Sustainability refers to our ability to engage in behaviors that both adequately
reinforce the behavior of the current population and are repeatable over long time
spans without having harmful effects on future generations (cf., United Nations,
1987). For most of human history until the early 19th Century, the human
population was relatively small, limited by available methods of growing food
and extracting natural resources. However, with the onset of the industrial
revolution and the attendant use of fossil fuels an exponential growth economy
has prevailed in which each succeeding generation of humans has increased in
size and consumed increasing amounts of the Earth's finite resources (Schafer,
2008). This progressive increase in consumption has made sustainability a key
issue of our time. As M. King Hubbert (1981) summarized: "Perhaps the foremost
problem facing mankind at present is that of how to make the transition from the
present exponential-growth phase to the near steady state of the future in as
noncatastrophic a progression as possible" (p. 1007).
A knowledge of behavioral processes is central to understanding and solving
the problems of sustainability. Making a transition from a world in which finite
natural resources are used in ever-increasing quantities to one in which resource
supply is more-or-less fixed is a behavioral problem of engaging in a form of
collective self-control. This makes it essential to consider sustainability and
associated environmental issues from a psychological/behavioral perspective
(Geller, Winett, & Everett, 1982; Koger & Winter, 2010; Rumph, Ninness,
McCuller, & Ninness, 2005; Wachtel, 1989).
The purpose of the present paper is to examine the behavioral challenges and
opportunities we face in creating a sustainable culture. Sustainability is initially
defined in terms of a steady-state economy. The growth economy in the
developed world is described as one of overconsumption of resource-intensive
reinforcers and underconsumption of resource-free and resource-light reinforcers.
Challenges in making a transition from our current growth economy to a steady
state economy are examined. Selected opportunities for meeting these challenges
are also discussed. Selected challenges and opportunities surveyed here are
limited to psychological and behavioral factors rather than, for example, other
important considerations including geographical localization (Rubin, 2009) or
recycling waste products (McDonough & Braungart, 2002).
Sustainability as a Steady-State Economy
Sustainability has become a popular term, yet the term is often used with no
clear definition (Princen, 2005). The authors of the Brundtland Report of the
World Commission on Environment and Development (United Nations, 1987)
created a widely cited definition of sustainable development: "development that
meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future
generations to meet their own needs."
A limitation of the WCED definition is that it lacks specificity, which can be
overcome in part through the recognition that the Earth's natural resources,
essential for human well-being, are finite (Daly, 1996; Hardin, 1993; Meadows,
Randers & Meadows, 2004; Schumacher, 1989; Speth, 2008). Consumption has
grown to the point at which multiple important boundaries for safe planetary
operation are in danger of being exceeded (Rockström et al., 2009). Some experts
(e.g., Deffeyes, 2006) believe that oil supply has already reached a worldwide
production peak, whereas others forecast a peak within the next 10 years (Farzad,
2008; Leggett, 2005; Rubin, 2009). Coal is often described as an abundant
resource with reserves equivalent to over a 250-year supply, but a committee of
the National Research Council (2007) concluded that "only a small fraction of
previously estimated reserves are economically recoverable" (p. 5). Laherrčre
(2007) has estimated that a peak in world coal production will occur in about
2050. If they continue on their present course, intensive fishing practices are
expected to result in a collapse in the world's fish population by the middle of the
current century (Worm et al. 2006). Limits on the capacity of the environment to
absorb CO2, without heating to damaging levels, is also reaching or exceeding
key limits (Intergovenmental Panel on Climate Change, 2007). Hansen et al.
