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‘The (Im)possibility of Sustainable Lifestyles — 
Can We Trust the Public Opinion and 
Plan for Reduced Consumption?’ 

Christer Sanne 

Urban Research Program 
Working Paper No.63 
August 1998 

Research School of Social Sciences 

Australian National University 



Christer Sanne 

Urban Research Program 
Working Paper No.63 
August 1998 

R.C. Coles 

ISBN 0 7315 3500 6 
ISSN 1035-3828 

Urban Research Program 
Research School ol Social Sciences 
Australian National University 
Canberra, ACT 0200 

Urban Research Program, Research School of Social Sciences, 
Australian National University 1998 

National Library of Australia 
Cataloguing-in-Publication data: 

Sanne, Christer 

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

ISBN 0 7315 35006 

1. Environmental protection - Citizen participation. 2. Social change. 

3. Hours of labor. 4. Consumption (Economics). I. Australian National 
University. Urban Research Program. II. Title. (Series: Urban Research 
Program working paper; no. 63) 




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Series Editor: 
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‘The (Im)possibility of Sustainable Lifestyles — Can We Trust 
the Public Opinion and Plan for Reduced Consumption?’ 

Christer Sanne* 

Environmentalists hold that in order to achieve sustainability, the Western 
lifestyle must change - all the more so since it is also a model lor people in 
other countries aspiring to a fast economic growth. But others claim that 
Westerners are so materialistic that reduced consumption is ruled out. I o 
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 

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. 

1 The Map : Heading for a Steep Hill 

The notion of a ‘green’ and sustainable society has strong support in public 
opinion. After three decades of attention — Silent Spring was published in the 
early 1960s — more than a generation has been influenced by environmental 
ideas. In politics, green issues can no longer be dismissed — certainly not in a 
country like Sweden where nature plays a significant role in people's minds. 

But what has been achieved by this greening of opinion? And what is 
lying ahead? I will outline three (possibly overlapping) phases using a crude 
model of three interacting types of actors: CAPITAL (business), PEOPLE (the 

Infrastructure and Planning, Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, Sweden. (MSc, PhD) 


public), and THE POLITICAL CLASS, each with its interests and mindsets. The 
mass media is regarded as a powerful intermediary between the actors, 
capable of creating a dominant world view, a perception of reality to which 
the actors react. 1 

To characterise the actors briefly, CAPITAL is the main organiser of 
production. It is profit-oriented but basically indifferent to what is being 
produced (but may be sensitive to what the consumers think of its action). 
CAPITAL is also mobile, compared to PEOPLE, possessing the obvious power 
to withdraw. PEOPLE appear, to the other actors, as employees, consumers 
and voters/members. PEOPLE strive for well-being; what this implies is 
strongly influenced by cultural values. THE POLITICAL CLASS is basically 
concerned with continuity and legitimisation; it is composed of politicians 
and leaders of the many-faceted organisations which - supposedly - 
represent people in the political arena, but also of administrators, ‘bureau¬ 
crats’ and many researchers who work in conjunction with the government 
and organisations. 

The model implies that change will not necessarily follow when and 
because ‘we’ (all actors) get informed and begin to act rationally and morally 
‘right’. The different interests will lead to controversies and alliances of 
another nature than we normally assume. The simple assumption about 
‘PEOPLE’ as one of the actors is confounded by the fact that human beings 
constitute all the actors, picking up prescribed roles in their particular 
position, but also alternating between positions. CAPITAL and, possibly to a 
lesser degree, THE POLITICAL CLASS are likely to follow an instrumental 
rationality while PEOPLE may be more apt to follow a ‘communicative 
rationality’ with a broader set of deliberations. 

Phase 1: walking the plains 

In the West, ecological awareness - paired with democratic institutions - has 
been instrumental in bringing about changes in production and products. It 
has curbed - but no more - the previous tremendous waste in manufacturing, 
marketing and usage of the products. Smoke-stacks and sewage pipes emit 
less dirt. Normally fewer resources (and less energy) will go into each 
product or be required for its use. 2 

People have, by and large, accepted these changes. Many consumers 
demonstrate their willingness to contribute even if the products have become 
more costly; eco-friendliness has become a sales argument. One example is 
catalytic converters for cars which in economic terms give an extra cost or a 
lower efficiency (higher price per mile). The manufacturers have grudgingly 

1 Media - with the exception of the diminishing public service share - is in tact in a very 
ambivalent situation. It is part of Business or dependant on the benevolence of Business 
(as advertisers) but still retains an ambition to scrutinise Business and the Political Class in 
the public interest. 

2 But we may have too rosy a picture of this. New cars in Sweden in the last 15 years do 
not use less petrol, contrary to common belief. Also American cars are said to use more 
petrol now than in the 1970s. 


accepted the measures as well as many safety-improving devices and rules 
(and passed the increased costs ol their products on to the customers). Cars 
also illustrate how improvements are incorporated in the continuous 
development of products. 

