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Changing the lifestyle package

Climate change calls for a mobilisation of the population that alters our structure of motivations. And what of governance? It requires an eco-informed citizenry.
Brian Davey
15 December 2009

A refreshing change has come over the discussion about climate change. Suddenly newspapers and politicians are acknowledging that technology alone will not be enough to respond to the climate crisis, there will also have to be a change in lifestyles. The joint editorial published by 56 newspapers put it thus:

"Many of us, particularly in the developed world, will have to change our lifestyles. The era of flights that cost less than the taxi ride to the airport is drawing to a close. We will have to shop, eat and travel more intelligently. We will have to pay more for our energy, and use less of it."

Clever gadgets and big engineering projects are not going to be enough. We will have to change too. But what does this mean? Is there a concept system that can help us think more deeply about the changes and what will be needed?

I believe that there is and we can best understand lifestyle change by considering the interplay between two concepts: lifestyle packages and life games.

Lifestyle packages

In brief, 'lifestyle package' is a concept to encompass the idea that in the practical arrangements of life a number of elements must work together over time and be sufficiently consistent with each other; namely, income and expenditure, work and job, habitat arrangements, work  and emotional relationships, time management. Thus, for example, one cannot have a grand house without a grand income - and if one has a very large family one will need a large house. The concept of lifestyle package draws attention to the fact that we cannot change one element of our lifestyle very far without having to change other aspects.

A lifestyle package may in fact break down if the relationship between the different elements has drifted - or been wrenched - too far apart. Thus a person who loses their job and income may lose their home and this, in turn, may lead to a breakup of their relationships. Alternatively a person who loses their home and relationships may find it impossible to maintain their job. Or alternatively the stress of too much time commitment involved in trying to maintain an income, appropriate to a habitat in which it is possible to comfortably manage relationships, might lead to mental breakdown. There are many variants in which a life can go awry. (Note that in this conceptualisation, mental breakdown can be conceived as the disorientation and distress when one is unable to hold together a lifestyle package. Another variant which might trigger a breakdown would be where a person, under a variety of kinds of stresses, tries to change their lifestyle package fundamentally and botches the transition - the distress in this situation being seen by others as a psychiatric breakdown. See my paper Meaning, Madness and Recovery, published in Clinical Psychology Forum.

This way of thinking helps us to understand why millions of people are reluctant to change their lifestyles and avoid looking at problems like climate change at all – holding them out of their consciousness as far as possible. Changing the practical arrangements of a lifestyle is no small thing. Unless they have large financial, time and social capital resources, people will usually find that their lifestyle cannot be adjusted very far without major changes being necessary. The uncertainty associated with this is not something that they are usually prepared to contemplate. Thus for example, if an individual who has not hitherto been deeply committed to green causes were suddenly to start championing fundamental environmentally related lifestyle changes, they would probably find this affecting their relationships. Their "conversion" will affect them in their jobs and at home, it will affect the way they budget, the way that they spend and live day to day. Radically changed priorities might not make them very popular with their loved ones and peer group at work.

What typically happens therefore is that people avoid devoting attention to the messages that they hear from environmentalists. On the other hand, it will frequently be found that people are more open to environmental messages when their lifestyle is changing fundamentally anyway. Say they become parents - suddenly they are interested in matters of diet. Say they change where they live, or their job, or both - because the daily travel to work has changed they will be far more open to consider changing their transport arrangements. The lifestyle package is becoming fluid and they become more mentally open. (Research on this idea has been conducted by Martina Schaefer and Sebastian Bamberg in Germany: see their Breaking Habits. Linking Sustainable Consumption Patterns to Sensitive Life Events, 2008.