(2008) specified that it is essential that atmospheric carbon dioxide be reduced to
at least 350 parts per million from its current level of 385 parts per million and
warned that exceeding the 350 level more than temporarily runs the risk of
irreversible warming. The peak production of many important industrial metals
has already occurred and will continue to occur during this century (Bardi, 2008;
Bardi & Pagani, 2007). Agricultural production is reaching limits it will be
difficult to exceed (Brown, 2004). Fresh water, essential for basic human needs,
has grown increasingly scarce (Rogers, 2008). It is expected that two-thirds of the
world's population will live under water-stressed conditions by 2025 (UNESCO,
2009). Another threat to sustainability is the increasing use of natural resources
among developing nations, where enhanced resource use is required to provide
basic necessities (United Nations, 1987). If all the world's countries consumed
natural resources at the rate of the United States or the United Arab Emirates, 4.5
Earths would be required (Ewing et. al., 2008).
The current world economy is based on the assumption of perpetual
economic growth in which use of finite natural resources, as well as the human
population, constantly increases over time (Speth, 2008). The logical foundations
of this assumption are seldom examined. According the State of the World report
of the Worldwatch Institute (Halweil et al., 2004) "Endless economic growth
driven by unbridled consumption has been elevated to the status of a modern
religion" (p. 96). However, the finite supply of natural resources requires not a
growth economy, but one in which natural resource reinforcers are held constant
at a level that does not exceed the Earth's carrying capacity. Nineteenth-century
economists understood that resource limits would eventually necessitate such an
economy and economist Herman Daly and his colleagues (Daly, 1991, 1996; Daly
& Cobb, 1994; Daly & Farley, 2004) have revived this understanding in the
modern era with their advocacy of a steady-state economy. Several early
economists envisioned the inevitable prospect of a no-growth economy, with
"unaffected aversion," in John Stuart Mill's (1909/2000) words. Mill himself
however believed that a steady-state economy, which he called a "stationary
state," would be an improvement over the growth economy that prevailed in his
In a steady-state economy a key concept is the notion of throughput, defined
as "the flow of natural resources from the environment, through the economy, and
back to the environment as waste" (Daly & Farley, 2004, p. 6). Within a steadystate
economy throughput is held constant: The economy functions with a set of
natural-resource reinforcer inputs that remains constant over time. Holding
throughput constant in turn keeps rates of economic behavior, including
consumption and production, at similarly constant levels. In contrast, in a growth
economy natural-resource reinforcer supply continually increases, as does
production and consumption, until the system collapses either because the natural
resource inputs are exhausted or because the rate of waste product emissions
exceeds the environment's capacity to absorb them. In order to be sustainable,
throughput must be set at a level at which natural-resource supply can be
maintained indefinitely over time and at which the environment can absorb the
waste products. In a steady-state economy technological progress can improve the
efficiency of use of natural-resource reinforcers, but without increasing
throughput. Although a steady-state economy has a zero rate of throughput
growth, it is not to be confused with either the periodic economic hardships of no
growth within a growth economy or a zero rate of GDP growth (Daly, 1996).
Sustainability may be defined as practices that are consistent with a steadystate
economy, in which rate of usage of natural-resource reinforcers (i.e.,
throughput) is held at a constant level to maintain a similarly constant rate of both
aggregate economic activity and output of waste products. It is of course essential
that the ongoing rate of throughput be set at a level that does not exceed either
resource supply or environmental-absorption capacity. In this way a steady-state
economy functions within the limits of the Earth's carrying capacity.
Overconsumption, Underconsumption and Consumption Skills
Contemporary concern with issues of the environment and sustainability have
led to a focus on the problem of overconsumption (e.g., McKibben, 2007; Nevin,
2005; Skinner, 1987; Swim et al., 2009). Many of the products consumed in
developed economies are unnecessary resource-intensive luxuries coveted due to
competitive contingencies, including competitive status-seeking (Frank, 1999;
Schor, 1998). For example a large home with seldom-used space requires
substantial inputs of energy and other resources in its construction and operation.
