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Our consumption is the crucial question for a sustainable society, according to the Environmental researcher Karin Bradley (Photo: Håkan Lindgren)

Researcher says consumption contradicts sustainability

Published Mar 03, 2014

To be an environmental researcher also entails a responsibility to enter the debate on social priorities. This is the opinion of Bradley who undertakes research into how lifestyles influence the environment.

To be an environmental researcher also entails a responsibility to enter the debate on social priorities. This is the opinion of Bradley who undertakes research into how lifestyles influence the environment. 

“Current policies favour a consumption culture that counteracts the move towards a sustainable society,” she says.

Like many other environmental researchers, Karin Bradley is opposed to the idea of “ecological modernisation”. This is the school of thought that claims that it will be possible to create a sustainable society through improved environmental technology, energy savings and minor political control measures.

We must think more about our way of living

“It’s a deluded idea that just doesn’t hold up. Instead, we must think more about our way of living, how much we consume and how we organise our lives,” she says.

In her PhD thesis from 2009, Bradley investigated the environmental consequences of the Swedish middle class lifestyle. She saw several positive signs: waste sorting, ecologically grown food and energy-efficient vehicles. Above all, however, she discovered a consumption culture and shopping patterns that seriously deplete nature’s resources.

“There is a major structural issue here that many do not want to even raise. It’s not enough just to shop ecologically and drive an environment-friendly vehicle while continuing to maintain a high level of consumption in other respects,” says Bradley.

Studying alternative ideals

The major environmental villains in this context are housing, she asserts; many Swedes live much too copiously – and flights; long-haul flights to exotic destinations have increased exponentially. The technology exists, for example, to make our homes energy efficient and environmentally sensitive but, at the same time, we live on a larger scale and have ever more gadgets.

In a new study, Bradley has investigated how alternative, radical movements with a green lifestyle can inspire a new way of thinking. The movements are based on what is called the peer economy or the shared economy, where production is undertaken jointly in some form without ownership or profit motive. This may involve car pools, loan systems between neighbours, common wardrobes (klädotek) and housing exchanges.

Karin Bradley is an assistant professor in Urban and Regional Studies.

The phenomenon of organised barter transactions with goods and services is far from being new, but it has acquired renewed impetus in recent years, according to Bradley’s studies.

“These groups stand for something other than a growth-oriented ideal. One produces for need or inclination – not for profit or ownership. Such movements are growing ever stronger in the world, above all in the USA, Great Britain and countries in southern Europe as a result of the economic crisis,” she says.

Bradley is of the opinion that the new green lifestyle is based on similar forces as the digital open-source movement, that is to say the Internet culture that earlier created  Wikipedia and the Linux operating system. Services that are created by the users and that are available to all.

“In purely practical terms it has also become simpler to arrange peer-to-peer economies as a consequence of the growing digitalisation of society,” she says.

Policy favours consumption culture

Bradley does not consider that the alternative economies, in their present form, shall be transposed on a large scale as a way of solving the environmental issue. There are extensive problems associated with this; for example, this would affect the financing of public welfare, she points out.

“The political rhetoric in recent decades effectively concludes that “there are no alternatives”. However, it is of course possible to question the prevailing socioeconomic system. This is happening in many places and there are some very interesting projects going on at present,” she says.

It’s my responsibility to cast a critical eye on our society

In the book Green Utopianism, set to appear in the spring, she writes together with the environmental researcher Johan Hedrén on contemporary Utopian thinking and practical examples of this. She believes that Utopian thinking is important in enabling one to deal with the intractable environmental issues.

For Bradley, it is crucially important for the research to raise political issues. She believes there is a blind spot in today’s environmental policies that checks the development towards a sustainable society.

“Politicians nowadays are reluctant to intervene and regulate people’s lives too much; one must decide for oneself, it is said. But such an attitude is also a form of direction that releases those forces that favour a consumption culture,” she says.

Should researchers really enter the political debate?

“It’s my responsibility to cast a critical eye on our society. Vital issues affecting society always have a political dimension. They always contain an ideological perspective. In my studies I attempt to understand the mechanisms and reasons behind the alternative movements; what motivates people; how do systems work and what consequences do they have?”

Christer Gummeson

Research and Politics – how are they reconciled?

How far does the researcher’s responsibility extend? What do you think? You are welcome to contribute to the debate in Campi. Please make your views known to campiredaktionen@kth.se

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