One of the most neglected areas of sustainability is the social dimension. Rather than being a distinctive failing of sustainability scholarship, this reflects a wider problem that many people in the global North are not encouraged to think in terms of ‘the social’. (A former Prime Minister of the UK, Margaret Thatcher, once infamously declared that ‘there is no such thing’.) There is, then, what I could call a general degree of sociological illiteracy in the population at large in many societies. A general lack of awareness, if you will, about the fact that, firstly, there is indeed such a thing as ‘society’, and that secondly, society, or rather societies have a profoundly structuring effect on shaping individual action. If anything, we are encouraged to see ourselves as individuals who are masters of our own destiny, whose success or failure falls solely on our own heads.
To unpack this a little further, it is worth reflecting on the fairy tales we are told in advanced capitalist countries about the capacities of individuals. We are often presented with images that emphasise, to an entirely unrealistic degree, the capacities of the individual to achieve whatever their hopes and dreams might be, so long as they put their minds to it. Think of the paradigmatic example of this in ‘the American dream’. The myth is that with a little, or a lot, of hard work, determination and, perhaps, a bit of luck, anyone can be whatever, or whoever, they want to be. That this might not be an accurate picture is revealed by any cursory exploration of figures detailing inequality where it is evident that inequality is incredibly persistent far above and beyond the abilities of those who would seek to escape its lower levels. Likewise, an examination of the statistics around unemployment offers a similar point. As the sociologist C Wright Mills (1970: 9) once noted:
‘When, in a city of 100,000, only one man is unemployed, that is his personal trouble, and for its relief we properly look to the character of the man, his skills, and his immediate opportunities. But when in a nation of 50 million employees, 15 million men are unemployed, that is an issue, and we may not hope to finds its solution within the range of opportunities open to any one individual. The very structure of opportunities has collapsed. Both the correct statement of the problem and the range of possible solutions require us to consider the economic and political institutions of the society, and not merely the personal situation and character of a scatter of individuals.’
You might notice the gendered nature of Mills’ prose, which is itself a reflection of the dominant cultural and intellectual influences of his time. The academy, and public life more generally, was at that time, even more than now, dominated by men. Moving beyond the fact that Mills’ image of the unemployed is a masculine one, the central point of his argument is that there are factors above and beyond any one individual, social forces, that pattern the experiences of any one individual.
Consider, for instance, how hard it is for any one individual to go against strongly entrenched social rules, be these formally enshrined in the laws of nation states, or informally adopted through cultural practice and tradition. The former might be trying to cross a national border without the required paperwork, something that has become increasingly difficult over the past 100 years. The latter might be trying to challenge the established views and values of a particular cultural group. Being the one who is vegetarian in a society of carnivores; or being visibly ‘other’ via skin tone, language or dress, in a community hostile toward outsiders. Often these rules will be a combination of both formal legislation and informal practice.
The model of thinking in terms above and beyond the individual can very successfully be applied to the field of sustainability, where I have the fortune to be teaching on our first year core module entitled the Social Principles of Global Sustainable Development. The course aims to engage students with a distinctively sociological and political way of thinking about sustainability along the lines mentioned above.
Studies in sustainability have repeatedly demonstrated the fact that, while individual action is key to shifting practices in a more sustainable direction, individual action will only get us so far in a context within which entrenched social rules work against the necessary changes. An example provided by Southerton and Mylan (2016) highlights the fact that many people who would like to live more sustainably are thwarted by the patterns of work and leisure that take up individuals’ time. If people seek to adopt cycling so as to address the negative environmental and health implications of driving, this will be very difficult if they do not live close to where they work, or if their employer expects them to wear a uniform that it would be difficult to cycle in.
No matter how committed an individual might be, then, without broader social change it is very difficult for that one individual to facilitate a shift on their own. As such, without attention to the too often neglected social context, our broader efforts to become more sustainable will run into continuous challenges. It is for this reason that I thoroughly enjoy working with students on GSD here at Warwick to untangle the messy web of individual and collective responsibilities and capacities.
Mills, C Wright. 1970. The Sociological Imagination. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Southerton, D., and Mylan, J. 2016. ‘Are we too busy to be sustainable?’, Discover Society, Online, Available at: https://discoversociety.org/2016/01/05/are-we-too-busy-to-be-sustainable/ Accessed 6th February 2018.
Header Image: Public Domain