The general picture is that behind superficial tugs-of-war, industry and 
government have co-operated in the gradual changes, acting with public 
consent. In terms of lifestyle changes, very little has been called for — mainly 
a bit of ‘eco-cycling’ household garbage. Thus government agencies handle 
environmental issues with a two-fold message to the public. The manifest one 
is to act green. But the latent one is that the situation is under control, no 
need to worry. In line with this economists have been claiming that economic 
growth is compatible with, or even a condition for, environmental 

Phase 2: facing the hill 

The leaner and cleaner production is, however, not taking us any closer to 
sustainability. Too little is being done and the growing volume of production 
has offset the improvements of each product. International treaties on 
environmental issues are insufficient. Renewed estimates by independent 
researchers and ecological pressure groups indicate the need for more 
fundamental changes in production/consumption and thus in lifestyle.- 

This is how I perceive the present situation. Government agencies are 
at work to improve the situation but with the tacit instruction that changes 
must not disrupt other processes in society which are judged to be equally, or 
more, important - foremost perhaps the efforts to alleviate unemployment 
by way of economic growth. Meanwhile the public must rest assured that the 
problems are under control and can be solved with available means - the 
‘technical fix’. 

But the public understanding is also formed by reports of the 
‘alarmists’ and its own observations. The Rio Conference in 1992 brought 
many controversies to the surface, not only between North and South but 
also between GROWTH and GREEN and between governments and non¬ 
government organisations (NGOs). 4 

~ The Friends of the Earth use the concept of ‘environmental space’ allotting each human 
being an equal share in the use and depletion of the resources of the world. Energy use is 
limited by the CO 2 -emission and they suggest a reduction to 40% by 2010 - to be 

achieved mainly by an ‘efficiency revolution’ - and to 15% by the year 2030. mainly by 
converting to energy sources not available today. This way, the FoE try to plav down the 
need for changes in lifestyle. 

The Swedish EPA, in a scenario study, makes the point clear that even if international 
treaties were to be followed, this would not suffice to create a satisfactory situation 
(Naturvardsverket 1993). The message of the second generation book on the ‘limits to 
growth’ is equally pessimistic (Meadows, Meadows & Randers 1992). 

4 Compare the description of the different world views of 'hierarchists’ and ‘egalitarians’ in 

(Thompson, Ellis & Wildavsky 1990). 


Phase 3: starting uphill 

The progression so far must be considered to have been rather easy. 
Ecological improvement and better efficiency have often gone together. 

Much remains to be done - and is quite possible - along these lines. 5 

So tar, the (small) sacrifices and the participation demanded from the 
public have also been met with fair understanding. The situation ahead may 
not be so smooth. ‘Dematerialisation’ in production is not enough. To make 
real progress towards sustainability, the wasteful lifestyles must be curtailed. 
It will mean going beyond choosing the ecologically correct goods and rather 
settling for less. Buy less and consume less. This is a fourfold challenge: 

1. It will challenge business at large. Buying eco-friendly may even 
have been advantageous to business but buying less is a threat. 

2. Reduced - or even levelled-off - consumption and economic activity 
will also threaten economic growth with repercussions for state 
finances and in the end the legitimisation of the government (and the 
political class) which rests upon its ability to collect taxes and deliver 
the services expected. It would certainly challenge ingrained ideas of 
Progress and Development as continuous material growth. 

3. It will challenge the secondary aims of consumption: the satisfaction 
of wants and whims beyond needs as well as the social stratification 
that is expressed by means of a ‘distinctive' consumption. Social 
interchange has become geared to consumption as we: 

*buy (consume) to gain satisfaction - getting new clothes for a 
change in appearance - and 

*express social affiliation or distance - buying the right things for 
the group we want to belong to - and 

Remunerate, reward or felicitate by offering (purchased) gifts. 6 

4. It will in particular challenge resource consuming habits which 
constitute much of the distinction of high income groups. Estimates 
indicate that a high-consumer household would use 4 to 5 times more 
energy than a thrifty one, which is more than the income differential. 
The skewed distribution of travelling, a markedly energy-dense 
activity, is also illustrated by the report that more than 50% ot all 
travelling is done by just 10% of the population. 7 

5 This is the ‘Faktor 4’-idea and the first message of that book before it goes on to establish 

that more profound changes are inevitable. (Lovins, Lovins & Weizsacker 1995) 

6 As discussed by a number of prominent writers, e.g. Jean Baudrillard. Pierre Bourdieu and 

others mentioned below. Also see Featherstone (Featherstone 1991). Still another derived 
function of consumption is to support our memories - “souvenirs’ have become an integral 
part of touristing as well as many other events. 

7 Calculations presented in the daily paper Dagens Nyheter 96-03-11 and (Vilhelmsson 

1990). Two worlds intersect here: family Jones’ weekly trip to the country-house and their 
annual vacation flight to the Mediterranean must somehow be made comparable to Mr 
Businessman's weekly trips to customers far and wide. I'nless both parties agree to a 
reduction, there is an obvious risk for a stalemate blocking any progress. 


A note on the history of ideas: 

It is illuminating to trace the ideas of a consumer society and ol the 
environmental issue side by side. In both cases, intellectual prediction preceded 
reality. Abundant consumption and its consequences to society was anticipated 
by many turn-of-the-century writers — e.g. Georg Simmel, Walter Benjamin and 
Thorstein Veblen - long before it became an economic and social reality (in the 
US in the 1920s, in Europe after WW II). Likewise, environmental degradation 
from industry was anticipated in the 19th century but became a public concern 
in the last decades. Thus the two ideas intersected in the early 1970s when basic 
consumption needs were met (in the rich countries) and the environmental harm 
became obvious.^ 

In terms of public acceptance, green ideas can be compared to ideas ol gender 
equality. Both have been promoted from above (as well as Irom the grassroots) 
and have made great progress in the last decades. It is of great importance for the 
future that children (and adults) are aware of nature’s condition and that we are 
prepared to sort garbage and set composts. Likewise it is important that boys 
and men share in household work and that men occasionally take time off work 
to care for the children. But for green ideas as well as for gender equality ideas, it 
is obvious that these are only first steps, the sign of recognition that is a 
prerequisite for a general adoption of possible future practices. 