As lifestyle packages become unviable, stressed, and unpleasant because of changing economic conditions people tend to be more prepared to contemplate fundamental changes because the 'package' is under stress.  They may be tipped into changes of an involuntary character in any case. In these circumstances it is possible to challenge the supermarket economy in a different way. While energy is relatively cheap it is probably not possible to defeat this supermarket economy on its own terms, one must create activities, networks and places where a different lifestyle package is offering the things that the supermarket economy cannot and does not offer. For example, growing your own vegetables in a community garden project is not nearly so simple and convenient as to buy them from a supermarket shelf. But going into the supermarket does not offer exercise, a beautiful place to be, and new friends. In difficult times new friends are important.

There are, in fact, small groups of public servants, as well as voluntary and community sector allies trying to encourage such changes. However, their work is not thought of as part of an economic strategy - this Cinderella public and voluntary sector service is thought of as “health promotion”. The issue then is to mainstream this service, to see it as a strategic in the troubled times ahead.

Life games

So, to summarise, as people find themselves having to adjust their lifestyle packages they become more mentally open to different life purposes and it becomes possible for them to consider what I would describe as the adoption of different "life games". The critic of psychiatry, Thomas Tzasz, suggested that 'to be mentally healthy one must have a game to play in life'. A 'game' in this respect is not something as trivial as Ludo, but an ongoing purpose, or goal. This gives structure to ones activities and relationships and organises ones motivations. It is not necessarily the case that earning a huge income and going shopping with a happy family is the ' game ' that one has to play. For example, many of us are highly motivated playing the 'game' of saving the world from climate catastrophe.

Much of the mainstream discourse about motivating people to more sustainable kinds of behaviour works from an implicit assumption that people are acting in the role of consumer and need to be prodded by price or other economic incentives to adjust their consumer behaviour. One might ask if something more ambitious is required. When we hear the metaphor that we need 'a war against climate change' what is meant is more than a radical reallocation of resources for climate change mitigation, but a call for a mobilisation of the population and their structure of motivations. In a war the population is mobilised to play a common - 'game' - using the word 'game' in the sense meant here. In order to solve the climate crisis we surely need this very different pattern of motivation for large sections of the population. This is why movements like the Transition Initiatives are so important.

At any one time there is likely to be a tension between elements in the lifestyle package and an individual's life game. Economists tend to privilege matters of income and expenditure where the price of purchased objects and costs appear to be the most important thing. However, the limiting factor in a lifestyle, may in fact be something else altogether. For example, I may decide that I very much wish to turn my living place into a model eco-house and have the money to do it - but with my other commitments I may simply not have the time to organise this. It is no use putting a great deal of publicity into the favourable payback periods of installing energy-saving equipment if I am simply too busy to think about it and to arrange it.

One of the main problems associated with a high consumption lifestyle is that it is likely to be extremely time-pressured. In order to afford a high consumption lifestyle I may have to work very hard – and not only to earn income to buy consumer goods. Looking after a lot of possessions can involve a lot of work. They must be dusted, polished, repaired and maintained. There must be fuel and oil for them. They have to be charged up. Arrangements must be made for their insurance, or their security, or their replacement if they are broken or nicked. Even more wearying, they must be arranged in relation to each other, the colour schemes and patterns and designs must be matched, they must be put on display for the appreciation of other people and so on. It keeps one very busy to have a lot of possessions and devoting attention to them takes away the time to devote attention to anything else.

Of course, as already mentioned, it may also be relationships that are the crucial limiting factor. This is particularly the case with dependent relationships where one has a responsibility to look after another person. In this case, once again, one may simply not have the time to devote attention to other matters, or pursue any other agendas. In this case, appeals to do something about the environment will not be mentally taken in.

Having said all this, it must be acknowledged, that purchasing power is a rather crucial element in the ability to manage a lifestyle. If one has the purchasing power one can get other people to do one's housework, to look after one's possessions. One can pay other people to look after one's dependents. Social capital is also a partial substitute - a trusted friend or relative can support dependents, if only temporarily. The loss of a job and income therefore closes down options, as does falling out with friends.

