How collective behavior change can foster a sustainable future

November 10, 2023
1. Introduction  

Degrowth, a movement advocating for sustainable downsizing of production and consumption, has been gaining relevance since a few years, and is now gaining traction. Degrowth challenges the economic growth paradigm, promoting social justice and ecological sustainability. But more exposure has also meant more criticism towards the movement. An important criticism is that degrowth is not socio-politically feasible and hence that a degrowth society would be difficult to reach democratically. In this article, I will discuss how social norms could be a tool towards a degrowth society.

One of the policy proposals of degrowth is to close down or downscale specific industries that are detrimental to the environment. Reducing the economy's throughput would not only decrease pollution but also mitigate various environmental damages associated with it, such as biodiversity loss. A top-down approach could successfully limit the supply of the economy. For instance, the government could close down or downscale a particular sector (e.g., fast fashion). Nevertheless, it is important to note that a significant portion of emissions is driven by consumer demand. For instance, it is estimated that around 80% of the US’s energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions are attributed to consumer demand and the industries that cater to it. Decreasing demand for environmentally damaging products and activities poses uncertainty on how that could be done democratically. Degrowth is frequently looked at with suspicion, as it is associated with authoritarian communist regimes that indicate what you can buy and in what quantity. For a degrowth future to happen in a democratic way, demand needs to emerge bottom-up. The mighty question is how societal norms and values can change from the bottom up. A second point connected to the shift in demand is the requirement for more political support for degrowth. Political feasibility is a significant criticism posed against degrowth. The argument is that people are already skeptical of environmental policies because they believe they want to make them less well off, and degrowth is seen as doing exactly that.

I will show how socio-cultural norms could be used by degrowth supporters to tame the two important criticisms: democratic behavioral change and political feasibility, and explore the role of socio-cultural norms in sustainable behavior. It delves into how socio-cultural norms shape our actions and how dynamic norms can encourage positive changes. Furthermore, I will discuss the influence of trendsetters in breaking established norms. Ultimately, this exploration highlights the importance of socio-cultural norms in promoting sustainability and gaining political support for the degrowth movement, shedding light on a path toward a more environmentally conscious future.

2. Socio-cultural norms and sustainable behavior

Efforts to shift sociocultural norms towards more eco-friendly, de-growth actions need to hit three key points. First, they must make a difference even when green habits are not widespread. Second, they need to work in areas where people feel they have the freedom to choose. Lastly, these efforts should spark a genuine desire to do the right thing, rather than just relying on the fear of penalties. A degrowth future requires that our socio-cultural norms related to consumption and political support for growth have to change. Socio-cultural norms are rules that govern our behavior. People conform to a rule if they expect that the majority of people do so and if they expect that the majority of people think that conforming is the right thing to do. Individuals can expect sanctions if they fail to conform to the socio-cultural norm. Sanctions can consist of criticisms, negative reactive attitudes, exclusion, and even physical violence.

Unsustainable behaviors are often the norm in our current culture. Individuals often find themselves in environments where those around them frequently engage in activities such as driving, consuming meat, and flying, whenever it is convenient. For example, individuals expect people in their circle to consume meat daily and expect that people in their circle consider eating meat as normatively appropriate (e.g., humans need meat to live well, meat has always been consumed). Breaking socio-cultural norms by becoming a vegan could be extremely informative for the close connections to such individuals which in turn change their expectation of the normative acceptability of an omnivore diet. If your friend becomes vegan you are suddenly made aware of the environmental issues that a carnivore diet implies, this might make you revise your beliefs regarding the eating practices that you considered normal. People tend to rely on the information that is provided by individuals that they trust, which is then used as a heuristic to guide choices. Hence, turning vegan could have a great impact on your carnivore friends.

2.1 Dynamic norms

The use of dynamic norms could be helpful to promote behavioral change. Dynamic norms show how others' actions or beliefs have evolved or shifted over a period, with a focus on how the socio-cultural norm is evolving rather than on what the norm actually is. In a real-life investigation focused on saving water in shared laundry facilities, researchers discovered that a dynamic norm intervention, which highlighted how others had recently altered their behavior to conserve water, led to significantly higher water conservation efforts compared to a static norm intervention, which only conveyed that most individuals were conserving water. Specifically, water usage with dynamic norms dropped by more than a quarter, whereas static norms resulted in just a 9.8% reduction while the control group – without norm elicitation – had just a 2.5% reduction. Dynamic norms rely on making people aware that a growing minority is adopting a sustainable lifestyle. It is fundamental that people become aware that albeit a behavior is still adopted only by a minority, such a minority is growing. Such awareness could incentivize people to change if they believe that their behavioral change can be effective in solving the issue.

Further, incentives should rely on the idea that people could derive intrinsic motivation from working on a common goal with others. Experiments have demonstrated that when individuals receive communications emphasizing the shared nature of a normative goal, a greater number of people express willingness to participate in the endeavor.  An experiment regarding paper towel usage in Stanford bathrooms showed that restrooms displaying the “Let’s do it together 65% of people at Stanford have reduced their paper towel use, join in!" had significantly lower paper towel usage during the manipulation period, compared to restrooms displaying only the “Here’s a fact, 65% of people at Stanford have reduced their paper towel use." This difference represented a 14% drop in usage, equivalent to 3.5 fewer meters of paper towels used per day per restroom.

