves to a post-carbon world will represent enormous threats to human health and wellbeing. Good mental health and emotional wellbeing are likely to be essential resources in coping with unprecedented levels of socio-economic disruption.

The first section below lays out the argument for making links between individual, social and global levels of wellbeing. The second section briefly summarises evidence relating to man-made environmental change and the consequences of unsustainable development, and demonstrates that such concerns are already accepted by and leading to action from the political and business communities. Conversely, the third section outlines evidence that broader public acceptance of – and readiness to cope with – anthropogenic climate change and more sustainable ways of living is lagging some way behind. A brief review of Professor Tim Jackson’s work on consumption and sustainability points uses a cultural analysis to explain why moves to sustainability are likely to be faced with considerable opposition, even violence. Up to this point, human choices and human actions have appeared important. The fourth section, however, presents an argument drawn from history which suggests choice may be irrelevant. It has been suggested we are already in the throes of a third major revolution in human history, triggered by an imbalance between population, waste production and resource depletion. From this perspective, drastic change is simply inevitable.

The paper is intended as a brief review of just some of the relevant literature, not a polemic. Nevertheless, as some of the areas we cover are heavily politicised, we are inevitably straying into some highly contentious waters.

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Making the connections: individual psychology, social structures/cultural systems, and environmental threats

Humans adapt through cultural, rather than genetic, evolution, and we have learned how to manipulate our environments through the use of technology. This has led a number of writers to comment on the human species’ escape from the struggle for existence which seems to attend every other species on the planet. Our successes have kept us at the top of the food chain and helped foster the myth of humankind as the telos or endpoint of evolution. This in turn has led many to believe that humankind can escape the controls of nature – a dangerous illusion, as contemporary human problems demonstrate. We believe it helpful to think in terms of the impact of more harmful aspects of modern culture on three different levels of wellbeing:

  • At the micro level (i.e. the biological/psychological level), the problem may be that many individuals in consumer societies can be driven to lead shallow and individualised lives, characterised by trivial values and the loss of deeper purpose – all of which appear damaging to their mental wellbeing.

  • At the meso level (i.e. the socio-cultural systems level), there are problems around the escalating growth of social inequalities and materialist/individualist values, and the associated decline of much that we should value.

  • At the macro level (i.e. the natural environment on which we all depend), the problem is that the apparently unstoppable rise in over-consumption by comparatively small numbers of people in the developed world may ultimately render the physical world uninhabitable for both humankind and other species.  The impacts of anthropogenic climate change, for example, are already being felt most within the poorest areas of the world. At the same time, vast numbers of the global population still live in absolute levels of poverty, so continued economic growth is a necessity for some nations.

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    Image from Wikimedia Commons

    Wikimedia Commons

    Unsustainable development and climate change

    Although reference to global warming and other environmental threats seem part and parcel of everyday life now, it has actually taken considerable time for people to become aware of the connections between certain forms of development (such as industrialisation and an increasingly intensive agricultural industry) and environmental damage. For example, it was not until the 1960s that publication of Rachel Carson’s 'Silent Spring' alerted the world to the long-term damage caused by the use of pesticides such as DDT, etc. Towards the end of the twentieth century, the death of forests through acid rain, the Chernobyl disaster and the hole in the ozone layer brought home to many the broader realisation that the health of the planet was under threat. Political reaction around the world led to the UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, which produced a series of UN Conventions to protect the natural environment on a global scale. It also produced Agenda 21, an ‘Agenda for the 21st Century’ (an action plan for implementing sustainable development), which acknowledged that the health of people and the planet are inextricably entwined.

    Despite continued scepticism and doubt about the reality of climate change expressed in some parts of the public media, there is now considerable consensus within the scientific community. Planetary sciences such as geology, meteorology and oceanography have contributed much to our emerging knowledge. We now know that the earth is a dynamic and changing system which has, over time, experienced considerable shifts in its temperature, ice and sea cover, etc., and past human civilisations have been affected considerably by such changes. Today, however, there is strong evidence that the earth is warming and that this being accelerated by human activity. Humans, particularly in developed societies, are now pouring large amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere. Data from ice cores show that levels of CO2, methane and nitrous oxide have risen significantly above normal interglacial levels.

    If these gases are part of the earth’s ‘thermostat’, as many in the scientific community believe, such increases are cause for great concern. Data from the last hundred years show significant rises in temperature on all continents, and satellite data from the last thirty years show significant increases in mean surface temperature, particularly in northern latitudes (Boulton 2007). Boulton suggests that effective approaches to this scale of challenge are likely to require significant changes in how humans live and how we relate to the earth and each other.

    The most authoritative source of scientific knowledge on the issue, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), has reported that if greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, average global temperatures could increase by as much as 6.4oC by the end of the century, with a rise of 4oC most likely (IPCC 2007). An average global temperature rise of 4oC will wipe out hundreds of species, bring extreme food and water shortages in vulnerable countries and cause catastrophic floods that will displace hundreds of millions of people, leading to mass migration on an unprecedented scale.