These things appear banal and rather obvious. Yet their significance is often missed. For example when a person loses their job they get, in return, rather a lot of free time. What often happens, particularly if someone has a lot of redundancy pay, is that they renovate their houses. In this sense, a recession is a wonderful opportunity to get people to eco-renovate their houses - or it would be, if government was not so uptight about immediately getting people to go off to look for jobs and if people had the knowledge, and could find expert support, to do a good eco-renovation job. Indeed, a program to this end, might be a very good stepping stone to a green New Deal strategy.

Life games and eco-citizenship

A very serious problem posed by the ecological crisis in general, and the climate crisis in particular, is that of governance. A very complex process of transformation throughout the entire society is required. In many cases, blanket one-size-fits-all policies just will not work. For example a policy for protecting and enhancing carbon sinks in agriculture and forestry is very place- and circumstance-specific. However, a policy that was full of complex arrangements for particular cases would be unviable. What one needs in these circumstances are well-informed local experts that one can trust to make capable on the spot judgements. The problems are far too extensive for them to be solvable by creating a vast army of officials. One needs an eco-informed citizenry. Without people playing the 'life game' of eco-citizen an adequate climate governance will never be viable.

What the authors John Jopling and Roy Madron in their book call, 'Gaian Democracy' (Schumacher Briefing Number 9, 2003) requires a 'Gaian Citizenry'. To a large degree Gaian or eco-citizenship will have to be a lifestyle choice of large numbers of people or humanity has very little chance of surviving. Needless to say, this life game may be compatible with a variety of lifestyle packages, but not likely to be those of the time where people are high earners with high consumption. To be well informed one must have plenty of time. This will be largely incompatible with the time commitment of a high consumption and possessions lifestyle. Because this life game is so full of interest, new ideas, stimulating friends, the lack of consumption is not likely usually to be experienced as a problem. Let us face it, the high income-high consumption lifestyle is not only carbon intensive, it is trivial and, one may even say, boring. The loss of possessions may at first feel people with horror, but with a re-orientation to a different life game, many people may find to their surprise that in this space opened up, their lives have suddenly become a lot more meaningful, interesting and even exhilarating.

In fact there is good evidence that people are choosing such lifestyles in large numbers. This is not theoretical idealism. In his book Growth Fetish Clive Hamilton quotes statistics that show that large proportions of the population in the USA and Australia have "downshifted" in recent years - voluntarily taking an income cut to bring their lives into a better balance. In the USA 19% of the population had decided to change their lives over 5 years in a way that led to less money income. In Australia a similar study found 23% of 30 to 60 year olds had done the same (see page 206 of Hamilton’s book – available from Amazon UK).

Of course, not all of these people have downshifted to take on citizenship roles - but it is probable that many have. Paul Hawken’s remarkable study Blessed Unrest shows that there are between one million and two million organisations in the world active on environmental sustainability, social justice and indigenous rights. Note this is the number of organisations, not just of people; Hawkens likens this to Gaia's immune system becoming activated.

Looking into the distorting mirror of mainstream economic theory, the transition to an ecological economy and society appears to be mainly about an abstraction called 'resource reallocation', which is supposed to be quantified in a money form. It would however be better to conceive of it as a radical lifestyle change, offering people a very different experience of life, their relationship to the planet and to each other. In this radical change the goal would no longer be something called 'wealth creation' but  'health creation' - where, in the face of a threat to the continued existence of a life on the planet, the key criteria for our actions become maintaining the health of the eco-sphere, the health of society and social relations, and our personal health too, in a maturation into roles as Gaian citizens.

Acknowledgements: This article is the result of many years thinking and work in the community environmental field and the mental health services. I am particularly grateful for my former colleagues in Ecoworks Nottingham and to Craig Newnes for his encouragement along the way. Also more recently, to Professor Tim Jackson who was the first economist who was sufficiently interested in what I was going on about to probe and encourage me with his questions.

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