Societal Change

What factors enable change, based on the research introduced in the previous chapter?

  • Leaders who set examples

  • Belief that something new will be beneficial (refer to Actions for Future Proofing)

  • Examples of the 'new' that work (and that make sense to "me")

  • Understanding that others are changing too (common rules, no significant free rider risk)

  • Engage people with change (refer to the 5 Stages of Engagement)

  • Act at different social, geographic and time-scales but enable collaboration

Recall also the list of features leading to better public discourse:

  • Mutual trust that others will also taking action

  • Visibility that others are taking action

  • Feedback highlights benefits of participation

  • State, business and citizens all work together

In an article about the "Planetary Accounting Framework", Meyer and Newman (2018) summarise some key features of change (emphasis mine).

Nobel Prize winner Eleanor Ostrom began a movement in 1990 which used observed behaviour to dispute the validity of the theory of the commons altogether [16–20]. She and others showed through empirical evidence that the theory that individuals and small groups will not change their behaviour without external enforceable rules is far from inevitable [16, 26–33]. Community can shape the future through mutually accepted regimes of behaviour. In some instances these self-organised regimes have proved more effective than would have been feasible in the case of private action or top-down governance [18, 34]. Ostrom’s theory was that the most important factors which lead to cooperative behaviour by individuals towards the environment are the trust that the behaviour will lead to long-term benefits, and the belief that the majority of others are performing the same behaviour [35].

Some might build on an assumption that here lies the motivation for a community-led approach to sustainability which denies the role of private action and top-down governance.

I don't have much interest in debating this assumption. What is more interesting is to generalise the quote above to human social networks of all types. For example, consider 'individuals' instead as a specific business operating in a market or small group of businesses. Or similarly for governments (local or national). The crucial final sentence of the quote holds true for all these examples, as does the interplay with private action and top-down governance, where only "In some instances these self-organising regimes [of community action] have proved more effective...".

Therefore Ostrom's theory explicitly embraces community, business (a.k.a. technology) and governance (a.k.a. infrastructure) but wraps them in a common set of rules and goals to help promote trust and transparency. It still remains, of course, that not all aspects of community, business or governance will accept the common rules. It is not clear in practice if this matters too much. Once the benefits of complying are evident they will simply switch attitudes.

Meyer and Newman express this as follows:

The science of change supports and extends the findings that different scales of activity are important and that not only community but also infrastructure and technology are key to driving change. The “magic of sustainability” is the idea that integrative solutions of community, business and government, can far exceed the sum of their parts

Constraints on enabling tipping points arise from constraints on the freedom to operate. These constraints will act at different social, geographic and time-scales and at the social/individual, private/technology and governance/infrastructure levels. What are the barriers to recognising and implementing a common framework at different points listed?

The importance of a common framework is spelled out by Meyer and Newman:

Targets for environmental initiatives range enormously, from those aiming for a very loosely defined state of “sustainability”, to those working towards a circular economy, or others directing their efforts towards reducing their ecological footprint [46–49]. This can lead to a sense that environmental initiatives will make little difference to the final outcome. Moreover, many people lack confidence that others are working towards the same end.

So are bottom-up social solutions doomed to failure? Do we have to wait for a top-down monolithic solution to all of our problems? One way to interpret the deadening impact of multiple non-obviously overlapping solutions is that they enable cognitive biases to kick in - too many options provides an excuse to avoid engagement or point to 'lack of agreement'.

Alternatively, a common framework might provide the basis for a sense of control. In this case, control is provided by common purpose but also a transparent goal-oriented vision. There is an implicit, transparent and socially-minded solution in the goal, in contrast to "traditional" approaches to environmental accounting which are based on highlighting the 'bad' aspects of current behaviour and providing incremental metrics of improvement but with little concept of an end-goal in mind. This explains the attraction of Science-Based Targets for businesses - there is a solution, a target and a framework of change to reach the goal. Meyer and Newman state it like this:

Incremental targets are less conducive to ongoing behaviour change than absolute targets [58]. They indicate that the status quo is bad, and that we must continually reduce and improve. In contrast, science-based targets present a vision of the end goal. This allows a fundamental switch in conversation from negative conversations about the status quo, to hopeful conversations about a positive future.

It should also be pointed out that although Meyer and Newman present a potentially unifying environmental sustainability framework, it does not take account of the wider range of issues within the Sustainable Development Goals. It is an open question therefore whether their framework is an answer to the question "what is the common initiative we can all buy-in to?" that is sufficiently broad to actually work.

Further Reading

An overview of 'The Commons' research, or "what's happened since Elinor Ostrom's book in 1990

Ostrom (1990) "Governing the Commons" (the link provides a summary of each chapter, copies purchased elsewhere)

Ostrom (2009) "A Polycentric Approach For Coping With Climate Change" which "argues that single policies adopted only at a global scale are unlikely to generate sufficient trust among citizens and firms so that collective action can take place..."

Meyer and Newman (2018) "The Planetary Accounting Framework" followed up by a book "Planetary Accounting" and a website.

Global Commons Alliance

Cape Town water crisis (2020) is a case study of a programme that successfully implemented the principles in this chapter on a city-wide basis.

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