2 What People Say... 

Is our society prepared for changes in activities and consumption patterns 
which challenge these interests, ideas and habits? This section presents some 
survey results which do indicate a degree of readiness among People in their 
capacity as customers and employees. In the first place, they are counter¬ 
evidence to the prevailing ‘economic wisdom’ about the insatiable consumer 
which guides politics. A discussion of the results follows in the next section. 
Pour kinds of evidence will be used: 

- attitudes to consumption and needs, 

- preferences for free time versus paid work, 

- views of life changes over the last generation and 

- declarations of concern for the environmental effects of present 


It applies to the situation in rich welfare countries in general but by choosine 
material from different countries - here mainly the US and Sweden - we can 
also compare what differences in culture and politics mean. 

8 (Sorlin 1991; Sanne 1995) 


How much is needed? 

The well-known ‘income paradox’ claims that happiness is hardly related to 
income, either in longitudinal or in cross comparisons. It is supported by a 
Swedish survey where a majority state that they are satisfied (completely or 
fairly) with their income. Likewise 70% in a recent US survey claim to be 
satisfied with their personal economic situation. 9 

In the US survey 88% agree (or even ‘strongly agree’) that ‘most of us 
buy and consume far more than we need’ and 77% state that they could 
choose to buy and consume less than they do. But the study also reveals a 
strong ambivalence to consumption. While most people condemn 
‘materialism’ in their society as an important factor behind the erosion of 
good American features like commitment to the family and the community, 
they also accept the benefits of consumption and value material abundance in 
their life. A third - and intervening - factor is the importance attached to 
freedom which leads to a reluctance to interfere with other people's choice 
of lifestyle. 

A Swedish survey fills out such broad statements. It was initially con¬ 
ducted in order to map ‘consensual poverty’ in terms of necessities for a 
normal life. Thus it avoids the problems of defining and delimiting the elu¬ 
sive concept of NEED but allows us to study people's attitudes to goods and 

The most relevant information stems from the survey's mapping of the 
occurrence of certain belongings and habits of consumption and people's 
perceived need for them. This created four categories out of the alternatives 
HAVE/HAVE NOT and NEED/NEED NOT (see Figure 1 ). 

We find that almost all households have-and-need a number of basic 
welfare means such as health care and proper housing. 73% also have-and- 
need a car (as compared to a mere 47% who consider it NECESSARY, a 
thought-provoking discrepancy 10 ). Some household appliances are also very 
common and considered essential. But as one moves down the list, the 
categories ‘has, no need’ and ‘has not, no need’ become dominant. 

The smallest category is those deprived (to the right in the diagram). 
Approximately 15% claim that they cannot take holidays away from home or 
devote themselves to activities like going to the cinema or a night out. 11 

9 This has been discussed by a great number of researchers,( e.g. Easterlin 1973; Allardt 
1975; Scitovsky 1976; Lane 1978; Thurow 1983). For data from Sweden see Sanne 
1995, which also contains a review of the literature on NEED. For this section I have 
chosen as my main sources of data for the US, Hat wood Group (1995) and tor Sweden, 
Hallerod (1994). The last survey is modelled on a British one by Mack & Lansley (1985) 
which gives very similar information (but uses it to describe and discuss the development 
in ‘Poor Britain’). 

1° In addition to the 73%, another 6% consider themselves deprived of a car. Is the big 
difference between 73% (or 79) and 47% an example of a cognitive dissonance due to the 
awareness of environmental problems of the car? 

1 1 The issue of vacations is often pointed to by the trade unions. As for the other acti\ lties. 
could a contributing factor be lack of initiative? 


Figure 1 What do you have and what do you need? Examples from a survey. 

100 % 

modern housing 

t « 


1 " TV ... 1 


a holiday away 1 week/year Hi j 



I I 

microwave oven 

| = ’’necessity” 





Hallerod 1994, Poverty in Sweden: a New Approach to the Direct 
measurement of Consensual Poverty, Umea, Umea Studies in Sociology 
No 106 

Thick vertical lines indicate how many consider it ‘necessary for a normal 
life’ (in reply to a general question). 

The most relevant feature however is that respondents were able (and 
willing) to distinguish between essential and non-essential consumption. In 
many cases the latter comprises the largest part: there are many VCRs, 
microwave ovens and other gear in the homes which are not deemed 
‘needed’. This indicates a ‘rational’ approach to consumption. The reasons 
for acquisition may have been curiosity, status, comfort or wish for 

distinction. It indicates that if given good arguments, one might refrain from 
such purchases. 12 

^ Evidcmiy these replies do not mean that needs are defined for ever; the perception 
likely to change over time as new habits are formed. 

is most 


Use of time: opting for time over money? 

