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Reflections on a trip home: thoughts of a Sustainable Development Researcher

Are we really ‘green?’ Thinking about lifestyle expectations and the ‘good life’

I have always loved Seattle for the extreme zeal its inhabitants have for being environmentally friendly and aware. I grew up in the Seattle area, but have lived in Scotland since 2008 studying Sustainable Development as an undergraduate and now PhD student. Living in another country often presents an opportunity to reflect on the ‘normal’ conventions of everyday life because one is confronted with other forms of ‘normal.’ My time in Scotland has had this effect, and I find that on my return visits to the Pacific Northwest (PNW) I notice an apparent contradiction between this environmental sentiment and overall ‘normal’ lifestyles.

A different discourse on environmental concern

While it is laudable that many inhabitants of the Seattle area are committed to recycling and composting, buying local and organic, or avoiding plastic bags and water bottles; these pro-environmental behaviours are relatively superficial when compared to more fundamental infrastructures which shape daily practices. Take for example a comparison of national ecological footprints; USA residents have one of the highest environmental impacts globally per person. My point is not to debate the accuracy of these calculations or apply a national statistic to a specific city, but to suggest that the impact of ‘normal,’ every day activities is not simply the result of individual choice. Instead, an individual’s environmental impact is largely dependent on wider social and technological aspects of where they live. For example, the environmental impact of a 5-minute shower will vary geographically depending on many factors, such as water flow and energy supply. The water pressure is often outside the control of the average householder, yet is significant in determining environmental impact because a higher pressure means more water is consumed and needs to be heated. This consideration is the result of design and physical features of our homes and has little to do with an individual’s environmental values.

The pro-environmental values approach to sustainability has similar limitations to the other dominant response to environmental issues: the techno-fix. The problem with the techno-fix is that it is based on a mentality of being able to do ‘more with less;’ improving efficiency or introducing low-carbon technologies gives us a sense of a blank check to continue doing whatever we want. Installing photovoltaic panels on your roof should not be an endorsement to use as much electricity as you want. Pro-environmental behaviours such as reusing bags and refusing bottled water should not be justification to overlook the impact of driving a large car or flying regularly. My point is not to make a self-identified ‘green’ feel guilty but to re-align perceptions of sustainable lifestyles in the PNW with current academic debates and theories.

Questioning expectations of the ‘good life’

That is to say, academic research on sustainable consumption has moved on from encouraging environmental values to consider more mundane aspects of everyday life that shape consumption. Investigation is concerned with how ‘normal’ activities are established and evolve depending on the social and technological features in different countries and in different time periods. Why is the average ecological footprint of USA residents several times greater than British citizens when both are meeting basic ‘needs’ of home, sustenance, work and play? I would not hazard to suggest that the British are more concerned about their environmental impact, yet the social and physical systems that are ‘normal’ in Britain result in less overall consumption than ‘normal’ life of USA residents. Thus, instead of trying to convince individuals to make ‘good’ or environmentally-conscious choices (a response that allows governments to shift their responsibility onto consumers) this approach puts expectations of normal life centre stage. How can we meet expectations of the ‘good life’ in less environmentally-damaging ways?

My challenge to inhabitants of the beautiful PNW is to reflect more on normal conventions and lifestyle expectations. For example, take the tiny house movement - people are asking whether ‘normal’ house size is the best way to meet our needs and demonstrating that entertaining friends, spending time with family, relaxing and attaining other ‘normal’ home comforts can be achieved in a smaller space. I’m not saying that everyone should downsize to a 100-400 ft2 home, but rather that we learn from such examples of decluttering and considering trade-offs between having stuff and doing stuff. I’m not even going to delve into the issue of traffic and paucity of non-car transport around Seattle; however, whether you drive a hybrid or a SUV, more attention should be placed on traveling less. It may be normal to drive every day, but what if everyone tried not to drive one day per week - what other activities would come to fill this part of daily life? These are only a few examples to show that refocusing environmental efforts on challenging social norms could help make this state truly Evergreen.

My intention is not to single Seattle out for trying to be ‘green,’ as the gap between rhetoric and reality is true of many other cities and countries; rather, this is a place I know and love and one which I think can do better. I pick on Seattle because it has a history of being the home of world-renowned innovations so if anywhere can offer a more fundamental transformation towards sustainable development Seattle can. I would like to see it be a place where less time was spent in traffic and more with family; where we shop less and get outdoors more; where we question which conventions are meeting our basic needs and what the ‘good life’ really means.

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