It is an expensive resource-intensive alternative to a smaller home in which space
is fully used. In order to afford a large home, the average person must work for
many months or years in employment that is often itself resource-intensive. This
cycle in which unnecessary resource-intensive consumption reinforces resourceintensive
work typifies economic activity in developed countries, leading to
overwork (Hayden, 1999; Hunnicutt, 1988; Linder, 1970; Reid, 1995; Schor,
1992) and overspending (Frank, 1999; Schor, 1998). The cycle also contributes to
climate change: Rosnick and Weisbrot (2006) found for example that if U.S. work
hours were reduced to European levels, the lessened economic activity would
have been sufficient to meet the CO2 reductions designated in the 1997 Kyoto
Perceptions of cultural overconsumption are sometimes influenced more by
relative changes in consumption patterns rather than by stronger secular trends.
Growth economies are inherently unstable and cyclic, resulting in periods of debtfunded
overconsumption followed by periods of forced savings and an unwinding
of debt (Minsky, 1992). We are currently in a contraction phase of the growth
economy's economic cycle, leading some to conclude that an enduring economic
moderation and frugality have supplanted overconsumption and that criticisms of
a culture of overconsumption are outdated. Temporary economic contractions,
themselves an undesirable by-product of prior overconsumption, can provide the
illusion that the growth economy's unsustainable demand for resources and
outflow of waste products has ceased.
Sustainability is often framed entirely as a problem of overconsumption, but
this view restricts potential solutions to those involving abstention and self-denial.
A key parallel problem is the underconsumption of reinforcers that do not tap
throughput substantially. The behavior of people in developed economies is
broadly analogous to a concurrent schedule of reinforcement in which in one
component resource-intensive reinforcers maintain responding and in the other
component resource-free or resource-light reinforcers do so. In reflecting on the
inevitability of a steady-state economy, Mill (1909/2000) anticipated the arrival of
a time when society would make a changeover from material resource reinforcers
to resource-free and resource-light reinforcers:
The alternative reinforcers Mill alludes to as part of the art of living are
extraordinarily important because they provide a positive incentive for sustainable
living. Schor (1995) argues that well-intentioned appeals to adopt austere
lifestyles on environmental or moral grounds are less likely to change behavior
than offering the alternative of a higher-quality life. Likewise, Skinner (1978)
advised against rhetorical methods that "frighten people rather than offer them a
world to which they will turn because of the reinforcing consequences of doing
so" (p. 13). Achieving sustainability hinges on how effectively advocates can
portray an attractive future based on stable resource consumption and highlight
existing subcultural practices that, if properly scaled, can form the basis of such a
future. For his part Skinner outlined an appealing potential future in Walden Two.
Although more controversial features of the novel have traditionally been the
focus of attention, it can also be understood as a blueprint for ecological health
(Altus & Morris, 2004). Skinner (1976) described a community, inspired by
Thoreau's original Walden, in which people reduced "some of the things they
normally consume to eliminate some of the aversive labors otherwise required"
(Evans, 1981, p. 46). In Walden Two resource-intensive work is reduced to four
hours per day, allowing much of the remainder of daily life to be left to the
pursuit of acquired tastes in the literary, visual and performing arts (Skinner,
1976, Chapter 11). For his part Mill (1979/2004) believed that a key to the
success of humankind was through the development of a cultivated mind, which
would allow people to enjoy pleasures previously denied to them. Not restricted
to a leisure class, Mill insisted that such a mind, could be "the inheritance of
every one born in a civilized country," and is close to the ideals of Walden Two
... a stationary condition of capital and population implies no stationary
state of human improvement. There would be as much scope as ever for
all kinds of mental culture, and moral and social progress; as much room
for improving the Art of Living, and much more likelihood of its being
improved, when minds ceased to be engrossed by the art of getting on.