The idea that time is too short is a recurring theme in the popular debate. It 
is often combined with complaints about ‘stress’ in everyday life (see below). 
This is also apparent in many surveys. People regret the lack of time for 
what they consider important: to spend time with family and friends. This is 
also a theme in the American study: while very few people say that they 
would be more satisfied with a nicer car and other consumption, a majority 
expect to gain satisfaction from more social time, less stress and more 
community participation. Swedes are likely to stress family, leisure pursuits, 
learning something new and friends. 1 3 

Figure 2 Preferred use of increasing resources in society 1989 

Source: Survey presented by government report on working time 1989 

There is an obvious link between material consumption, income and 
the duration of work. Attitudes to working hours also reflect the attitudes to 
consumption and needs. Desired working houis has been the object ot a gtcat 
number of surveys. In Swedish surveys, and it the question is phrased as a 
matter of a choice for the future, a majority of 50-60% favour shorter hours 
instead of a higher income. Likewise about halt ot the respondents suggest 
that additional resources in society should be used for shorter hours and 

13 see Sanne 1995; for the US (Harwood Group 1995). Similar information is given in an 
article entitled ‘The Great American Slowdow n which is a real misnomer; the thrust ot the 
article is the increasing ‘time famine' over the last decades although the authors claim that 
it might have levelled off in the mid-1990s (Robinson & Godbey 1996). 


only a small minority prefer increased private consumption (see Figure 2). 
Meanwhile only a minority - 15-20% - is prepared to forgo income for 
shorter hours. In these surveys, very few want increased work hours. 14 

A general conclusion would be that the shortage ot time is an under¬ 
valued aspect of modern life. When basic needs are satisfied people do seem 
to opt for time over money. This may be more so in Sweden than many 
other countries.! 5 But Andre Gorz (in several texts) has also emphasised this 
attitude of ‘we have enough’ or ‘we can make do' as a general trait in the 
rich West. 

Has life become better? 

In brief, these surveys give a picture of contentment with the material 
standard achieved. Other issues are brought forward in a survey which asked 
people to consider the changes of life over the past 30 years (see Figure 3 
where arrows indicate positive or negative factors (and an overall 
assessment)). 16 

Figure 3 How has life changed in the past 30 years and what do you expect for 
the next 30 years? 

workV s,ress 


leisure time N \F 


”joy of life” 

\ personal 





Source : (see footnote 16) 

The general pattern has been consistent for many years but there is evidence that part- 
timers increasingly request more hours. There is no indication that the present economic 
crisis should have weakened the general quest for shorter hours but it may increasingly be 
regarded as a means to alleviate the mass unemployment (which is a rather recent' 
phenomenon in Sweden). 

Note the different nature of the questions: the first one is future-directed and concerns 
a common action, the second one assumes individual and immediate action which is also 
in defiance of a social norm; see further discussion in section 3. 

15 Attitudes to shorter hours differ in European countries with Swedes at the most 
sympathetic end. 

16 The survey was done in 1995 in Sweden by TEMO with altogether 21 Questions to 2700 

nf S ^y entS ' ThC aiT0WS lndlcate trends with a gradient roughly corresponding to the'net 
of positive oyer negative answers (but the picture is blurred by'the varying frequency of 
the answers ‘same or ‘don't know’). 3 y e irequcncy ot 


The improved working conditions and economy are duly appreciated. But 
they stand out as exceptions. In most respects, things seem to have changed 
for the worse. There is much more stress (even if leisure time is unchanged), 
family life has deteriorated as have personal security and human relations. 
This is an almost unanimous view (compared to the opinion about the 
economy which is composed of diverging views). The same goes for 
environmental degradation. 

More people say that life, all in all, was better before. The answers as a 
whole could be taken as a declaration of how WELL-BEING is perceived. The 
better economy (higher income and consumption) is not at all as predominant 
as the general political debate - mirrored in mass media - implies. 

The survey also asked about expectations for the coming 30 years. This 
seems to confirm the limited impact of the economy by an inversion of the 
expectations: the economic outlooks appear very bleak but overall life is still 
expected to turn out better! Contrary to a common notion, respondents do 
not foresee a further degradation of the environment. Neither are people so 
pessimistic about human relations or family life. 17 

Views on the interplay of environment , living standards and 
working patterns 

The American survey reveals a high environmental awareness connected 
with an abundant consumption. Almost everyone agrees that ‘the way we live 
produces too much waste’ (93%) and that major changes in lifestyle will be 
needed to protect the environment (88%). This is particularly deeply felt 
with regard to the prospects for the children and future generations. A 
majority supports ideas for action like increased lifetime of products, less 
spending and less driving. Similarly most Swedes declare themselves willing 
to sacrifice material standards for a better environment (close to 90% agree 
‘absolutely’ or ‘probably’). 18 

But public opinion may sometimes appear contradictory. Only 51% of 
the Americans were ready to admit that their own buying habits have a ne- 

17 Those with a positive view in general on the past development tend to point at the better 
economy (and economic equality), security, housing conditions and schooling. I hose 
critical are likely to stress deterioration of family life and intergenerational contacts and the 
worsening prospects of peace. Both categories record more stress and degradation ot 
human relations and of the environment. 

In my understanding, the negative views on ‘human’ aspects of the past indicate a 
disappointment. Promises of a better life have not been fulfilled (and many observers, 
within and outside the academic field, have predicted consumption's inability to provide 

As would be expected, views on the future are generally more uncertain, w rule the 
poor prospects for the economy have been widely discussed, there is little to validate the 
relative optimism about the ‘human’ categories for the future. It bears witness to an 
inherent but possibly unjustified human optimism: things may have changed tor the worse 
but one is reluctant to admit that they may turn even worse. As for the environment, most 
experts in the field seem to hold that it will deteriorate but this view is not shared by these 


18 SIFO, (see Sanne 1995) 

gative effect on the environment (although 88% saw the need for changes in 
lifestyle). At times this causes cynical comments (see further below) - but it 
may also be explicable (in other ways than as inconsistent thinking). 

