High Quality of Life and Less Resource Consumption: is that possible?

The bigger picture: What is the relation between climate change and the quality of life of an individual?

Terms like „climate change“, „global change“, „carbon emissions“ or „global warming“ are frequently used nowadays, not at least due to the currently happening UN conference on climate change in Cancún (29.11. to 10.12.). It is known that climate change induces pressure on natural systems and many ecosystems face immense challenges. The SERI-Highlight „2010 – The international year of Biodiversity“ has discussed the importance of ecosystems in this context.

Not only natural systems, but also social systems are affected by climate change on various levels: Environmental change might lead to forced migration, as certain regions are not able to provide for the livelihoods of their population. The EU project “EACH-FOR” (Environmental Change and Forced Migration Scenarios) analyzed direct and indirect consequences of environmental change for the livelihood of humans.

Climate change has already led to huge economic costs due to damages caused by extreme weather events as well as necessary adaptation measures like the building of dams or the provision of early warning systems. („Münchner Re“, the world’s biggest reinsurance company directly relates an annual amount of more than 10 billion to climate change. Since 1980, damages caused by natural disasters – according to company figures- sum up to 1100 billion Euros. Details)  Nicholas Stern has calculated in his famous report that the costs for adapting to climate change are by far higher than those needed to stabilize emissions on a level of 500-550 PPM.

All mentioned examples might still fall into the category “That is not good, but it doesn´t really affect me” But there are numerous examples that (could) affect our daily lives: What do we eat, if the basic components of our nutrition do not grow anymore? What happens if there is no snow in winter? Yes, we would not be able to go skiing any longer, but what are the consequences for the economy and tourism? What happens to those people depending on winter tourism? Asking those questions makes the topic climate change more graspable. You realize that you are part of the bigger picture and that you personally have to deal with the consequences of climate change.

How does all that fit together?

Our quality of life, i.e. how content we are with our life and how well we feel about it, depends on the satisfaction of needs. To satisfy our needs (e.g. participation, creativity, relations, spare time), we use different strategies in our daily lives. The sum of these applied strategies is called “lifestyle” or “ways of life”. The recently published book „Sustainable Development. Capabilities, needs, and well-being“ (edited by Felix Rauschmayer and two SERI researchers: Ines Omann and Johannes Frühmann) combines, amongst others, the concept of needs with other scientific ways of thinking and therefore establishes new links between sustainable development, needs and well-being.

In our modern society, “well-being” is mostly defined by material terms. Modern lifestyles often lead to consumption patterns, which – through their underlying resource and energy consumption and increasing emissions of greenhouse gases- are a major contributor to climate change. On the other hand, an increasing part of the society cultivates a less consumption-oriented lifestyle and responsibly tries to lower resource and energy consumption while still increasing their quality of life. This can happen e.g. through more quality time available by working less. Research (e.g. Hofstetter, Madjar, 2003) shows that this behavior increases contentedness and happiness.

As already mentioned, people use different strategies in order to meet their needs. The particular strategies can be more or less environmentally friendly. For example, there are multiple strategies to meet my need for freedom: I could buy myself a motorbike and speed around the countryside and feel excited about it. The resource consumption of this pleasure would be rather high (fuel for the motorbike, resource use of its production etc). Another strategy would be for example to go hiking in the mountains. On the top of the mountain, I could have this amazing feeling as well. If I go hiking with other people I like, it would additionally increase my social capital. The resource consumption would be rather low (especially if I travel by public transport).

What we can do: Change our strategies!

So, what can we do to increase our quality of life in an environmentally friendly and sustainable way? We can change our strategies on two different levels: the collective level and the individual level.

On the collective level there are, amongst others, various political approaches needed, which support environmentally friendly strategies and provide incentives for choosing them (e.g. structural change of subsidies, laws etc.) . These external processes are strongly framed by the internal dimension of a group/society: its values.

On the individual level we first have to get aware of our own needs and realize, which factors (values, believes, emotions) and needs are essential for our personal “high quality of life”. This concerns the internal dimension of us humans. If we are aware of those, we are able to adapt our behavior to our lifestyle and choose environmentally friendly strategies (the external dimension), which would allow us to experience at least the same level of quality of life.

This approach is comparable to a tree. The way the tree grows in its particular environment is to a large degree depending on external influences: wind, weather, sunlight, etc. (comparable to the external dimension). But it is nurtured by its roots (comparable to the internal dimension). They are crucial for the well-being of the tree, by nurturing and stabilizing it. For the well-being of the tree, processes under as well as above the surface are needed. Without well-developed roots, the tree could not survive – exactly like us being “planted” into the wrong environment.

