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YOU, ME AND THE PLANET: Humans are competitive creatures, but they also have a need to conform to the social life around them. Those two contrasting features can decide whether a sustainable future for the whole planet is feasible or not.
In a study recently published in PNAS, a host of international sustainability experts look at how group dynamics can boost the quest for a more ecologically desirable environment.
The study, led by Scott Barrett, Aisha Dasgupta, and Partha Dasgupta, with Carl Folke, Anne-Sophie Crépin, Peter Søgaard Jørgensen and members of the SRC International Scientific Advisory Board among the authors, is a result of the Beijer Institute’s Askö meetings.
Specifically, they consider two aspects of the human enterprise that profoundly affect the planet: population and consumption.
By studying fertility patterns in sub-Saharan Africa and consumption in the rich world, the researchers find commonalities that help spur actions to alleviate the human pressure on the biosphere.
Start with consumption. The desire for goods and services is substantially influenced by the tastes of people in our social networks and other aspirational groups. This means that a strong need to consume can either be encouraged or be curbed by our surroundings. In the case of the latter, it is much easier for the individual to reduce their desire to buy if others around them do the same.
Though competitive impulses create a tragedy of the commons as regards goods, conformist preferences can create a positive feedback to a mutually preferred collective outcome.
Scott Barrett, lead author
Fertility and reproduction shares some of the same similarities. Although associated with a range of complex social, cultural and even religious aspects, giving birth is not only connected with a private desire to have a big family, but also the opportunity to acquire a higher social status through reproductive success. This attitude has been called “Children as wealth”.
As long as others aim at large families, no household will wish to deviate from such practice. If however, were all other households to restrict their fertility, every household would wish to restrict its own fertility.
According to the researchers, successful family planning programmes can be designed to encourage members of communities to share information about contraception and discuss the advantages of smaller families.
Both examples demonstrate how bottom-up social mechanisms rather than top-down government interventions can be better placed to bring about positive change for the environment
They also show how individual needs may be completely incompatible to the resources made available.
“The biosphere is precious but priced cheaply,” the authors argue.
Fortunately, humans come with the capacity to change.
“That human attitudes and preferences are socially embedded suggests that fertility and consumption practices can be shifted, respectively, downward and toward ecologically less destructive goods and services,” they conclude.
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