    Sir David King (the Westminster government’s chief scientific advisor) says that if we are to keep the rise in global temperatures below 2oC, this involves keeping greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a maximum of 450 parts per million (ppm). Any rise above this carries significant risk of major environmental collapse. However, as this aim would cost as much as 3% of world GDP annually over the next 10 years, it is not believed politically achievable (Lucas 2007). Costs rise as mitigations efforts become more ambitious, holding the threat of economic meltdown. The chief scientific advisor’s recommended aim of 500-550 parts per million would only cost 1% cent of world GDP but, according to the Green Party, takes us into the arena of ‘significant risk’ (a 63-99% likelihood of taking the climate beyond the tipping point).

    Professor Geoffrey Boulton, however, argues that empirical data from 2003 onwards suggests that the worst case carbon increase scenarios of the International Panel of Climate Change are now being outstripped (Boulton 2007). He suggests there will be an increase in the global mean surface temperature approaching 7oC by the end of the 21st century. The increase will be highest in Northern latitudes, where precipitation will also increase: our climate will be ‘livelier’, with faster, wetter storms in these latitudes. By the 2040s, the heat wave which caused excess deaths in Europe in 2003 will look normal.  By the 2060s, such summers will look cool.

    Political action still appears to lag behind intent, however. For example, the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution has recently reported that air pollution is still responsible for 24,000 premature deaths in Britain every year (RCEP 2007). Sir John Lawton, chair of the Commission, has claimed that UK governments have consistently failed to tackle rising levels of chemical pollution in the atmosphere in cities and urban areas. And man-made greenhouse gas emissions have actually doubled since the 2002 announcement of government efforts to reduce them (Boulton 2007). The business community has certainly begun to take climate change seriously, not least because larger businesses have now had to pay a climate change levy for a number of years, but also as part of contemporary marketing strategies which acknowledge (to paraphrase Gordon Gecko) that ‘green is good’. Written from an economic perspective, the Stern review commissioned by the Westminster government ('The economics of climate change’) makes it plain that lack of action to mitigate climate change will be far more costly than taking action now.

    A recent briefing from the new economics foundation (Simms, Woodward and Kjell 2007) illustrates the comprehensive scale of adaptations that will be required the world over in the face of global warming. Simms et al claim that large sums of money, hidden across countless different government budget lines, are now being spent by rich countries to adapt — at home — to the global warming that is already inevitable. The risks to business from climate change fall into two broad categories. First there are the direct impacts from climate change in the form of flood damage resulting from rising sea levels, changing weather patterns and singular extreme weather events. Then there are the indirect risks associated with changing factor prices, demand conditions, policy changes resulting from carbon mitigation schemes (such as carbon emissions trading schemes, climate change levy, etc.), political unrest, international conflict, risk to reputation and risk of litigation.

    More immediate risks to business are, however, posed by the indirect effects of climate change. These include, but are not limited to, the introduction of carbon taxes and carbon trading regimes for large greenhouse gas emitters, plus the change in factor prices which will result from these additional costs. A recent Royal Society report promoting the replacement of the Climate Change Levy with a carbon tax, estimates that to reduce emissions in line with the UK’s Kyoto commitment would require a 10% increase in the price of petrol and a 15% increase in the price of electricity. If this relatively modest measure were to be taken up, adaptation in the business sector would mean having to rework their accounts to absorb such price rises.

    According to the European Environment Agency, two-thirds of catastrophic events since 1980 have been climate-driven by floods, storms, droughts or heatwaves (Simms, Woodward and Kjell 2007). Such disasters doubled during the 1990s compared to the 1980s and now cost around $11 billion annually and account for 79% of economic losses from catastrophic events. The United Nations Environment Programme’s Finance Initiative estimates that on current trends, worldwide economic losses due to natural disasters (the vast majority being hydro-meteorological and therefore directly affected by climate change) will hit $150 billion per year in the next decade: roughly three times the size of the global aid budget to the developing world. A former director of one of the world’s largest insurance companies came to an even more dramatic conclusion. Comparing annual average economic growth figures with a linear projection of rising climate-related damages, he concluded that by about 2065 damages would exceed gross world income. In other words, climate change will have bankrupted the global economy. Simms, Woodward and Kjell (2007) argue that many living in resource-poor countries are already experiencing ‘dangerous’ climate change but are being cast adrift and left to sink by rich countries in a warming world.

    The UK Public Health Association (UKPHA) has suggested that if calls for action to link health and sustainability fail, then ‘there is very little hope for the future health of humanity’.  A recent report by this organisation (UKPHA 2007) lays out the main health consequences of unsustainable development. These have both direct and indirect implications for mental health and wellbeing:

    1. Environmental degradation consequences

    1. A proliferation of toxic/harmful residues in the environment which are absorbed, metabolised or stored within the human body, affecting the function of the immune system, the nervous system, and the reproductive and respiratory systems. These toxins/residues are also capable of leading to cancer

    2. Loss of green space and contact with nature, leading to reduced physical activity and mental ill-health.

    2. Climate change consequences

    1. Flooding, causing disruption of infrastructure resulting in deaths from injuries, water-borne diseases, and psychological stress

    2. Increase in vector-borne diseases

    3. Water shortages

    4. Loss of productive land for cultivation and livestock

    5. Pressures from population movement, thus rapidly reducing productive land areas

    6. Significant increase in heat related deaths.

    3. Consequences of (unsustainable) economic development

    1. Inequitable distribution of resources

    2. Over-consumption in the developed world, leading to obesity and the diseases of affluence

    3. Under-consumption in the developing world (i.e. malnutrition), driven by the unequal use of resources and powerful global economic interests

    4. Poorly-controlled land use planning leading to degradation of the built environment and transport infrastructure.

    The report a notes a fourth consequence flowing from the above: social disintegration, in terms of loss of community, pride of place and self-esteem (thus affecting mental health), and gross economic disparities within and between populations.

