It is much harder to change consumption patterns that have already been established than to find ways to keep them from increasing. This is why I think that the growing middle class in the post-soviet Europe presents an opportunity to promote sustainable lifestyles. On the one hand, these are well educated people whose basic needs are met, including adequate nutrition, clothing, shelter and fuel as well as access to healthcare, education, recreation and other public services. On the other hand, under the heading of “catching up with the West” they are being relentlessly bombarded with the consumerism-based visions of well-being.
In my November blog entry I wrote about the drive toward consumerism in Poland and the US-type of suburban model of well-being. Today I am writing about an interesting initiative conducted in Hungary in which low impact living acquired a cachet and a fresh identity. The initiative in question, known as Kislabnyom, was a year-long campaign conducted by GreenDependent Institute among low and middle income large families, with a goal of reducing energy use by households through behavior change. The essence of the campaign was to work with entire families rather than individuals, and with communities. It consisted of interactive and highly participatory training sessions for groups of families, low stress competitions, shared celebrations and other community building activities. One family from each campaign was filmed for one of the national TV channels, and a series of articles on small footprint families was published in one of the main weekly women’s magazine.
By tradition as well as owing to modest incomes most of the participating families live a small impact lifestyles, e.g. grow their own fruits and vegetables, reuse bath water, organize clothes and toys exchanges, cook their own food, conserve energy, etc. In short, theirs are low impact lifestyles of fairly high quality. The striking thing about the project participants was that they did not define themselves as “green.” These households held the view that green living was for those financially better-off than themselves. In their eyes, they were too poor to be green.
And this is where the initiative was, almost inadvertently, intriguingly successful. It resulted in reframing the lifestyle of the participants as sustainable rather than financially wanting. It produced a sense of pride in their daily lives, created a positive attitude and sense of empowerment, and raised interest in and engagement with sustainability. As a result, the participants became actively involved in creating the message of sustainable lifestyle and enhancing sustainable practices in their lives.
The lesson I take from the Hungarian experience is that the grass roots initiatives aimed at more sustainable lifestyles should pay more attention to the populations who are already living small impact lifestyles and yet do not identify them as such. Their lifestyles are not intentionally or ideologically low impact and they do not consider themselves “green”. By re-framing the meaning of these lifestyles, emphasizing their ecological positives, and by seeking non-materialistic potential opportunities for increasing well-being, real progress could be made in preventing millions of people from adopting the consumerist lifestyles.
And this lesson extends to all relatively affluent countries and regions, not just the post-soviet societies.