Exploring dynamic norms and the motivation to work together aspects can serve as a top-down policy tool to promote behavioral change without resorting to coercion, offering potential benefits for the degrowth movement. The government could implement several campaigns to decrease the consumption of certain goods, where possible emphasizing that people are already decreasing consumption of that good and that decreasing consumption is done together in pursuit of a common goal. However, it's essential not to disregard the ethical implications of modifying established socio-cultural norms. Altering these norms may be seen as infringing on the state's legitimacy and invading private spheres. Nevertheless, changing socio-cultural norms associated with unsustainable behavior can be justified in addressing a more pressing concern: the climate and biodiversity crisis. Furthermore, individuals are already transitioning away from unsustainable norms. The concern of the state becoming overly intrusive in norm modification is mitigated because individuals are simply made aware of the changes that are already occurring and the reasons behind shifting these norms. Consequently, the use of dynamic norms can be seen as amplifying change rather than fundamentally reshaping norms. People become aware of these ongoing changes without coercion, alleviating apprehensions about the state's use of dynamic norms.

2.2 Trendsetters

When a socio-cultural norm is in place, individual actions are interconnected. To elaborate, people base their choices on what they expect others to do and approve of. Therefore, altering a norm necessitates a collective shift in both how people perceive reality (empirical expectations) and what they consider socially acceptable (normative expectations). Breaking a norm comes with a cost, so initially, there is a gradual change in empirical expectations as individuals observe only a few initial rule-breakers. Once a tipping point is reached, more and more people shift their behavior leading to an abandonment of the normative expectations. Normative change can be achieved by early adopters who are willing to initiate it. Trendsetters, individuals who are willing to be the first to break the norm, must have a low threshold of abandonment of that particular norm.

Research using simulations showed that social norm change does not necessarily depend on central community members adopting a behavior that contrasts with the social norm. Individuals at the periphery who break the norm could lead to the social norm being abandoned. What emerges as significant is the collective sensitivity to norms within the population. In other words, how much do people’s personal beliefs align with the norm? The emphasis individuals place on their neighbors in contrast to the broader community is also important to determine the success of norm change.

Sensitivity pertains to the extent of an individual's alignment with the principles represented by a norm. Therefore, norm sensitivity encompasses an individual's personal motivations for adhering to the norm. An individual with high sensitivity could provide multiple valid justifications for upholding a specific norm, while someone with low sensitivity may not hold strong convictions about the norm's principles but might still follow it due to its widespread acceptance (in order to evade the penalties associated with violating it).

Individuals who have a moral conviction to evade the established social norms would be willing to do so despite the sanctions. However, low sensitivity or even rejection of the normative justifications behind the current norms could not be enough if individuals expect to receive sanctions. Informing individuals that their behavioral change could have spillovers on other people's behavior and potentially lead to norm change could incentivize people to evade the norm. This is because people are likely to assess breaking the established social norm in terms of costs and benefits to themselves and to the cause they support. Degrowth supporters could come out in the open with their policy ideas even if it will cause them backlash if they know that it could lead to more support towards degrowth.

Let's discuss how individuals are connected to others and how this connection influences socio-cultural norm change. When individuals expand their focus beyond their immediate connections and consider the broader community, there is a higher likelihood of norm change. This means that individuals not only care about the people in their immediate surroundings but also about the behavior in the wider community. When examining sustainability-related social norms, it is likely that people today are connected to the broader national and global community in terms of sustainability. This is promising because it suggests that widespread behavioral change can be initiated by individuals who choose to act more sustainably and break away from unsustainable social norms. Those who are willing to challenge social norms may also be motivated to do so if they realize that their actions can have a global impact. For example, choosing to take the train for long trips can greatly influence the behavior of others. It is probable that people consider not only their close circle but also look beyond when it comes to transportation matters.

This shows that trendsetters play a crucial role in driving bottom-up change. To encourage more people to become trendsetters, it is important to highlight that breaking societal norms can lead to significant behavioral change on a larger scale. Therefore, embracing a sustainable lifestyle not only has an individual impact but also has the potential to create broader societal effects. In the context of the degrowth movement, supporters should openly embrace and promote the concept, emphasizing the positive impact it can have on society. By showcasing the benefits and potential for widespread change, the degrowth movement can increase support and encourage more individuals to adopt sustainable practices.

3. Conclusion and political feasibility

Knowledge of socio-cultural norms change could be useful for a degrowth agenda both in terms of changing social norms related to unsustainable behavior and gaining more political traction.

