Working Group III: Mitigation

Other reports in this collection Social Structures and Identities

Most of the perspectives discussed in the last section treat the individual as a self-contained person with intrinsic motivations. While this is a dominant assumption in modern Western societies, in many cultures, individuals are understood primarily in relation to others, and behaviour is largely explained in terms of the social context (Hofstede, 1980; Cousins, 1989; Markus and Kitayama, 1991; Dittmar, 1992). In fact, the social and cultural context of the individual is important in all societies. It contributes to individuals’ moral ideals and identity, to their areas of empowerment or constraint, and to the options they perceive to be open to them. Social and cultural influences are mediated through the use of discourse and symbolism and through the actions of others. Individuals often conform to the cultural norms of their community because of their needs for safety, sense of belonging, love, and esteem.

Social structures help to shape consumption, for example, through the association of objects and activities with status (Veblen, 1899; Hirsch, 1977) and class (Bourdieu, 1979). Social structures also allow some individuals to influence the consumption patterns of others. In many societies, women are mainly responsible for purchasing food and clothing for other household members, while men are more influential over large household expenditures (Grover et al., 1999). Individuals within wider communities also influence each other’s consumption patterns and habits in a wide variety of ways, depending on the social structure and their respective positions within it.

Much human behaviour can be understood as an expression of identity or self-definition (Meyer-Abich, 1997). In modern consumer societies, consumption patterns in particular are also used to establish and communicate identity. The combinations of goods people purchase help to confirm to themselves and express to others their personalities and values (Douglas and Isherwood, 1979; Tomlinson, 1990), their membership of particular social groups or communities (Schor, 1998), and their relationship to their social and physical environment (Dittmar, 1992).

Some of the consumption choices that have the greatest effect on GHG emissions, such as car and house ownership and international travel, are also among the most significant means of establishing personal identity and group membership (Schor, 1998). Where such consumption patterns are closely connected to individual and collective identities, they may be particularly difficult to change, although the role of consumption in society is changing.

Some argue that, with urbanization, conspicuous consumption may have become more important as a form of status display – in small, close-knit communities it is unnecessary because everybody knows each other (Kempton and Layne, 1994). The status and group membership function of consumption has also been altered with the spread of television. Some viewers experience emotional attachments to TV characters as if they were real people; viewers also use the characters and situations they see as reference points for their own lives, helping to shape and reinforce their own values and identities (McQuail et al., 1972). Those who watch a large amount of television increasingly compare themselves with the portrayed lifestyles of the super-rich, resulting in higher desired levels of consumption (Schor, 1998). While the media can pose a barrier to GHG mitigation by reinforcing current trends towards more GHG-intensive lifestyles, it may also offer opportunities. Raising awareness among media professionals of the need for GHG mitigation and the role of the media in shaping lifestyles and aspirations could be an effective way to encourage a wider cultural shift. The role of the media in GHG mitigation will be discussed further in the next section.

Ongoing developments in the media and communication technology could also generate barriers and opportunities for GHG mitigation. Many scenarios have been painted of the potential impacts of information and communication technology on society. The growth of Internet usage and other interactive communication forms are widely expected to stimulate economic development and technological innovation (Cairncross, 1997). However, they may also lead to increased social stratification, social exclusion, and a decline in trust and social solidarity (or social capital) (Castells, 1998). Such developments could have major implications for the feasibility of responding collectively to threats such as climate change. Fukuyama (1999) argues that, although social capital has declined in recent decades with the development of the information society, similar declines occurred during previous economic and technological upheavals and were followed by the creation of new institutions, leading to new heights of morality and social solidarity. Cairncross (1997) even suggests that free communication may lead to global peace. Slevin (2000) points to the development of personal web pages as a new, versatile, and sophisticated means of establishing personal identity. Inglehart (1990) finds signs of the emergence of a new “postmaterial” culture that emphasizes networking and communication rather than possessions. However, Castells (1998) believes that more investment is needed in education and science if societies are to reap social benefits from new information and communication technologies and respond to environmental and other challenges.

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