    Adair Turner, as an economist and banker, is an unlikely critic of economic growth. Nevertheless, such is his position, as he makes clear in his essay on ‘Dethroning growth’ (2007). He begins conventionally enough by reminding us that rising economic prosperity has delivered huge increases in human welfare, amounting to a fifteen-fold increase in Western living standards from the early nineteenth century onwards. Globalization of the free market system, he claims, is now spreading that prosperity, particularly to Asia. The local impacts of development (industrialisation, urbanisation and population growth) and rising prosperity are always adverse at first, as we know from conditions in nineteenth-century London and contemporary Beijing.

    Nevertheless, Turner acknowledges that rising prosperity has also unleashed long term environmental harm. It has made possible a global population exploration from 1 billion in 1800 to 6.5 billion today, which is likely to grow to over 9 billion by 2050, and with no certainty of stabilisation thereafter. He recognises that the biodiversity of the planet being eroded at alarming rate and that man-made, greenhouse gas emissions are changing the world’s climate with uncertain but potentially harmful results. He suggests that the combination of prosperity and increasing population growth destroy some of the things that people value, such as the natural environment. The evidence that happiness does not increase beyond a certain level of prosperity suggests to Turner that we now need to dethrone the idea of maximising gross domestic product (GDP) as an objective of economic and social policy. GDP, in already rich countries, should be regarded as a by-product of other desirable objectives (such as reasonably full employment), not an end in itself. But however much we reduce our environmental impact per capita, our ‘carbon footprint’, any effect will be outweighed if the world population continues to grow, says Turner.

    In short, an increasing number of knowledgeable individuals and organisations now believe that the probable consequence of continued inaction will be the breakdown of the ecological and social support systems essential to sustaining human health and wellbeing, with consequences for many other species.

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    Public responses to climate change

    Recent research by Ipsos MORI focuses on the way the UK public think and behave in relation to climate change, as well as their values and aspirations (Downing and Ballantyne 2007). Their main findings are outlined below.

    1. Attitudes to climate change

    There is widespread public recognition that the climate, irrespective of the cause, is changing. Many say they have personally seen evidence of this. However, the public is out of step with the IPCC, with fewer than half believing that climate change is being caused by both human activity and natural processes. Only 46% believe human activity is the main cause.

    A small minority still reject anthropogenic climate change and here remains a large proportion yet to be fully persuaded who hold doubts about the extent of the threat. The public do recognise the notion of environmental limits and acknowledge the need for action, but are increasingly optimism that solutions will be found.

    While broad understanding of what climate change means is increasing, the British public still have a “mixed and confused” idea of the risk posed to the UK. While the debate may be over for some, for others it certainly is not.

    The public continue to externalise climate change to other people, places and times. It is increasingly perceived as a major global issue with far-reaching consequences for future generations: 45% say it is the most serious threat facing the World today and 53% believe it will impact significantly on future generations. However, the issue features less prominently nationally and locally, indeed only 9% believe climate change will have a significant impact upon them personally.

    Messages questioning climate change and/or its anthropogenic causes (for example Channel 4’s Great Global Warming Swindle and other voices in the media) are having an impact. Complexity in science and notions of probability do not translate easily to the public who, in the absence of definitive ‘proof’, search out signs of doubt. 40% question our ability to predict the climate system while as many as 56% wrongly believe that the scientific jury is still out on the causes of climate change. Uncertainty in the science is matched by widespread confusion and doubts about what actions to take and which products to buy.

    2. Attitudes to actors and agencies

    The public look to Government to orchestrate collective action and prefer decision making authority at the national level rather than through the EU or other supranational bodies. The public agree, in principle, that government has the mandate to lead, although their response to potential interventions is more complex. The nature of the intervention is key: certain measures — particularly fiscal — are contentious, whereas others (e.g. ‘editing out’ certain consumer choices, like incandescent light bulbs) are widely supported.

    Trust is a key factor impacting on the ability of government to make the case to its electorate about any particular policy measure, and eco-taxation, the Polluter Pays principle and hypothecation all suffer from the stigma of ‘stealth’ taxation. The (successful) introduction of the policy itself can have one of the most marked impacts on public opinion.

    Consumers are looking to business to take greater action on climate change, and expect greater competition in the next few years around this issue. But they also want easier choices and more help differentiating environmentally sound products from others. They are cautious of commercial claims, and businesses face challenges convincing consumers that its efforts are beyond ‘spin’. Certain sectors, such as investment, transport and oil, face more scrutiny than others because environmental objectives are perceived to be fundamentally at odds with their modus operandi. However, the public have taken note of the efforts of companies over the past year.

