The ecological challenge should no longer be addressed solely as an environmental issue. Rather, it should be considered a social one. A riveting French report makes the relationship between the environment and 21st century lifestyles amazingly concrete.

The Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations (IDDRI – Sciences Politiques Paris) has published under the rather docile title of “Lifestyles and Carbon Footprints, a Scenario Analysis of Lifestyles in France in 2050 and Carbon Footprints,”[1] a report that makes a significant contribution to the fight against climate change.

The report attempts to project what lifestyles will look like in France in 2050. It shows that the way that lifestyles impact the climate varies greatly. The variation can come from policy choices, but also and most importantly, from the various social dynamics that might be developed over the course of the next few decades based on trends that are already starting to emerge today.  The report is a work of storytelling of the future, which feeds in nicely to several of the Greens’ most crucial debates. What’s more, it has the potential to hold the tools that the Greens will need to build and widen the majorities that they will need.

Beyond Environmental Bubbles

Since the Club of Rome’s The Limits to Growth was published in 1972, there has been a litany of reports on the very worrisome state of the planet’s ecosystem. These moments of collective lucidity have produced results: citizen demonstrations, the first moves towards national and international environment legislation, the founding of the Greens etc. Sadly however, all too often these efforts have appeared as “bubbles”, which burst as quickly as they took shape.  A good example of this was the quick shift in tone of mainstream decision-makers on the climate following the onset of the subprime crisis around 2008 and which continued through to the prolonging of the crisis to today, and includes the failure of the Copenhagen Summit.

Generally speaking, this environmental rollback is justified as follows: the economic crisis meant that the (supposedly expensive) solutions to the environmental crisis and to ecological problems had to wait. Those solutions were never considered a way to recovery.  Having said that, we cannot ignore the possibility that the way in which the climate question is framed by the Greens and environmentalists is precisely the reason why the subject has fallen to the bottom of the list of priorities of political leaders, and of the public opinion (of the constituents) that elects them.

Deficits of the “Deficit Model”

To solve the climate challenge, we do not need to keep emphasising the need to avert catastrophe.  We’ve been doing that for more than 40 years.  What we need most is an understanding of why – and how – we meet so much resistance in implementing large-scale solutions. Recently, more and more sociologists[2] have looked into the way in which the question of the climate, and ecology in general, were couched. Their biggest criticism was that the environmental and ecological discourse continued to stubbornly apply what is known as the “deficit model.” In fact, in this model the discourse is still far too based on a somewhat naïve belief that by giving truthful, precise, information to the public on the consequences of their acts this would lead to a change in their behaviour. In other words, “if you know [how serious the situation is], you’ll have to change  [your behaviour].”

Yet, a large part of political ecology history basically reads like one big repeated failure in applying this very model: it is consistently found in the many “plans to save the planet while there is still time”(E.g. Club of Rome, Lester Brown’s Plan B and Nicolas Hulot’s plan). The fact that none of these were implemented can be explained by a profound misunderstanding of the mechanisms of social and political change. Luckily, an increasing number of authors, research bodies and associations are starting to delve into this crucial issue.  They are approaching it in a much broader way than as if it were simply a question of marketing or communication on sustainable development.

“It’s the Sociology, Stupid!”

The time has come to put much more sociology into ecological thinking and to place it on equal footing with research into green technology; ecological economics; environmental ethics; and political institutions. We must ask ourselves the question: how are the social dynamics in place in our societies not actually conducive to the political dynamics that the Greens would like to create to meet their objectives? The question might seem theoretical, but it could have some very important practical and political implications!

On this point, the IDDRI report draws inspiration from, among others the German sociologist Hartmut Rosa’s work on the impact of the acceleration of time on the daily reality of individuals, the economy and politics. The report suggests that new social movements such as transitional movements, relocation, defending local communities, and solidarity purchasing groups, are more a response to a need to resist the time pressure that has stripped our daily life of any structure, than to a quest to protect ecosystems. Another example of where the social logically precedes the economic and the political comes in the form of deregulation policies. In fact, these are more in reaction to the need to adapt the economic and social organisation to this acceleration (stemming from, inter alia, the impact of new forms of Information and Communication technologies (NICT’s) on the way that work is organised) than they are in reaction to a neo-liberal political desire to serve capitalist interests, where we can see that the ecological question continues to open up old debates between materialist sociologists (specifically Marxists) and post-materialists!