Figure 4 describes reactions to some statements on a desirable society. 
The first statement shows the very strong majority in favour of a better 
environment, even at the expense of material standards. The second statement 
shows that shorter hours at the expense of living standards have moderate 
support. A substantial group even disapproves outright of the idea of ‘down¬ 
shifting’ work. 

Figure 4 

Acceptance of proposals about environment, living standards and 
working hours. 



50 T 1 - "Better environment even 
at the expense of standard.’ 

40 •; 


20 - 

10- 1 



2. Less work, more leisure even 
at the expense of standard.” 


Source: Attitude surveys in Sweden 19 

The two statements give a picture ot the public understanding of these issues. 
Environmental concern has been boosted for decades with information about 
the risks for ourselves, our children and nature. But we have also mown 
accustomed to economic growth and learnt to look at it as ‘normal 
beneficial and a panacea for all problems. As mentioned above, the conflict 
between growth and environment has seldom been stressed. 

19 rn 

[Personal communication from investigators (LNU 1991 
Unweighted responses. The statements are not entirely 
refers to the present situation, not the future 

and Umea 

as latter 


Thus people seem to associate environmental hazards with their own 
living standards but not - or not to the same degree - with economic growth. 
It obviously takes time to switch perspectives and begin to regard economic 
growth (or their own work!) as a problem. 

In addition to this, work and diligence are still held to be virtuous. 
More leisure may be appealing but does not exert the same pressure for 
change as does the environmental threat. That makes the idea of 
‘downshifting’ - working and earning less - ambiguous. Many more Swedes 
are prepared (mentally) to sacrifice living standards for the sake of the 
environment. According to the American study, a majority would endorse a 
list of changes for their consumption. But although both groups express that 
they have enough and that non-material aspects of life were the most 
important, ‘downshifting’ appears too radical a change. 

3 ... and What the Opinions Mean - a Discussion 

At this stage, it may be sensible to forgo the intuitive quest to untangle the 
issue further. The authors of the American study make a point of the fact 
that their respondents seemed eager to discuss these matters but were 
unprepared and lacked an adequate vocabulary to do so. It could also be a 
scientific as well as a political mistake to press ahead trying to uncover 
preferences which are still under formation. It may be more relevant to 
observe how opinions are formed by a public discussion in a society. 20 

The basic question of what the attitudes mean for the greening of 
politics, remains. Is there a line from public awareness to public acceptance 
and onwards to political action? But let us first discuss whether the attitudes 
can be trusted. Objections may be raised - but it is also essential to turn the 
light on them and examine their ideological base. I will also suggest how the 
survey results may be interpreted in the social setting and discuss if they may 
be relevant under present conditions. 

Objections ... 

Apart from limitations due to the survey design there are three main objec¬ 

- the satisfaction (contentment) with consumption and income may be 
influenced by a downwards adaptation of preferences, the so called 
“‘sour grapes" reaction'. 2 ! 

- the replies mirror an ‘instilled needlessness' created by the dominating 
social forces. This objection, which is closely related to the one about 

20 The investigators stress that these questions appear so big that they escape scrutiny; it is 
‘the elephant in the living room of American life’: its presence is undeniable but it is too 
big (or close up) to be properly described. 

21 (Elster 1983). The researchers do point to such an adaptation but only for respondents 
with the lowest income. Note that this is an inversion of the taken-for-granted upward 
adaptation of ‘needs’ with rising standard. 


adapted preferences, had a special bearing in the times of N early 
labour movement in Sweden which had to confront such a submissive 

attitude in order to organise the workers. 22 

- the replies given do not match actual behaviour. Stated preferences 
are not supported by revealed preferences. This would be an eco¬ 
nomist's standard objection (while the previous ones are typically 
sociological approaches) 

The technical and sociological objections are not, in my view, strong enough 
to disqualify the results. As the dean of opinion polls, Daniel Yankelovich, 
suggests: the essence of quality in public opinion (in contrast to a volatile 
mass opinion) is that people understand the consequences and take respon¬ 
sibility for their attitudes (Yankelovich 1991). This condition seems to be 
well satisfied, especially in the choice of time-or-money - a true 'wallet- 
issue’ where people are likely to be knowing and realistic. 22 

... and rebuttals 

It is even more important to realise that the two first objections tit within a 
particular frame of thinking, the paradigm of the insatiable consumer in 
standard economics. This means that a scientific explanation ot people s 
opinions (in the latter case with a tint of political agitation) also might serve 
to deny them the right to express a justified judgment. There is an obvious 
risk here that science, embedded in an ideology, is used to explain away such 
statements in favour of a ‘politically correct’ understanding.- 4 

In contrast to this, the relaxed or composed attitude to consumption 
may obviously be construed as a statement of ‘true’ contentment (in a 
positive sense of that word 25 ). This interpretation could - if given a chance - 

22 The words of the Greek philosopher Epicurus illustrate the two sides of the coin: 

‘If you want Pythokles to be rich - then do not expand his resources but reduce 
rather his demands.’ 

This statement can obviously be regarded in two ways. In one perspective it expresses the 
wise insight of contentment as expressed by many philosophers of welfare and good life 
from Aristotle and onwards, (see Nussbaum & Sen 1990). But given the social 
stratification of ancient Greece, it could also be seen as a way of instilling the principle of 
graded needs which characterises a hierarchical society. 

