Amid the horrific health and economic toll of the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re seeing dramatic shifts in people’s daily ways of life—all while a new president is set to take office. In this time of great uncertainty, is there the chance to make the necessary leap to a sustainable and equitable future?
The potential of such a grand shift is encompassed in the theme of this year’s Behavior, Energy & Climate Change Conference (BECC), From Nudge to Leap. The theme calls for us to move from small, incremental behavioral changes to major leaps in systems and behaviors to fast-track a low-carbon future.
In its 14th year, the BECC conference, starting on December 7, will explore topics that include climate change communication, mobility in a post-COVID world, corporate sustainability, maximizing energy savings through building policies, and energy efficiency education in underserved communities.
Juliet Schor, author and sociology professor at Boston College, will deliver the opening plenary keynote. She will report on a decade of research on the “sharing economy,” including both the large corporate platforms and smaller community initiatives and their impacts on energy and the climate.
Dr. Schor spoke with us to share her thoughts on shifting from behavioral nudges toward scaling sustainable solutions. Here are excerpts of our conversation.
What made you first start to care about human behavior and the environment?
I came of age in the 60s and 70s, so caring about the natural world was very much a part of the political culture at that time. It wasn’t a particular passion of mine, however. I believe I was first really attuned to issues of ecological overshoot in the mid-1980s when I got together with my husband. He showed me the fatuity of the economists’ view (which I held then) that technology would make it possible for everyone to live like Americans.
You have written a lot on the idea that a truly sustainable future would be a plentiful future. Most people assume living sustainably means making great sacrifices. How can we live plentifully without making sacrifices?
I think the keys are time, meaning, and community, or deep social connections. Those are the things that give true satisfaction and well-being. Chasing an escalating consumption standard crowds out those three dimensions. In my view, we will achieve sustainability when we start taking productivity growth in the form of more free time rather than more income. As we do that, we will deepen social connections because they require time, people will have the ability to spend their time doing what’s meaningful for them, and they will have richer lives. Sacrifice is what happens when we live in a decaying, dying natural world. We are sacrificing our well-being to chase a tawdry dream.
What role would the shared economy ideally play in a plentiful world?
Sharing is at the core of sustainability. We have to share ecological space, technology, and wealth. The “sharing economy” as we know it today could be a part of a plenitude economy if we can reclaim it from investors and shareholders. In transport, goods, and accommodations, it allows us to use what we have more sustainably. However, it’s important to note that where sharing platforms reduce prices—as they have in accommodations and rides—they raise eco-impact because they spur demand. There are old forms of sharing—public libraries, public transportation—that are clearly low carbon footprint.
How can BECC participants leverage their vast experience and resources to help bring about the sharing economy that you envision?
Community sharing platforms need money, expertise, and promotion. BECC members can provide those.
We know that, with some effort, we can nudge people in the right direction, but how can we help society take big leaps toward a more sustainable future?
Exiting what I’ve called the “work and spend” cycle is the big leap. If we, as a society, decide to make better use of what we already have, including more equal distribution, we can use productivity growth to reduce hours of work and reclaim time. That’ll spur more-frugal consumption habits and a shift to reuse, repair, and second-hand markets—new sharing forms.
We hope to see you online this year! To register for the BECC conference or learn more, visit beccconference.org.