(Book IV, Chapter VI, para. 2)
Skinner and Mill were interested in expanding the role of artistic creation and
appreciation in daily life as well as fostering general intellectual culture, but a
higher quality of life can also encompass other widely appealing resource-light
and resource-free activities. Like Mill and Skinner, Scitovsky (1992) prized
intellectual, artistic, and literary reinforcers, but more explicitly extended the
domain of desirable culture to include reinforcing behaviors, such as conversation
and other day-to-day activities:
... finds sources of inexhaustible interest in all that surrounds it; in the
objects of nature, the achievements of art, the imaginations of poetry, the
incidents of history, the ways of mankind, past and present, and their
prospects in the future. (Chapter II, para. 13)
For Scitovsky, a key problem with modern society is that a large range of
important and powerful reinforcers are denied to people because they lack
requisite consumption skills. The behaviors composing the art of living and the
acquired aesthetic tastes in Walden Two are consumption skills that are learned,
often with time and some difficulty, but once acquired open new domains of
reinforcing challenges and pleasures. Learning to enjoy literature, for example, is
often not effortless but once acquired establishes the stored rewards of centuries
of literary output (Grant, 2005; Nell, 1988).
The word "culture" usually makes people think of the ability to enjoy
literature, music, painting, and other fine arts whose enjoyment takes
effort and time to learn, although the appreciation and enjoyment of
food, sports, games of skill and card games, political, economic, and
scientific news, and so on are also learned skills and must therefore be
included in the definition of culture. (pp. 226-227)
From Scitovsky's (1989a, 1992) perspective, consumption is an inevitable
and ongoing everyday process rather than something to be avoided as necessarily
undesirable or unsustainable. Scitovsky maintained that the problem of material
overconsumption is rooted in the lack of skilled consumption. Reading a good
book, listening to music, intelligent conversation, etc. are all resource-light forms
of consumption that require the consumption skills involved in literary, musical
and conversational appreciation. For Scitovsky this skilled consumption also
entails relative reinforcer effectiveness: valuing reinforcers such as literature,
music, and conversation as worthy and superior alternatives to resource-intensive
material consumption. Acquiring consumption skills in part requires motivating
operations (Michael, 2004) that establish the relative effectiveness of appropriate
reinforcers. Without acquisition of consumption skills, people generally fall into a
pattern of engaging in resource-intensive work to consume resource-intensive
In the material that follows, overconsumed reinforcers refer to reinforcers
whose current level of consumption is not sustainable insofar as that level cannot
be supported within a steady-state economy. Underconsumed reinforcers refer to
reinforcers whose current level of consumption can be increased and still support
a steady-state economy. Ultimately society will have to come to grips with which
precise levels of consumption are sustainable including, for example, what
amount of motorized transportation can be supported by renewable sources of
energy (e.g., Gilbert & Perl, 2008). For our present purposes though, a rule of
thumb is that underconsumed reinforcers are free-time, non-income producing
activities that do not draw on natural resources or do so only in a relatively
limited way. The most important underconsumed reinforcers are those that require
significant consumption skills that lead to progressive increases in intrinsic
reinforcers with increasing skill proficiency. Increasing the accessibility and
effectiveness of underconsumed reinforcers holds the promise of breaking the
cycle of work-to-consume (Hunnicutt, 1988; Schor, 1992) while at the same time
increasing the quality of day-to-day life.