    Local agents are perceived to have the least influence on climate change. Local authorities have traditionally focused on local environmental quality but are becoming more involved (e.g. through the planning system to encourage renewables, or the parking regime to target ‘gas guzzlers’). The public consider the local community and themselves as individuals to be minor actors: only 4% perceive they have a large influence to combat climate change, while 33% feel they have none. There is also a mismatch between the size of the problem relative to the actions the public are encouraged to take.

    There are concerns over fairness and the potential for ‘free riders’ to take advantage of individual sacrifices. Over half say that they would do more if others did as well.

    3. Behaviour change and sustainable lifestyles

    Downing and Ballantyne acknowledge that changing behaviour is complex, and environmental behaviours can be very different from one another. For example, there is a distinction to be made in terms of conscious behaviours (such as buying a car) and subconscious behaviours (such as driving a car); between small behaviours likely to change rapidly and those requiring longer time horizons; and between isolated behaviours and interconnected ‘sticky’ behaviours that catalyse others. And the heterogeneity of households and consumers means it is critical to target messages, products and services at particular audiences.

    Behaviours are already changing and there are some positive signals. The committed few are becoming larger in number and enough to support impressive, if still niche, progress. Recycling is the success story to date, with rapid shifts in parts of the country. However, many of the current trends remain in the wrong direction and some behaviour — such as driving and taking holidays abroad — appears sacrosanct.

    Image from Wikimedia Commons

    Wikimedia Commons

    Many consumers still seek to make changes at the margins of their lifestyles and do not perceive a need for a fundamental shift in behaviour. Moreover, their actions do not appear consistent, well planned or systematic — when asked unprompted what they are doing to confront climate change, most cannot identify anything beyond recycling, begging the question whether this has become a token behaviour that discharges responsibility in other areas. The majority of consumers are not aware that some of their actions are associated with a large carbon footprint, e.g. high levels of meat consumption.

    At face value the public say they’re willing to do more and go further: 78% agree with this sentiment. However, opt outs and caveats play an important part in what they are willing to change and, as a result, actual behaviour lags behind intentions.

    Downing and Ballantyne therefore conclude that the UK public are currently pulling in different directions, torn between competing and conflicting mindsets. As citizens we want to avert climate change but as consumers we want to go on holiday, own a second home, a big car and the latest electronic goods. We acknowledge our collective responsibilities but guard jealously our personal rights and freedoms

    Cultural barriers to sustainable consumption

    Tim Jackson, Professor of Sustainable Development at Surrey University, has written extensively on the social psychology of sustainable development and consumer culture, drawing on a vast body of literature across the natural and social sciences. He reminds us of evidence which suggests that, far from being necessary to our survival, materialism threatens our environment, engenders inequality and does not even make us happy (Jackson 2006). If this were the whole story, Jackson says, it would be a very happy state of affairs for sustainable consumption: unfortunately, things are not so simple. He puts forward four inter-related social-psychological propositions which he believes can help us both understand unsustainable consumption and, perhaps, promote sustainable consumption.

    Proposition 1: The motivations of human beings can be construed in terms of a variety of shared ‘functionings’: physiological, reproductive, psychological, social, and spiritual

    Evidence from anthropology, evolutionary psychology and social epidemiology illustrate that the different types are all strongly inter-related and that different types of motivation may be in conflict with others. Healthy physical functioning, for example, is essential to survival of the organism and requires certain minimal nutritional inputs and material requirements for physical protection: clothing, housing, and so on. But, as any inspection of the basket of consumption goods of the modern household reveals, our consumption habits are motivated as much by social and psychological factors as by purely physiological ones.

    Proposition 2: The self is socially constructed

    Jackson tells us that psychologists from George Herbert Mead (1934) onward have suggested that ‘the mind’ and ‘the concept of self’ arise from the fundamentally social process of communication. Personal identity, in other words, is an emergent property of inherently social relations. Cultural norms are internalised in individuals by way of ‘social conversations’. Some of those conversations may, subtly and over relatively long periods of time, shift, and mould and fashion the cultural beliefs themselves. Without this, culture would remain essentially static. But by the same token, the process of cultural transition can never be within the gift of any one individual. Indeed, at the individual level — and sometimes even at the societal level — cultural transition is an inherently violent process because it threatens the entire meaning-structure on which social cohesion depends. For an individual to challenge this is to invite resounding punishment.

    Jackson suggests that the implications of this view for understanding consumer society are quite profound. In the first place, it undermines key principles of modernity, such as the centrality of individuality and individual choice. The suggestion that individuals operate as more or less unilateral agents under the influence of largely free choice which determines their behavioural patterns looks untenable. We must look instead to social processes, social conversations and interactions between self and other as being vital influences on behaviour at both individual and social level. None of this is to deny the existence of individual cognitive deliberations, but it points to their limits and to the centrality of social influence at the heart of those deliberations.

    Jackson, amongst others, points out that an immediate casualty of this position is the rational choice model that lies behind most traditional economic analyses of consumer choice. The economic model suggests that people make choices on the basis of a cognitive deliberation over private costs and benefits. Provided that certain conditions hold, then such choices are assumed to be in the best interest of the individuals (i.e. ‘rational’) and therefore a robust guide to actual behaviour. The failure of the model in real life is usually attributed to either a lack of information, or else to the existence of a series of ‘hidden’ costs and benefits that act as barriers or perverse incentives at the individual level. The policy prescriptions that flow from the rational choice model tend to be relatively few and relatively straightforward: provide better information or provide incentives/disincentives to change the balance of costs and benefits.