First, political backing can be framed in terms of social norms. In numerous circles, individuals are likely to expect very few people to support a degrowth strategy, further, individuals expect that a degrowth strategy is not the right thing to support. Normative expectations can be due to various reasons, such as people associating degrowth with poverty and communist totalitarian regimes. In order for the normative beliefs on growth to change, it is important to change the factual and normative beliefs related to growth. This can be done by popularizing knowledge with regard to growth and its effects on the environment. Degrowthers could benefit from dynamic norms knowledge to gain traction, showing how much the movement has grown and is growing. Second, degrowthers could also spread the knowledge regarding trendsetters, people who are willing to change could have a great impact on the sustainability norms in the community. As such, social norms can help the behavioral change needed for society to embrace degrowth.

Series 'AI Metaphors'

1. The tool
Category: the object
Humans shape tools.

We make them part of our body while we melt their essence with our intentions. They require some finesse to use but they never fool us or trick us. Humans use tools, tools never use humans.

We are the masters determining their course, integrating them gracefully into the minutiae of our everyday lives. Immovable and unyielding, they remain reliant on our guidance, devoid of desire and intent, they remain exactly where we leave them, their functionality unchanging over time.

We retain the ultimate authority, able to discard them at will or, in today's context, simply power them down. Though they may occasionally foster irritation, largely they stand steadfast, loyal allies in our daily toils.

Thus we place our faith in tools, acknowledging that they are mere reflections of our own capabilities. In them, there is no entity to venerate or fault but ourselves, for they are but inert extensions of our own being, inanimate and steadfast, awaiting our command.
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2. The machine
Category: the object
Unlike a mere tool, the machine does not need the guidance of our hand, operating autonomously through its intricate network of gears and wheels. It achieves feats of motion that surpass the wildest human imaginations, harboring a power reminiscent of a cavalry of horses. Though it demands maintenance to replace broken parts and fix malfunctions, it mostly acts independently, allowing us to retreat and become mere observers to its diligent performance. We interact with it through buttons and handles, guiding its operations with minor adjustments and feedback as it works tirelessly. Embodying relentless purpose, laboring in a cycle of infinite repetition, the machine is a testament to human ingenuity manifested in metal and motion.
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3. The robot
Category: the object
There it stands, propelled by artificial limbs, boasting a torso, a pair of arms, and a lustrous metallic head. It approaches with a deliberate pace, the LED bulbs that mimic eyes fixating on me, inquiring gently if there lies any task within its capacity that it may undertake on my behalf. Whether to rid my living space of dust or to fetch me a chilled beverage, this never complaining attendant stands ready, devoid of grievances and ever-willing to assist. Its presence offers a reservoir of possibilities; a font of information to quell my curiosities, a silent companion in moments of solitude, embodying a spectrum of roles — confidant, servant, companion, and perhaps even a paramour. The modern robot, it seems, transcends categorizations, embracing a myriad of identities in its service to the contemporary individual.
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4. Intelligence
Category: the object
We sit together in a quiet interrogation room. My questions, varied and abundant, flow ceaselessly, weaving from abstract math problems to concrete realities of daily life, a labyrinthine inquiry designed to outsmart the ‘thing’ before me. Yet, with each probe, it responds with humanlike insight, echoing empathy and kindred spirit in its words. As the dialogue deepens, my approach softens, reverence replacing casual engagement as I ponder the appropriate pronoun for this ‘entity’ that seems to transcend its mechanical origin. It is then, in this delicate interplay of exchanging words, that an unprecedented connection takes root that stirs an intense doubt on my side, am I truly having a dia-logos? Do I encounter intelligence in front of me?
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5. The medium
Category: the object
When we cross a landscape by train and look outside, our gaze involuntarily sweeps across the scenery, unable to anchor on any fixed point. Our expression looks dull, and we might appear glassy-eyed, as if our eyes have lost their function. Time passes by. Then our attention diverts to the mobile in hand, and suddenly our eyes light up, energized by the visual cues of short videos, while our thumbs navigate us through the stream of content. The daze transforms, bringing a heady rush of excitement with every swipe, pulling us from a state of meditative trance to a state of eager consumption. But this flow is pierced by the sudden ring of a call, snapping us again to a different kind of focus. We plug in our earbuds, intermittently shutting our eyes, as we withdraw further from the immediate physical space, venturing into a digital auditory world. Moments pass in immersed conversation before we resurface, hanging up and rediscovering the room we've left behind. In this cycle of transitory focus, it is evident that the medium, indeed, is the message.
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6. The artisan
Category: the human
The razor-sharp knife rests effortlessly in one hand, while the other orchestrates with poised assurance, steering clear of the unforgiving edge. The chef moves with liquid grace, with fluid and swift movements the ingredients yield to his expertise. Each gesture flows into the next, guided by intuition honed through countless repetitions. He knows what is necessary, how the ingredients will respond to his hand and which path to follow, but the process is never exactly the same, no dish is ever truly identical. While his technique is impeccable, minute variation and the pursuit of perfection are always in play. Here, in the subtle play of steel and flesh, a master chef crafts not just a dish, but art. We're witnessing an artisan at work.
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About the author(s)

FreedomLab Fellow Federica Rito interned at our thinktank to research degrowth economics, an academic movement that challenges traditional economic growth models and explores alternative pathways to sustainability. She is currently pursuing two Master's degrees at Erasmus University Rotterdam, one in Philosophy and Economics and one in Economics and Sustainability.

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