Bridging Research Action Policy

Report on Day 1 of Bridging Research Action Policy, the SCORAI 2017 Workshop

Ethan Goffman

What is the relationship between theory, as generated in a university, and practice, both through policy and activism? This was the overarching first-day theme of the Sustainable Consumption: Bridging Research and Action and Policy workshop. The discussion made clear that influence is a two-way street, flowing not simply from research institutions to practitioners but back again. For instance, the concept of “ecological debt,” coined by activists in the global south in the 1990s, was later given validity through university research, explained Leida Rijnhout of Friends of the Earth. The term began as “just a slogan,” according to Rijnhout, and only later became an object of university studies that began to document just how high consuming countries are using our common resources. This was the how ecological debt became a scientific concept that can be measured, said Rijnhout.

Flows from research communities to activists have not always been so fluid. Keya Chatterjee of the Climate Action Network discussed why sustainable consumption has had so little traction in the activism community, particularly among the major environmental groups. Environmental activists do have a reason. As she summarized, “the other side wants to make us feel guilt, fear, anxiety, to stay home do nothing. We want you to feel angry, but also hope, to get out in the streets.” For activists, it is all about creating a mass movement to change the political system, to create multiple acts of noncompliance, and sustainable consumption does not fulfill that need. Chatterjee, however, sees sustainable consumption differently, as part of the noncompliance that can help tackle the system. She explained three major components to creating change: an activist base, a permissive public (i.e. one that does not actively resist), and governmental leadership. Chatterjee explained that a 3.5% base of activists is all that it takes to incite change, since “the system of power can’t tolerate even small communities not complying.” This makes particular sense to me if one assumes that consumerism is central to our current neoliberal order. Those who refuse to consume threaten that system, showing an alternative version of humanity than what corporate capitalism assumes unalterable.

Given the need to challenge underlying values, how should activists proceed? Chatterjee sees religious participation as key to inducing sustainable development. It is faith communities that, when they hear a message of sacrifice, say “Yes, that’s great.” I wonder whether and how this can be taken further, how an underlying philosophy of sacrifice for a greater cause can become meaningful across a spectrum of people in today’s America. Perhaps the philosophy of individualism, of building identity through material goods, is too deeply entrenched to change, but if so we are all in trouble. Chatterjee explained how, for the People’s Climate March, multiple communities, encompassing faith groups, environmental organizations, labor unions, and more, took different buses. The risk is that the communities fragment. Combining movements is the only way to mobilize the mass base needed for change, yet a coherent, underlying message is needed.

If activism is one side of the sustainability equation, a different approach to merging theory and practice takes place at the governmental level. This depends on research and best practices, but where unavailable, or available only in a limited way, government must improvise. Babe O’Sullivan of Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality discussed a Eugene program of Fix-It Fairs where people bring in goods to be repaired, as opposed to what has become the standard American response to damaged goods–trash and buy something new. As O’Sullivan pointed out, beginning in the 1970s Americans forgot how to repair items (not all at once, of course, but little by little). The Fix-It Fairs are a way not only to repair individual items but to change people’s psychology. O’Sullivan explained how the events drew great media attention while uniting the “left” and “right” (an artificial distinction, in my opinion, but one played upon by politicians). “The good will from Fix It events is priceless,” she exclaimed. The idea is to bring the economy of repairing and of selling second-hand goods out from the shadows. In U.S. consumer society, at least, such thrift is not acknowledged, much lauded, despite its environmental advantages. It was only after the Great Recession, explained Madalyn Cioci of the State of Minnesota, that a philosophy of thrift became again acceptable, at least briefly, and that thrift shops and pawn shops could begin to seem a part of the economy. Indeed, she pointed out that they are not officially considered part of GDP.

Finally, the first day of the conference did include some presentations from the research side. Kuishuang Feng of the University of Maryland used a data-driven GIS model that shows consumption habits in individual zip codes across the United States. He found that while there is a strong correlation between household wealth and energy use, the correlation between lifestyle and carbon footprint is even stronger. Thus, there are some neighborhoods, particularly in high-density cities, with far lower energy use than neighborhoods of similar wealth elsewhere. Subsequent discussion focused on the implications for gentrification since low-income people in cities employ mass transit to a very high degree. With gentrification, new residents tend to drive more and use transit less. Meanwhile, low-income residents forced to move to the suburbs will buy vehicles and become auto-dependent out of necessity. This makes the fight to stop gentrification an environmental issue.

In my experience as a transit and smart growth advocate, the situation need not be so binary. Gentrification under the smart growth model means dense, walkable new development near transit. The problem is that driving existing residents out is problematic from both a social justice and an environmental perspective. If government officials could make good on their promises to provide similar housing, and if new developments had a large percentage of affordable units–admittedly, both big ifs–it would be a win-win situation. Low-income residents would benefit as would new, more affluent residents, as would the environment. Of course, in reality, such attempts are often undermined by the developers’ need to make money, among other factors.

Finally, Katarina Gapp of the Berlin School of Economics and Policy further delved into the complexities of income, lifestyle, and energy. She found that GDP and income are big drivers of energy use, about 30%. Price is also important, but not quite as much. Gapp also argued that, while Germany has been successful at installing renewable energy, it has done worse at reducing energy consumption. This has leveled off since 2009 but has resisted efforts to actually lower it, despite efficiency measures. Gapp attributes this to rebound effects, that energy saving simply goes into using more energy. Her project is still preliminary, with many correlations to be worked out, so translating it to policy is a puzzle. My own reaction, however, is that a price on carbon use is a much better policy than regulatory efforts (not exactly a novel conclusion) and that money from carbon fee this should go to basic research. Katarina suggested a progressive energy tax, in which those who used more electricity pay a relatively higher percentage. The wealthiest would thus have greater incentive to avoid excessive energy use. I would suggest that lowering GDP might be an even better policy goal, but is not politically feasible, at least in the short term. In the longer term, changing social values away from work and consumption and toward family and community might spur conscious attempts to lower GDP. This is, of course, the prescription of many SCORAI members.

Which returns us to the question of how to combine research and practice. Do we have policy and activist goals already in mind which we then use research to confirm? Or should the research start from a neutral position, and go where the data takes it? This is a tricky question–certainly, we need to be open to unexpected results, to change our policy ideas if the research tells us they are misguided. Yet policy makers and activists can also suggest useful directions for research to pursue. What you decide to measure, and why, determines outcomes, at least partly. Researchers must always pursue the highest standards of evidence, yet the agenda may be driven by policy needs. This is merely acknowledging what has always been true, that social needs and research are not, in fact, separate, that science serves society.