25 Economists may claim that the system gives a false signal due to the ‘tax wedge' caused 
by the taxes levied on work time (but not on leisure time). Thus the individual would 
choose without regard to the consequences for the government, the availability of public 
services etc. This is correct in principle. But there has always been a tax wedge and it 
seems reasonable to assume that people include the wider consequences as a background 
to their attitudes. 

24 Yankelovich adds that experts compile and interpret what people do and say but that they - 
as well as media - prefer to think of people as ignorant and ineducable. It resembles what 
Dryzek calls a common notion in policy science to regard voters as ignorant and at most 
casually interested in political matters. (Dryzek 1990) 

25 It is difficult - in English as well as in Swedish - to express the attitude of being satisfied 
with one s circumstances without conveying a patronising tone. This is not my intention. 
Thus I prefer CONTENTMENT over COMPLACENCY; the term FRUGAL points in another 
direction. To speak of a COMPOSED attitude is my present choice; comments are welcome. 


open the way for a reduction (or levelling off) of consumption and 
promotion of other aspects of a good life (and a healthier environment). 

Figure 5 Work and Spend Circle 




As for the objection against stated - versus revealed - preferences, a 
counter argument is that the situation is wrongly conceived. The household is 
not in a real ‘market' position where behaviour reflects preferences. The 
social order means that what the household does - e.g. in terms of working 
hours and consumption - is not freely chosen but rather institutionally 
determined or guided. Most jobs are obviously offered in a standard 
package: full-day, every day and life-long. This can be depicted with a 
‘work-and-spend' circle (developed following Schor 1991) - (see Figure 5). 
The traditional economists view is that demand to spend leads to work 
(upward arrow). But this is matched by an inverted, more institutionalist, 
view: work done (and income earned), as the standard package prescribes, 
leads to spending (downward arrow). In this perspective, consuming to the 
limit of your earnings from work is a rational response - especially in view 
of the important social role of consumption. 

The situation fits in well with the social dilemma described by A.O. 
Hirschman. The preference for shorter hours instead of higher salary (see 
previous section) is, in his terms the ‘voice* of the citizens in a situation 
where there is no ‘exit' - no real opportunity to act in another manner (such 
as choosing shorter hours) (Hirschman 1970). 

This ‘voice’ also implies that a change must be a social, collective 
choice, not an individual’s departure from a common pattern. The first 
manner also implies a fair distribution ot benefits in society. 


Figure 6 The Ratchet Effect in Consumption 


It is also instructive to take the households' view on consumption - 
granted that there is some substance in the attitudes they pronounce (i.e. that 
greed and insatiability do not reign). There are obviously strong outside 
incentives to boost consumption. Marketing efforts are ubiquitous and 
material aspects penetrate social life (see above). At the same time, it may be 
well-nigh impossible to cut consumption, at least at short notice, since most 
household budgets are tied up with present commitments, loans or simply 
habits. Few households will - as we saw - accept working hour cuts if they 
also mean wage cuts. This creates an asymmetrical ‘ratchet effect' (Figure 6): 
social pressure tends to inflate consumption but budget restraints block the - 
genuine - desire to decrease it: thus different answers to the questions on 
preferred work hours. A k no’ for the present is still compatible with the 
opinion - held by a majority - that shorter hours are preferable to a higher 

Will opinions remain? 

In regard to this, will the opinions remain and provide an impetus for change 
in the way we assume that democracy works, as rule by the People? 

In the first place I assume that our understanding in these matters 
derives from a past society of scarcity. Of necessity, it honoured virtues like 
industriousness and thrift. In contrast to this, current opinions mirror a 
dawning understanding of sufficiency leading to contentment - amplified by 
the fear ot ecological harm - but also to a disappointment. The first is the 
case when people distinguish HAVE/NEED from HAVE/NO NEED, the second 


the admission that things did not turn out the anticipated way in the 30 year 

It this was all, change might simply follow as ‘post- materialism’ 
replaces ‘materialism’ (to use the vocabulary of Inglehart) in people's minds. 
But new tacts have to be added. We must acknowledge that working hours 
are longer than they were a decade ago (for those holding a job) while 
salaries seem to have levelled off. This is quite pronounced in the US where 
real wages for the average worker have been falling for many years. 26 

More important is that dual-wage households have become the rule in 
most countries. Thus the input ot paid labour from the household (in work¬ 
ing age) has increased considerably. The presumption in Sweden is that the 
dual-wage household is a way of creating equal opportunities for men and 
women. In the US, the need to make ends meet for the household appears to 
be more emphasised. I take it that both explanations - the offensive as well as 
the defensive - are valid in both countries. If this increase in work - which 
by tar offsets the gains in leisure during the past decades - is really a way of 
mitigating lower compensation, it is necessary to discuss the relevance of the 
survey questions. The wish (in Swedish surveys) to trade future higher 
earnings for less work raises the question ‘what if one can no longer expect 
pay rises?’ Even if the national wealth continues to grow, this may go to non¬ 
working groups - as the retired - or to the (already) well-paid? 

Against this we may counter that in the case of working hours, there is 
a long record of very stable opinions, seemingly unaffected by changes in 
well-being or economic trends. Most surveys are also quite recent and the 
results should mirror the experiences of turning trends. It may still be that 
people have not yet grasped that things have changed. I am, however, more 
inclined to other explanations like a compartmentalisation in thinking or a 
refusal to accept the present situation as inevitable. This leads to the final 
question of this paper: what could stop consumption growth, more in line 
with expressed opinions? 