    From the social-psychological perspective outlined here, limited success can be expected because the individual is constrained in taking pro-environmental or pro-social action by a variety of important factors. In addition to the economic and physical constraints that are conventionally acknowledged, the individual must negotiate his or her own conflicting motivations in terms of the functionings defined above. But in negotiating these, he or she is bound as much by the social fabric in which a sense of self is negotiated as by purely ‘personal’ constraints.

    Proposition 3: Material artefacts embody symbolic meanings

    We know that identity is a key driver of material consumption in modern society (Bauman 1998) but this fact does not allow us to understand how modern consumer society may differ from its predecessors, in terms of any underlying commonality. To make sense of the way in which the social construction of modern identity relies so heavily on material goods we need this third key proposition, says Jackson. The most important lesson from a huge body of work from diverse intellectual influences is very clear. Material commodities are important to us, not just for what they do, but for what they signify about us: our lives, loves, desires, successes and failings, hopes and our dreams. Material goods are not just artefacts; nor do they offer purely functional benefits. They derive their importance, in part at least, from their symbolic role in mediating and communicating personal, social, and cultural meaning not only to others but also to ourselves. The anthropological evidence for this symbolic role is interesting and persuasive, because it suggests that the symbolic role of artefacts considerably predates modernity. Anthropological evidence for the cultural role of artefacts as symbols can be found in a wide variety of societies over long periods of time: goods have played key symbolic roles in exchange rituals for many millennia.

    We ‘know’ intellectually that the symbolic nature of goods plays an important role in our social conversations, says Jackson, but we do not carry this awareness into every such conversation with us, and we seldom articulate it in a fully conscious conversation of ideas. As such, the symbolic conversation of gestures embodied in the use, exchange and trade of material goods presents us with an incredibly difficult domain for policy intervention.

    The symbolic meanings of material artefacts fit them perfectly for an absolutely vital role in social and psychological functioning. The task of constructing and maintaining symbolic value — like the task of constructing and maintaining an identity — is a fundamentally social one. Symbols, like identity, are by their nature socially constructed. The value attached to symbols is constantly negotiated and re-negotiated through social interactions within a specific cultural context. This suggests to Jackson that the individual consumer is locked into a continual process of constructing and reconstructing personal identity in the context of a continually renegotiated universe of social and cultural symbols. Modernity provides opportunities (and dilemmas) for symbolic self completion through the continually enlarging choice of consumer goods. However, he argues that we must also regard the use of material artefacts in this process as something with long roots in antiquity: the problem of symbolic identity construction is a task common to the human condition, and one continually validated through social interaction.

    If we are born in some sense incomplete then we are faced as human beings with the project of social-symbolic self-completion, using whatever resources are available to us for this project.  What characterises our society, in the eyes of the many social and cultural theorists drawn on by Jackson, is that symbolic self-completion is mainly pursued through the consumption of material goods imbued with symbolic meaning.

    Proposition 4: Consumer society is a cultural defence against ‘anomie’, or loss of meaning

    Jackson argues that in modern society, there is very little in the way of discussion of the social significance of this kind of meaning-threat outside the remnants of religious discourse and the reflections of a few psychologists and sociologists. However, the lengthy history of the concept of anomie within sociology, and the equally impressive discussion of rituals within anthropology provide a rich source of evidence for the importance of these issues to the structure and nature of society. Insights from these sources suggest that every society must protect itself from the threat of anomie. Every society engages in cultural myths and narratives that provide for a sense of continuity and meaning in the face of the ever-present threats from both outside and within. In earlier societies, this task was assigned mainly to religious institutions and structures. There are some clearly visible meaning-defence mechanisms inherent in consumer society. This includes the concept of economic growth, which operates at the collective level to provide a sense of continuing intergenerational progress.

    Jackson’s argument, in bringing all four propositions together, is that contemporary consumer society could not hope to operate were it not for the symbolic power of material artefacts, the fact that symbolic meanings are negotiated socially, and the fact that these processes overlap significantly with processes of symbolic self-completion. The point is not just that some vital social and psychological functioning are subtly intertwined and mediated through the evocative power of material goods. It is also that, through consumption processes, meaning is negotiated and defended. For most of us, for most of the time, our unconscious or semi-conscious ‘social conversations’ hold meaninglessness at bay and allow us to function.

    To the extent that we can achieve social and psychological functioning without the use of consumer goods, Jackson argues, it should clearly be possible to shift attitudes and behaviours away from environmentally unsustainable forms of consumption towards greater sustainability. But, he goes on to say, the complexity of the relationships between identity, goods and social functioning should warn us against any simplistic prescriptions of social change in this direction.  Moreover, the extent to which vital social functionings such as identity creation, social cohesion and the defence against anomie are mediated through material goods in the consumer society, suggests that powerful and possibly violent resistance to change is to be expected.