The Stories of the Ecological Transition

The IDDRI report can also feed into the debate that pits proponents of degrowth against those of green growth, and that questions the respective shares of social innovation and technology in reducing Green House Gas (GHG) emissions. The rebound effect caused by gains in energy efficiency forces us to invest more widely in social innovation and therefore in lifestyle changes that would mean an individual and comprehensive decrease in the carbon footprint. Unless we were to be politically resolved to boosting eco-taxation, which is no easy undertaking (it has actually decreased in Europe over the course of the last 10 years!),[3] pushing technical and social innovation leads to very different types of societies, both in terms of values or the organisation of our daily lives. One of the strongest contributions of the study is that it brings this to light, through its “scenario analysis.” The following is a far too succinct summary of the main points of the scenarios. The study shows that by 2050 our society could take many different forms and these differences can have a highly variable impact on our GHG emissions levels.

Preparing the Future, Not Forecasting It…

One of the most interesting things about the report is that it takes the past, present and future lifestyle of the French and cross-checks them in an attempt to give an outlook, which in the words of Bertrand de Jouvenel is not so much “forecasting the future as it is preparing for it.” It does so by bringing to light and evaluating various potential junctures with or without the influence of political decisions.

  • The past: the report presents a stunning summary of the changes that the lifestyle in France has undergone from 1960 to 2010 (housing, mobility, employment, consumption, values) and changes in GHG emissions levels.
  • The present: a collection of “weak signals” and all of the various small social movements (movement for a transition, frugal living, slow food, relocation…) to search for alternatives to consumerism, and the aforementioned acceleration of time, in all areas including housing, consumption, mobility, values…
  • The future: the report has a summary of the major observable trends in the success of info-nano-bio-technologies (“towards the advent of a post-humanity”) and also a review of the major storylines in contemporary science fiction: cyborg, post-human and NICT, ecological collapse…   

Five Visions of Lifestyles in 2050

The crux of the report lies in presenting five scenarios for 2050.  Each is characterised by a central vision (which postulates that social change has its own dynamic, which does not stem only from political, technical and economic choices or from the major environmental crises. The report is the result of two years of work by a group of multi-disciplinary researches (sociologists, geographers, engineers, economists, etc.)

In each of the five scenarios, the report anticipates possible changes to political organisation, production systems, technological innovation, socio-spatial organisation, mobility, sociability, to values and last but not least to consumption patterns.

This table breaks down the dominant vision in each of the five scenarios:

Green Consumer Society Enhanced Human Society The Dual Society and Multiple-Frugal Lifestyles The Ecological Citizenship Society Knowledge Age Society
Business as usual. Greening of the economy happens in response both to economic restrictions (due to the impact of climate change on the increase in the price on non-renewable resources) and in response to a desire to increase comfort. Cyborg in the anthropocene era; massive use of all techniques to overcome the failings of the human race (illness, ageing, war). Prostheses become commonplace. But, longer life spans are limited to a few. Strong social and economic dualism. An identity crisis has brought a turning away of a large part of the population. Community blocks form on the outskirts of the State and of the dominant economy.  These blocks are formed because of affinity as much as they are out of necessity (by those who are excluded from the dominant system for survival). Multiple crises have led to a major change in the organisation of society. Around 2030 the realisation is shared around the world. Issues of social and environmental justice are interconnected. An alternative vision of life is taking form and is based on concern for the other and acknowledgement of our interdependence. As environmental justice issues increasingly resonate with the people anti-consumer movements have developed. NICTs have disrupted the producer/consumer distinction. Overcoming knowledge inequalities – the basis to all power relationships is key. There is strong institutional and private resistance.  Nonetheless, the economy of contribution is taking shape. Most of the web is still free, but there are some areas where knowledge is still an expensive commodity.  Decentralisation of knowledge brings about political decentralisation.