By dealing with the internal dimension, it is possible to understand certain behaviors and decisions and to change them long lastingly. These are long-term processes, which can be –amongst others- influenced by education.

What exactly is SERI doing on this issue?

In our projects we support people to explore new strategies and deal with strategies, which – despite concurrent protection of natural resources- increase their quality of life in a sustainable way. We further deal – in collaboration with the stakeholders – with potential conflicts, which might arise on the pathway to a sustainable lifestyle. A conflict, which often arises for parents, is: How do I bring my kids to school? With the bicycle, knowing that this might be dangerous, time-consuming and inconvenient (snow and rain), or with a car, which uses more energy and resources and might shape the children’s behaviour in a way, which might be hard to change in later on (see also Chapter 8 in Rauschmayer et al. 2011)

Energieverbrauchsstile (Styles of energy use)

The style of energy use on a household level is defined as the way of energy-relevant behavior of the people living in this household within the framework of their lifestyles. To measure the style of a particular household, an Austrian project combined the concept of “Erlebnismilieu” (experiencing milieu) with energy consumption of households in a quantitative way. A survey collected data on the “Erlebnismilieu” and socio economic data as well as energy-relevant behavior of private households. The style of energy use was finally derived by allocating the typical constellations of energy consumption to the respective “Erlebnismilieu” and socio-economic parameters. One of the most important results of this project: Energy efficiency and consumption pattern equalize each other, despite differences in the energy demand of the “Erlebnismilieu”- in the end, every household uses around 10.000 kWh per year. “The” sustainable lifestyle does therefore not exist.

LebensKlima

The project LebensKlima analyzed the relations between climate change, lifestyles, quality of life and social capital in two case study areas (Gmunden and Graz). Pupils interviewed people in their environment about their idea of life, their attitude toward environmental protection, their well-being and their sustainable way of living. Citizens of Gmunden and Graz participated in the interviews and interactive workshops.

Based on the results, interviewees have been allocated to certain “lifestyle-cultures”. The following six cultures have been established: wealth, emotions, experience, entertainment, relaxation and organic-nature. Subsequently, concrete measures for those regions have been developed.

InContext

Why was there so far no success in leading people to a more sustainable way of life? How does one have to approach people to convince them about a more resource-protecting lifestyle? InContext is analysing these questions on a theoretical and applied scale. The EU-project explores, how people should be approached to change their way of life towards a more sustainable one. InContext distinguishes two kinds of context, which form the bridges and barriers to a sustainable lifestyle of an individual: the external context of individual behaviour (policies, infrastructure, institutions, habits, and lifestyles) and the internal context (knowledge, interests, values, priorities, needs).

GeNECA

The project aims at operationalizing the concept of sustainable development on the basis of the capability approach, which was developed by Amartya Sen and to connect inter- and intragenerational justice. This is based on the integrated understanding of social, economic and ecologic development. Indicators for sustainable human development (based on the Human Development Index) will be developed and tested and adapted in two case study regions (one of them is Graz).

BENE – BürgerEngagement für Nachhaltige Energie (Citizens engaging for sustainable energy)

BENE analyses the factors supporting civil engagement in the energy sector and what their consequences on the development of energy-sensitive lifestyles in Austria would be. Relevant institutional conditions as well as individual resources (e.g. financial and social resources, knowledge, and time) and motivations (e.g. values, societal norms, economic advantages) for the commitment will be analyzed. Based on that, “activating strategies” will be developed to include further groups of people into existing initiatives. The transfer of good practices models to further groups and communities will be initiated.

Growth in transition

Especially now – facing the current crisis and intense efforts to support economic growth- the question has to be asked, which kind of growth is desirable for the future and which goals we want to achieve. The project “Growth in Transition” intends to involve as many institutions and persons as possible into a dialogue on how to shape the transition process in a sustainable way. Another goal is to contribute to ongoing EU and international processes and to spread information in Austria

Publications

Fuchs A., Kaiser A. (HG) (2010). Der Ausbruch aus dem Hamsterrad. Werkzeuge zur harmonischen und befriedigenden Verbindung von Leben und Arbeit. Böhlau. Wien.

Hofstetter P., Madjar M. (2003). Linking change in happiness, time-use, sustainable consumption, and environmental impacts. An attempt to understand time-rebound effects. BAO, Consultrix. Zurich.

Rauschmayer F., Omann I., Frühmann J. (2010). Sustainable Development. Capabilities, Needs, and Well-being. Routledge. UK.

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