    If, as Jackson suggests, a key function of consumer society is the pursuit of meaning and the defence against anomie, then the transition to a sustainable society cannot proceed without the emergence or re-emergence of some kinds of meaning structures that lie outside the consumer realm. We stand in need of ‘communities of meaning’ that can support the kind of essential social, psychological and spiritual functioning that has been handed over almost entirely in modern society to the symbolic role of consumer goods. Jackson concludes that if we try to proceed without attention to this kind of insight into the underlying processes of consumer society (processes that are held in common with just about every society we know of) is to invite spectacular failure, not just in environmental terms, but in social terms as well. Neither technological optimism nor wishful thinking about behavioural change, Jackson concludes, will deliver sustainability.

    Wellbeing and a sustainable world

    In common with many others, philosopher AC Grayling (2007) argues that contemporary models of the good life in modern society illustrate the mismatch between their standard images and what actually makes people feel their lives are good. He argues that there are as many different kinds of possible ‘good lives’ as there are individuals to have them, but this truth gets forgotten in a contemporary culture where just two basic models of good lives are repeatedly offered for public consumption, via advertising, films and television. Both of these are premised on the possession of enough money to make them possible.  One is the life of appearance and style and ownership of desirable branded objects (coupled with, if possible, ‘celebrity’ status). The other is the life of ‘easeful retirement’ in a rural idyll, forsaking the metropolitan bustle and whirl but underpinned by the same assumption of considerable wealth.

    Image (c) Bob Jones

    © Peter Facey and licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Licence

    We are not wrong, he says, to link sufficiency of income to good lives: money buys us a degree of autonomy, independence and self-government, all of which are essential to the good life:

    ‘Chosen lives are made out of chosen things, selected from among options because there was a reason for doing so.’

    The problem is not that there is anything fundamentally wrong with the things we can buy: it is that we are conditioned to imagine that such things are ends in themselves. Objects of consumption, for Grayling, are instrumental — a means to something more worth having, i.e. an attainment of the emotional sense that life is good. Good lives, in themselves, do not have to cost very much. But the two principal models of the good life which he highlights are costly in various ways. Firstly, they presume the power to consume over-abundantly. Secondly, and like much else in contemporary life, either model is likely to prove disappointing, when compared with its promise of happiness. Grayling suggests that such two-dimension and partial visions of the good life are increasingly exported to and echoed in the developing world. The implications of this are a relentlessly upward spiral of unsustainable consumption on a global level, leading to potentially irreversible environmental damage and decline of human wellbeing.

    Lucas is one of a number of authors who argue that the politics of sustainability and the politics of wellbeing go hand in hand (Lucas 2007). She suggests that the policies we need to live good lives (i.e. ones that are both happy and fulfilling) are also the policies we need to tackle climate change. From this perspective, there is a fundamental concurrence between the sustainability and wellbeing agendas. The argument is that enlightened consideration of what contributes to wellbeing points to the direct need to protect the environment and move away from endless consumerism and materialism, changes which would lie at the heart of a more sustainable society. Whether good lives are defined as happy lives or lives of wellbeing, Lucas argues, the bottom line is that living a good life and safeguarding the climate are not only simply compatible, they are inextricably connected and mutually dependent. It serves both our own wellbeing and the wellbeing of the planet to reform a deeply unsustainable system based on the ever increasing consumption – and waste – of natural resources.

    On the positive side, she notes that a low-carbon world is labour-intensive, promoting local processes of production and consumption, repairing, recycling, re-using, etc. A low-carbon world is also a safer world: foreign policy in the West has long been concerned with securing access to fossil fuels in unstable parts of the world.  And a low carbon world is also likely to be one where we experience greater levels of happiness and wellbeing. This suggestion echoes Schumaker’s (2006) conclusions, based on his own extensive research which finds that many, simpler cultures across the world live much harder lives, in terms of effort for survival, but are far happier than modern Western-type peoples. He also documents the abrupt downturn in such levels of wellbeing which follows people’s contact with and exposure to consumerist and materialist values.

    Could we face a third ‘revolution’ in human history? (And what would this mean for wellbeing?)

    History, says Harrison (1993), tells two versions of the emergence and cause of two major human developments: the agricultural and industrial revolutions. According to earlier accounts, the main agricultural and industrial revolutions were developments which made greater resources available to more people, thus spurring population growth. More recent accounts reverse this and argue that it was population growth which drove such developments, as resources for any particular way of life became depleted. From this perspective, some key environmental changes have been of humanity’s own making, prompted by insufficient resources to supply a population’s way of life at any one time. An equally important point is that modes of social organisation and cultural belief and value systems change in parallel, with both beneficial and harmful outcomes for population health and wellbeing. 

    The early human history of hunter gatherers spanned roughly 300,000 years, only ending when population numbers exceeded the available food supply, as such groups need a large physical area in which to roam. This prompted a turn to grain cultivation, round about 8000 BC. The agricultural revolution brought massive changes in social structure and cultural systems, including much larger social groups. Increasing control over nature led to unprecedented control over people, as dependence on grain supplies stimulated technologies for storage and protection. Whilst status in hunter gatherer societies was earned by generosity in sharing surplus food, agriculture led to the development of private ownership of land, the growth of urban settlements and cities, and hierarchies of wealth, status and power. Social classes emerged, as did warfare, slavery and male dominance.  Fossil evidence suggests that physical health declined. Agricultural societies experienced a diet reduced in variety and calories, for example, together with more demanding and damaging forms of physical labour.

