British Sociological Association Climate Change Conference

Last Friday (30th March 2012) I attended the one day BSA Climate Change Conference at the University of Southampton. Titled ‘Conceptual and methodological approaches for researching climate change at different societal scales’ the conference looked at climate change from a social science perspective, rather than policy or environmental science for example. If you consider that the little everyday actions such as washing, driving and working all use a significant amount of energy, it is clear that these practices have implications for climate change at a range of societal scales – individual, household, workplace, community, regional, national and international. In short, I and many others would argue, human behaviour is central to climate change. The conference focused on methodological approaches and sociological concepts as sociological research on climate change is still a relatively young field.

There were key note speeches by Prof. John Urry, Dr Pauline Leonard, Prof. Elizabeth Shove, Prof. Patrick Devine-Wright and Dr Heather Lovell, followed by paper workshops in the afternoon. It was a really beneficial day for me, not least because I am at the stage of working on my own PhD methodology. There are many ways to look at my PhD topic which focuses on second-hand retail. One way is the sustainability angle, as clearly the practice of buying second-hand items shuns the need to use virgin resources.

So if human actions (practices as termed in the academic literature) are central to climate change, how can we go about changing these practices? Can we alter them? According to Urry, people are creatures of social habituation. Habits can spread through media and advertising, to become embodied social practices which are difficult to reverse. Indeed systems can get ‘locked in’ over decades in relationship to one another. The secret to combating global warming, Urry argues, is a reversal of most of the systems, practices and habits set in place during the 20th Century. There are a number of problems associated with finding this reverse gear:

1. Carbon capital -systemic carbon interests who themselves are causing the rising GHG emissions.
2. The long term path dependencies of existing systems.
3. Low carbon economy could reduce short term levels of income and consumption.
4. General slowness of societal change.
5. States are rarely able to bring about change from the top partly because of resistance and opposition.
6. Lack of time available to make a seismic shift or system reversal since the atmospheric changes are already ‘in the system’ – is it too late?
7. The need to develop multiple systems simultaneously to generate a new low carbon cluster.

Urry then goes on to contradict his original statement of the need to find a reverse gear, instead arguing that what is actually required is a whole new system, built from scratch, which makes the existing model obsolete. He uses the example of the car and puts forward ideas for a ‘post car system’.
I have picked up on Urry’s talk because of the similarities with the themes that came to light during the Sustainable Consumption Conference in Hamburg last year. The idea that each of us needs to radically alter our practices and lifestyles in order to live for a more sustainable future.

Devine-Wright spoke about the influence of locality in his presentation, the concept that people are only interested in doing what is ethically or morally right if it affects their immediate sense of place. The further away in time and space an issue is, the less people are interested or concerned. Devine-Wright also picks up on a lack of dialogue between human geography and psychology and perhaps this needs to be addressed in future work on social practice. If it is agreed that human action has contributed, or even caused global warming, how ever are we going to change people’s habits and whose responsibility is it to make it happen?

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