4 Planning for Reduced Consumption 

The opinions which people voice in the surveys together with the ecological 
threat seem to warrant a planning for reducing - or at least reforming - the 
present consumption. But such ideas, no matter how explicable and rational, 
obviously do not catch on in mainstream public and political debate. It has 
been suggested that this is due to the lack of an established (political) 
vocabulary - these are evidently novel thoughts. But more tangible reasons 
are the opposed interests of expansion and growth from the other actors. 

This is amplified by the way the media interacts with the POLITICAL CLASS. 
Change is also checked by the ‘new social inequality’. This last section will 
briefly consider by what means a reduced consumption might be approached. 

26 (Krugman 1994 (1990); Economic Policy Institute 1996). Per capita hours of work have 
also increased lately in Sweden but at a more moderate rate. 


For a start, I focus on the complex role of the media and the recent changes 
in living conditions. 

The media and the lure of consumption 

Material contentment runs counter to strong interests. Agnes Heller calls 
ours a ‘dissatisfied society’ (Heller 1993). The discourse is dominated by 
growth-oriented actors - Business and the Political Class - and economic 
growth thrives on dissatisfaction just as much as economic theory assumes 
unlimited needs (demand). Many organisations - political parties, trade 
unions and business organisations and other interest groups - are based on it. 
Their raison d'etre is to give voice to what can be found of popular 
dissatisfaction in a political decision process more and more characterised by 
lobbying and by deliberately propagated perspectives. 

The media plays an important role in propagating this. But it is also in 
the nature of the media to focus on problems rather than progress and to pay 
attention to losers and individuals rather than to winners and groups. That is 
why it abounds with examples underlining discontent. In this way, the media 
and organisations form a symbiotic relationship which perpetuates and 
normalises a world view where dissatisfaction with material conditions stands 
in the way of shifting the political course towards stabilisation and 
sustainability. 27 

On the global level, this ties in with the radical political changes in the 
former 'Second World’ and many ‘developing countries’ where the market 
economy and more democratic institutions have been promoted or installed 
hand in hand. Although democratising is welcome, economies all over the 
world increasingly fall into the hands of transnational corporations which 
market similar consumer goods and offer standardised information and 
entertainment world-wide - a trend toward a uniform 'McWorld' of 
common habits and preferences. 28 

Vanishing welfare and growing inequality 

The golden years’ after World War II brought a prosperity that was widely 
distributed in the population. Full (or near full) employment became the rule 
and the gap in incomes decreased. In addition to that, a welfare safety net 
bolstered people for life s risks and distributed life chances more fairly. 

This development has now been halted and in some respects reversed 
with mounting unemployment, dismantled welfare provisions and growing 
income gaps, in many cases the result of hyper-salaries and more or less 
fraudulent financial activities in the highest social echelons. A growing 
number of people become hard-pressed to make ends meet, while they see 
others profit ostentatiously. This may redirect their attention to matters of 



In addition media like TV tends to give a simplistic view, often amplifying the wron* 
signals rather than broadening the views of the spectators. 8 g 

See ‘Jihad vs McWorld’ (Barber 1995). 


social distribution and displace the issue of voluntary ‘down-shifting’ (and 
likewise the concern w ith the widening gulf to the poorest countries). 
Excessive work zeal, motivated by fear and a perceived need to hoard for the 
future, may also result, whereas a social setting of security (with pensions 
and welfare benefits) would allow people to refrain from such exaggerated 

Reduced consumption in a field of forces 

Reduced consumption has to come about in a field of forces formed bv the 

Of the three, the only genuine proponent of a sustainable development 
seems to be PEOPLE. I have already remarked that BUSINESS is not likely to 
favour a reduction of the markets. BUSINESS is also exerting pressure on the 
POLITICAL Class to satisfy their interests. But in the end, the POLITICAL 
CLASS also depends on the acceptance by PEOPLE. And PEOPLE as 
enlightened consumers are the only ones who can stop the spending spree. 

This is evidently a democratic ideal: change emanates from enlightened 
citizens and consumers. To succeed, it depends on both actors and structure. 
Many writers emphasise the importance of the individual's commitment, his 
or her ability to reach beyond greed and selfishness for a common good. 
Others focus on the efficiency of the state to set the conditions for the 
activities of the individuals and the corporations: the required ‘artificial’ 
prices which would reflect environmental and sustainability considerations 
and the development of important infrastructural elements which literally lav 
the course for the future: the urban settlements, the communication arteries, 
the preserved land and other major elements which will set the frame for 
people's daily life tomorrow. 