    Culture changed in parallel, with the development of ideologies legitimating the domination of all men over nature, some men over other men, and most men over women. Individual and social wellbeing may have declined, as evidence from contemporary hunter-gatherer societies suggests that their levels of wellbeing and happiness are higher than that of people living in more ‘developed’ societies.

    Similarly, Harrison suggests that at the beginning of the Western industrial revolution (roughly the sixteenth century AD), the main fuel supply — wood — had already dwindled. This is because wood is already a ‘distributed’ resource, available over large areas of the environment and thus relatively easily gathered and depleted. Adaptive responses led to the search for other fuel sources and thus to the development of coal mining, to be followed later by oil extraction. Both required invasive technologies, new forms of mechanical equipment and innovative forms of transport for delivery to more distant locations. The new industrial technologies fuelled wealth and consumption, thus prompting further population growth. This was also accompanied by problems such as land degradation, vast amounts of chemical fertilization, water pollution and, latterly, environmental phenomena such as acid rain, red tides and global warming.

    Cultural and ideological change also followed, in that the natural world came to be viewed as a resource to be pillaged. Nature was a challenge to be overcome, in the name of human progress, by our apparently limitless technical ingenuity. But, as Bauman’s work (reviewed in our last paper) makes clear, the human tendency to work no more than is required for subsistence also had to be overcome, in order to serve the greater demands of the industrial system. This led to a decline in leisure and the development of a new moral system of control: the work ethic. The health and social costs of the latter part of the period, in terms of urban overcrowding, unsanitary living conditions and associated rise in infection diseases, accompanied by appalling poverty and misery for many people, are too well known to need rehearsing.

    In short, Harrison argues that human history is the history of increasing numbers of people, increasing consumption by those people, and their development of increasingly invasive and disruptive technology.  He says it is the compound action of all three elements which lies behind our increasingly destructive impact on the planet. In light of the evidence and theories outlined above, it is conceivable that we may face a third revolution in human history, spurred by the growing impact of waste, population growth, the impending loss of a natural energy resource on which the developed world has long depended, and potentially irreversible environmental change.

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    Some of the arguments found in the literature briefly summarised in this paper may be familiar to readers of our earlier discussion papers, though authors and disciplines may differ. In itself, this is evidence of increasing cross-disciplinary thinking.  As we have argued from the start of this project, such thinking is fundamental to achieving a better understanding of the complex nature of wellbeing and the complex nature of the threats we face in preserving or improving this. Humans are not a collection of disembodied emotions (important though our emotion states are). We need to understand how we (as both embodied and psychological ‘selves’) create, interact with and are influenced by our social structures (rules, organisational forms) and our cultural/symbolic systems (beliefs and values). This is not a simple task, but without such broad forms of thinking, efforts to promote mental and emotional wellbeing are likely to be one-dimensional and ineffective.

    It is interesting to note the degree to which both the ‘harder’ (natural) and ‘softer’ (social) sciences converge on the idea that we are relatively powerless in the face of greater forces. These forces are, respectively, our genetic inheritance and our social structure/cultural system. For example, evolutionary psychology suggests that we now live in circumstances that are very different from the ones in which we first evolved but our brains have not had time to adapt, with consequences for health and wellbeing. One conclusion from this body of work is the argument that we suffer from a ‘positional psychology’.  This keeps us on the ‘hedonic treadmill’ of pursuing positional goods such as status and wealth because they contribute to our reproductive success. We are thus driven by deep-seated biological forces which may be detrimental to our overall wellbeing. Conversely, disciplines such as sociology point to profound inequalities in the socio-economic structure of society as responsible for much individual and social ill-being, whilst cultural theorists highlight the baleful influences over our thoughts and actions exerted by the symbolic and real powers of consumerist, capitalist culture. 

    To the extent that both discourses are underpinned by sound research and avoid victim-blaming, all appears well and good. The problem is that viewing human beings as selfish gene-robots, structural dopes or cultural dupes removes from us the prospect of acting purposefully in the world – and may legitimise some gross inequities as ‘natural’ or ‘inevitable’.  The endpoint of discussion paper 6 suggested that a balanced perspective on the issue of wellbeing must incorporate the concept of meaningful human action and the role of choice, as well as acknowledging the power of our socio-economic structures and cultural systems in either promoting or damaging individual and social wellbeing. This paper, however, has highlighted looming environmental challenges which are on an entirely different scale to the other issues — yet fundamental to human wellbeing.

    One conclusion from the findings rehearsed above is that the dominant cultural norms and values of (over)consumption, found in many (though not all) contemporary Western societies, have resulted in a marked imbalance between way of life and environmental carrying capacity. We face looming global changes as at least a partial result of this imbalance.  These include climate change, which could lead to multiple socio-economic impacts such as mass migration and other public health challenges. We may well have passed the peak in oil production (Hanlon and McCartney 2008): the loss of an energy resource on which most Western societies depend will lead to dramatic social change, possibly even oil wars (though some would say that we are already in this position).

