Erik Assadourian: our society needs some serious cultural engineering

Erik Assadourian
The editor of the influential Worldwatch 'State of the World' report on the best ways to transform cultures from consumerism to sustainability

Matilda Lee: Humans are social animals competing for status, which, in our consumer society, is displayed largely through the things on which we spend our money. How can we ever sate our appetite for status without these things?

Erik Assadourian: Culture defines what gives one status. In our consumer culture, status is equated with stuff. In some cultures, it is not a status symbol to keep buying new stuff, but to take care of the stuff we already have. Changing status symbols will not happen without serious cultural engineering. This may be uncomfortable for some, but cultural engineering has been happening for consumer interests for the last century or more.

For example, in order to spread the car the automobile industry had to 'normalise' the idea that roads are for cars and not people. It did this not only through advertising and marketing, but also by working with schools to get children to sign petitions not to play in the streets. In some cities, they bought up trolley systems and dismantled them to destroy the competition.

The environmental community, if it really expects to create a sustainable society, needs to start using these same tactics more effectively, rather than just fighting at a political advocacy level.

ML: Western consumerism has become an almost unstoppable force around the globe. Just as many in China and India are starting to lead lives closer to the average American, environmentalists are saying they mustn't. Doesn't this smack of unfairness?

EA: First of all, this assumes that people strive to be consumers just because it is a better life. Chinese individuals and families aren't taking on these consumer trends because they are better, but because there is a huge effort to market these ideas as better. It's a manipulative process to get people to be consumers.

This isn't about developing countries not following in our mistaken footprints, but the fact Western countries have to willingly let go of our consumer culture. Consumer interests have a high level of regulatory capture. The answer to me becomes that those individuals who already understand what is looming ahead of us need to take an active role in transforming cultures.

ML: As regards economic growth, what do you make of the idea of 'good growth' as opposed to 'bad growth', or do you believe that 'no growth' economics is the answer?

EA: It depends on the country and the community, but a country like the US should have in its agenda not 'good growth' or 'no growth' but literally to 'de-grow'. The de-growth movement recognises that we are far beyond our ecological capacity. The world could maintain only 1.4 billion Americans. There are already 300 million of us, so we have to get to a fraction of our current consumption levels.

Certain markets and businesses will still grow as they replace less sustainable businesses. Shortening work hours is essential - the New Economics Foundation put a number on it: 21 hours. Shorter working hours would ensure a better distribution of income and more time for families and communities to live sustainably. With more time you can cook, walk and bike more. While more people could afford the basics, discretionary income would be reduced, so fewer people could afford to fly to the Caribbean or buy a second car.

ML: To what extent does our relationship with nature need to change to bring about the needed culture shift? Do you think it is sufficient for us to have a basic ecological understanding, or do we need to love and respect nature in order to live in harmony with it?

EA: This is a running debate. The environmentalist in me wants to say that it has to do with love and respect of nature. But ultimately, it doesn't have to be either/or. If we truly understood our dependence on the planet in order to survive and thrive, even if we didn't have an internalised mythological relationship with it, I think we would be OK.

ML: Science and technology - from carbon capture and storage, GM, nuclear, geo-engineering, in-vitro meat - is bringing solutions to many ecological crises without the need to change our consumption patterns. What's your view on our ability, through science and technology, to invent our way out of global crises?

EA: If you listed a different set of technologies, I would have given you a different answer. Technology is an essential tool that we will use. But the technologies that are most valuable in my mind are things like Findhorn Ecovillage in Scotland's 'Living Machine', a biological sewage treatment system, which is now used by a town of 500,000. It has developed to the point where they are even treating the things we don't know what to do with, like estrogens.

The technology of our future, if we truly understood our dependence on the earth, would probably be more biological, not this artificial gene manipulation where we are assuming that climate change is the problem. In reality, it is just a symptom of a culture that is maladapted to life on a finite planet.

ML: You point to the need to change the stories we tell as a society. Millions of people have seen the film Avatar. Do you think people walk away with a greater awareness of, or connection to, the planet? What else is need to bring about sudden shifts in behavioural patterns?

EA: Advertising is basically fertiliser to stimulate consumption. Even a failed advertising campaign that doesn't end up selling more of a product ramps up the broader background noise to consume.

Watching Avatar won't lead to a sudden shift but will help build up a background of stories with ecological messages. Avatar has a very powerful story, similar to the documentary Crude, but seen by millions more people.

ML: When it comes to changing culture, lot of ideas you discuss are essentially intangibles. Traditional campaigning is quite different, relying on changing specific policies or reducing a given pollutant. How are campaigners meant to measure the success of attempts at culture change?

EA: Our current system is dependent on foundation grants that expect us to measure success in quantitative terms. This is not a campaign, but a deeper cultural shift. We may need a different set of indicators to track change.

A lot of people engaged in cultivating a culture of sustainability probably don't see themselves in cultural change terms. Those working on making school meals more sustainable, local and healthy aren't trying to change culture, but they are having a major impact on our understanding of where food comes from.

There needs to be some lee-way for those working at the deeper level of supporting cultural change agents.

ML: Could you give a few of the most promising examples of culture change in the US and abroad?

EA: The Roman school food system, where 67 per cent of the city's school food is organic and 26 per cent is local, is inspiring just by virtue of how far they've got.

In the US, the non-profit organisation B Labs has already certified 190 corporations as B Corporations, redesigning corporate charters with a social mission.

Governments have a valuable tool in 'choice editing', which essentially cuts out unnecessarily damaging products and provides more sustainable choices in order to redirect norms. We often talk about changing people's values in order to change their behaviour. But actually if you change people's behaviours their values change in accordance.

Matilda Lee is the Ecologist's Community Affairs Editor


State of the World 2010
is published by Earthscan (2010). For a 20 per cent discount enter code SOW2010 when you order online at (RRP:£14.99 - Discount price: £11.99)



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