Political Issues

The authors acknowledge that a lot of questions remain open as to the methodological approach and inter alia as to computation of the impact of GHG emissions.  2050, is so far off! But, lest we forget, a scenario analysis is not a prediction. The exercise is more akin to producing utopia. Some are frightening (dystopias): they turn into a nightmare for the overwhelming majority of humanity. Others offer happy outlooks: they give reason to hope for saving the climate and improving collective wellbeing.

The goal is not to say how to achieve it.  But to show that with the exception of “business as usual” (the scenario “Green Consumerism” that wouldn’t generally be a scenario that would not be the ideal to the Greens) large-scale change is possible. The main point of criticism that can be levied against the report is that it seems that the only trigger to all of this is some sort of crisis…

Indeed, at least three of the five scenarios are highly influenced by major crises (around 2030) to which society must adapt with the support of the social dynamics that are different in every case (the quest for autonomy and improved conviviality, to escape pressure on time and in the Ecological citizenship scenario), the desire to live longer (Enhanced human or “Cyborg”), acquiring and exchanging knowledge (scenario “Knowledge Age Society”).

Utopia Without the Collapse?

In my opinion, the first question that the Greens must ask themselves, which in reality is always the same, is how to become the majority? This is less for avoiding catastrophe and more for building a sustainable society, one that is respectful of human beings and nature and where it is – quite simply – nice to live.

Unless we would prefer to camp in catastrophism, – the quasi infantile disorder of political ecology- that limits us to a role as soothsayers, that are at times useful, but forever in the minority. Unless we would prefer to, consciously or unconsciously, be a part of the intimate circle of “survivors” who were able to anticipate and adapt to the “ecological collapse” or “ecological time bombs”.

As Ulrich Beck stated, the risk is that by insisting on the respect of limits, these “resilient few” only contribute to building cloistered and, undoubtedly, violent societies, that are far from the cosmopolitan ideal of a free open and fair world.

Income, Lifestyles and Carbon Footprints

The second question is also traditional, but no less political. What should the relationship between income, lifestyles and carbon footprints be? In this respect, the study shows that higher income does not automatically mean a higher carbon footprint. Depending on the scenario, the CO2 emissions from housing (surface area), mobility (location and movements linked to work or leisure), food can vary significantly.  In the “Ecological citizenship” scenario where “living together is a major component of quality of life, average income hits factor 4 because they enjoy teleworking and sharing a maximum amount of space for community services, all the while reducing air travel significantly . On the other hand, in the “cyborg” society, electricity consumption for the same categories increases massively, due to the use of robots…

Can We Avoid Being Cordoned Off?

The third question is whether or not the groups that adopt one lifestyle or another will remain cordoned off from one another. For example, will a hermetic division exist between those that would like to reject technological advances and those that seek them out? Of course this is a question that applies only to the “wealthy,” who have access to this technology, but perhaps it is worthwhile to go back to the intuition of scientists, who in the beginning of the 1970s invented political ecology, criticising technocracy in the name of their quest for knowledge and humanism.

Some of them spoke out against the chimera that was the belief that politics could reign in technical change. Some of them insisted on the new responsibility of mankind towards the ecosystem that it transformed into a “second nature.”

The bizarre climate events of this fall leave us perplexed. Climate change is a perceptible reality, one that is increasingly frightening and serious.

Paradoxically, this fear should not be our motivating factor. Rather, it should be our hope for a cosmopolitan, open, tolerant society, where people are free, cooperative, and where they take care of the environment, which drives our activism. More than a political undertaking, this will require an effort for a cultural shift.


[1] Lifestyles and Carbon Footprints – A Scenario Analysis of Lifestyles in France in 2050 and Carbon Footprints, Les Cahiers du Club d’Ingénierie Prospective Energie et Environnement, Numéro 21, December 2012.

[2] BECK U. Climate for change, or how to create a Green Modernity?, Theory Culture & Society, 2010.

[3] See “Green industry in a post-industrial society”

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