    Contemporary threats to human health and wellbeing posed by climate change and peak oil seem to be of a different order to all other challenges. As the International Panel on Climate Change points out, the world needs to move towards ‘contraction and convergence’: i.e. wealthy nations must reduce their carbon use in order to achieve sustainability, and all nations need to converge on a more equitable level of consumption, whether they want to or not. Despite much rhetoric, tokenistic change seems, as yet, the best the wealthiest nations seem able to manage in response to emerging crises. Action on recycling waste products, for example, takes place side by side with virtually unchanged consumption patterns: many apparently espouse a ‘green’ discourse whilst still seeking to ‘have it all’, in the form of overseas holidays, car ownership, and the latest consumer gadgets.  

    There seems to be a demonstrable lack of sufficient public or political will and a circularity to the ‘I’ll change if you will’ arguments commonly found. ‘Downshifting’ may be on the increase (Hamilton 2003), but it remains far from the norm in Western society.  In short, the cumulative consequences of modern consumerism have resulted in continued ‘three- (or five-, or seven-) planet living’ for the wealthiest nations, with ‘one-planet living’ for the rest (Marks et al 2006) — with consequences for the wellbeing of all.

    If we felt powerless in the face of the genetic and socio-cultural explanations, where do issues such as the loss of oil, global economic meltdown and planetary catastrophe leave us? The historical cycle outlined by Harrison is one of resource crisis (resource exhaustion, leading to survival threats) followed by pollution crisis (i.e. excessive and harmful waste outputs) which in turn threaten to pollute other resources (and damage biological diversity). These are inevitably broad and sweeping arguments, encompassing millennia of human history and pre-history, and are of course open to challenge.  Nevertheless, even if the third ‘revolution’ which Harrison suggests we are beginning to experience does not fully materialise, there is sufficient evidence from other sources which suggests that some kind of adjustment process seems inevitable if humankind is to survive, much less thrive.  That adjustment process seems to require a major shift in deep-seated cultural values and beliefs, though considerable resistance and denial are also much in evidence.

    On the one hand, there is cause for optimism. Many of the most revolutionary steps in the evolution of life and human society have come about as the result of environmental crisis, but humans are not passive in the face of such problems. They adapt, by changing technology levels, fertility levels and consumption patterns in response, and they change ways of managing the environment. Crisis can therefore be creative, providing an opening to an alternative future created from the ruins of older systems. On the other hand, past crises do not appear to have been matters of human choice but rather of responses to an emergency. Given that evidence suggests human wellbeing and happiness declined for substantial periods following profound historical change, we may reasonably expect similar outcomes. This is particularly the case given the high value placed on individual choices, autonomies and freedoms by modern societies which do not respond well to constraint.

    Given the concurrent and convergent thinking found around emerging ecological threats (only briefly rehearsed above) and the probable impact on individual and social wellbeing, positive mental health and wellbeing could become increasingly important assets, helping people to cope with social, economic and cultural disruption on a potentially unprecedented scale.

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    Bauman Z. Globalization: the human consequences. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1998.

    Boulton G. Learning to live with an angry planet: human relations with the earth in the past and future. Glasgow: Glasgow Centre for Population Health, Seminar Series 4, 2007.

    Downing P, Ballantyne J. Tipping point or turning point? Social marketing and climate change. London: Ipsos MORI Social Research Institute, 2007.

    Grayling A. The good life: its costs and its profit. In: Simms A, Smith J, editors. Do good lives have to cost the earth? London: Constable & Robinson, 2007.

    Hamilton C. Downshifting in Britain: a sea-change in the pursuit of happiness. Melbourne: The Australia Institute, 2003.

    Hanlon P, McCartney G. Peak oil: will it be public health’s greatest challenge? Public Health, in press.

    Harrison P. The third revolution: population, environment and a sustainable world. London: Penguin Books, 1993.

    IPCC. Climate change 2007: synthesis report. IPCC, 2007.

    Jackson T. Consuming paradise: unsustainable consumption in cultural and social-psychological context. Centre for Environmental Strategy, University of Surrey, 2006.

    Lucas C. The real deal. In: Simms A, Smith J, editors. Do good lives have to cost the earth? London: Constable & Robinson, 2007.

    Marks N, Abdallah A, Simms A, Thompson S. The (un)Happy Planet Index. An index of human wellbeing and environmental impact. London: nef (new economics foundation), 2006.

    RCEP. The urban environment. London: RCEP, 2007.

    Schumaker J. Happpiness: understanding an endangered state of mind. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2006.

    Simms A, Woodward D, Kjell P. Cast adrift: how the rich are leaving the poor to sink in a warming world. London: nef (new economics foundation), 2004.

    Turner A. Dethroning growth. In: Simms A, Smith J, editors. Do good lives have to cost the earth? London: Constable & Robinson, 2007.

    UKPHA. Climates and change: the urgent need to connect health and sustainable development. London: UKPHA, 2007.

    Related publications

    Available through the links page.

    Research partners

    University of GlasgowHealthier ScotlandGlasgow Centre for Population Health

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    Text © Sandra Carlisle (2008) and licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 Licence.

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