Still others question if the dominant model of democracy in the West 
the one Yankelovich implicitly refers to and the one ‘exported’ to other 
countries as mentioned above - will prove able to handle the situation. This 
liberal, representative democracy with rights of freedom for individuals and 
for corporations is a ‘thin democracy’. Government remains passive in 
economic matters, rendering ample room for the market. Politics has in 
itself market-like features: voters choose between competing parties and sets 
of opinion. It can be described in terms of negotiation, exchange, strategy 
and voting. In this view, society is nothing more than the sum of private 
interests.- 9 

- 9 Much of the current public resentment to politics seem to be a reaction to this and to the 
intimate relationship between THE POLITICAL CLASS and BUSINESS. (Ferguson & 
Rogers 1986) 

A common view even holds that global capitalism presently senes as a battering ram 
for democracy while some may counterclaim that imposed democratic institutions open the 
way for global capitalistic forces. (Barber 1995) 


Figure 7 Three-actor model of forces on consumption 



consumer action 



issues of 



The Political 

Barber contrasts this to a ‘strong democracy’ and other authors discuss 
a ‘deliberative’ or ‘discursive’ or ‘participatory’ democracy (Barber 1984, 
Reich, 1988). The ideas are often based on a communicative rationality 
(following Habermas and basically referring to Aristotle). But today 
‘participatory’ democracy is mainly an issue on the local level, as civic or 
grass roots environmentalism and community development (Sirianni & 
Friedland 1995). However important as such, it is of limited interest here 
compared to the levels ‘below’ where personal choices are made and ‘above’, 
the structural one. 

Clarifying overconsumption - a step forward 

Although many of us may scorn consumption habits, we hold on to our 
lifestyle. I will close this paper with some reflections on what 
overconsumption implies and how it relates to human aspirations. I regard, 
for a start, the present overconsumption in three different perspectives, each 
suggesting how to attack it: 


- it is wasteful because it is inefficient, spending too many resources for 

too little benefit 

- it is wasteful because the lifestyle of the well-to-do is unduly resource 


- it is abundant because the general living standard is ecologically 


1 have examined various proposals for reducing consumption only to find 
that they share two unfortunate traits: they do not go very far in saving and 
they are likely to be strongly opposed. Too little social imagination has been 
used to find practical ways to cut consumption in either of these senses. 5b 

To reduce waste in production and consumption seems perfectly 
rational - almost trivial. But for this to make ecological sense, it demands 
that prices - as a major determinant for our choices - are set to reflect 
environmental effects. The process to achieve this may be underway but it is 
painfully slow. And to reduce waste may not even match Business' interests: 
cheap and durable products may be good for the consumer but not for 

Sumptousness is a matter of distribution within society and resembles 
other aspects of a class struggle. Environmentally ‘correct’ prices - 
administered as ‘green taxes’, tradable emission permits etc - may help to 
limit the most resource consuming activities such as long distance travelling. 
But it is likely to encounter fierce resistance from those consumers who have 
made it their lifestyle (and they are often socially influential) as well as from 
the producers behind those activities. 

Tackling abundance is still another problem since it touches upon 
central political beliefs like that of the insatiable consumer and the 
importance of continued economic growth. To secure sustainability requires 
a commitment to society, setting new societal norms and actions in 
contradistinction to the prevailing reference to people's ‘preferences’. This is 
a new agenda and takes a political pedagogy and a discourse which puts 
‘consensus on normative positions’ in the centre, a ‘reconstruction of private 
and partial interests into publicly defensible norms through sustained debate’ 
(Dryzek 1990 quoting Barber). 

The individual's reaction to the overconsumption issue may take one or 
the other route. It has been suggested that a way out of the dilemma is that 
the individual, in his/her action, assumes responsibility for its ecological 
consequences (Martinez-Alier 1995). It has also been intimated that ‘post- 
materialistic’ tendencies, with a rejection of further material consumption 
will solve (or rather ‘dissolve’) the problem. 

50 j have (in another report. Sanne 1986) discussed the possibility ot making (a share of) the 
‘empty nest’ households move into more appropriate housing to allow larger families 
adequate housing rather than constructing more and more housing. Further I have 
scrutinised a government report on how households can adapt to greener living and 1 have 
calculated the effects of limits on excessively energy consuming leisure activities 


An idea that may hold more of a promise is the suggestion by Fred 
Hirsch that consumption eventually will drift towards ‘positional goods’ as 
basic needs are satisfied (Hirsch 1976). Such ‘positional goods’ are basically 
undecided in character. That opens an opportunity to guide consumption into 
a sustainable track. Bluntly worded, it is a call to ‘accept people's lust for 
social distinction but turn it in a harmless direction’. 

In the end, a fundamental change would however require that we 
rethink our organisation of work to match its rising productivity. For a 
century, working people all over the globe have struggled to shorten their 
working hours as their material standard allowed it. This urge still holds. 

But in the wake of neoliberal restructuring of work and globalisation of the 
economy, the trend has nearly halted. I am convinced that to achieve a 
sustainable society, the best we can do is to start again along that road. This 
also has a good chance of success because it coincides with people’s interests. 
To do so, we have to fashion the living conditions for workers and the 
working conditions for business. These are major political tasks. 



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Schreiner, S.R. and C.J. Lloyd, editors. Canberra What Sort of City ? Papers of a Conference 
Sponsored by the Urban Research Unit, 29 October 1987. URU Canberra, 1988. 

Coles, R. editor, The End of Public Housing? A Discussion Forum Organised by the Urban 
Research Program 25 October 1996, Urban Research Program February 1997 

Troy, Patrick, The Urban Research Program 1966-1996, Urban Research Program 1997 

Gleeson, B. and Hanley, P. editors. Renewing Australian Planning? New Challenges. New 
Agendas, a discussion forum organised by the Urban Research Program held on June 17-18 
1998, Urban Research Program August 1998. Copies are available in return for a 
contribution of $10.00 to cover production costs. Make cheques payable to Urban Research 
Program/ANU and mail to: 

Urban Research Program. RSSS 
Australian National University 
Canberra ACT 0200 
tel: 02 6249 2297; fax: 02 6249 0312