What are described here as underconsumed reinforcers have played a part in
rich and diverse historical traditions. In many indigenous cultures people find
fulfillment from social relationships and the environment, values that are eroded
with the encroachment of Western consumerism (Norberg-Hodge, 1992). Many
religious perspectives maintain that an ideal life is one in which participation in
prayer, meditation, charity and group celebrations are favored over the pursuit of
material wealth (de Botton, 2004; Kaza, 2000, 2005; Shi, 1985). Thoreau
(1854/1995) saw luxuries as "hindrances to the elevation of mankind" (p. 8) and
believed that if people properly understood the realities of life "music and poetry
would resound along the streets" (p. 62). For centuries communities of Bohemian
artists and writers have shunned the bourgeois accumulation of money in favor of
aesthetic reinforcers (de Botton, 2004; Wetzsteon, 2002). The counterculture of
the 1960s and early 1970s (Reich, 1970; Roszak, 1968) likewise devalued many
economic reinforcers and instead explored lifestyles focused on art, music and
unconventional politics. The voluntary simplicity movement (Elgin, 1993;
Etzioni, 1998; Maniates, 2002) is a diverse contemporary subculture that forgoes
many material goods yet seeks out resource-light pleasures (McBride, 1997). The
labor movement's successful campaign for shorter working hours during the 19th
and early 20th centuries (Hayden, 1999; Hunnicutt, 1988) represents a struggle to
obtain reinforcers other than those that money can buy. Putnam's (2000) Bowling
Alone, highlighted the importance of social reinforcers inherent in family and
community activities and associated benefits to both individuals and the larger
society. He documented the decline and relative underconsumption of these
activity reinforcers and has related these declines to increases in crime, poverty,
and a range of other undesirable consequences. Csikszentmihalyi (1990)
contended that resource-light structured reinforcing activities are central to a
Increasing the relative time allocation to pursuit of resource-light and
resource-free reinforcers represents at once the key challenge to sustainability of
developed economies and a major opportunity for the behavioral sciences to make
a distinctive contribution to creating a sustainable society. Whereas economics
and the business community generally limit their domain of analysis to reinforcers
(i.e., incentives and products) that have a quantifiable dollar value (Scitovsky,
1973b), behavior science extends its scope to include all reinforcers capable of
maintaining behavior. Inducing people to shift more of their time and behavior to
acquiring these noneconomic reinforcers is a key to the creation of a sustainable
Transition to Sustainability as a Behavioral Process: Challenges
Shifting from an unsustainable growth economy to a steady-state economy
can be understood in terms of both avoiding a much worse world and advancing
to a more reinforcing one. In avoidance responding, engaging in a behavior
prevents or postpones an aversive consequence (a harmful event or set of events),
whereas failure to engage in the behavior produces the aversive consequence. In
these broad terms, actions and policies that put a steady-state economy into place
represent an avoidance response, which will prevent the harmful consequences of
exceeding the Earth's carrying capacity. As emphasized in the work of Mill,
Skinner and Scitovsky, a steady-state economy also offers the potential for a more
reinforcing world though a transition to a culture of acquired tastes and pleasures.
The growth economy represents a diverse set of interlocking practices
(Glenn, 1991; Glenn & Malott, 2004) that support ever-increasing resource use.
Long working hours, low-density suburban housing, dependence on fossil-fuel
transportation, product marketing practices, and the fractional-reserve banking
system (Daly & Farley, 2004) are all examples of these interlocking practices.
Although consumption is often portrayed as a matter of individual choice, Sanne
(2002) described many interlocking practices that induce consumption simply
because society fails to provide alternatives.
A complete treatment of replacing the growth economy with a steady-state
economy would ideally address the entire set of interlocking practices that support
growth. In this section the focus is more selective, restricted to important
behavioral challenges. Challenges include: (a) the nonrecurring nature of the
harmful consequences of unsustainable behavior; (b) the delay of the harmful
consequences; (c) the nature of avoidance responding; (d) the variability in the
anticipated delay of the harmful consequences; (e) reinforcer habituation; (f) a
baseline of abnormal exponential growth and behavioral momentum; (g)
efficiency; (h) the predicted aversiveness of a sustainability crisis; and (i)
Harmful Nonrecurring Consequences
People are highly capable of adapting to various types of environmental and
other challenges once those challenges are encountered in concrete form rather
than as an abstract idea (Grant, 2007; Swim et al., 2009). Most successful
behavioral interventions are indeed based on simply giving people direct practice
that allows them to acquire or perfect skills (e.g., Cooper, Heron, & Heward,
2007; Martin & Pear, 2003). The problem with economic growth and overconsumption
is that direct practice is not possible because the harmful consequences
only occur when shortages in a finite natural resource appear or the Earth's ability
to absorb waste products is exceeded. Archaeological and other historical
evidence indicates that several ancient cultures failed because they outgrew their
carrying capacity or otherwise failed to adapt to changing environmental
conditions (Diamond, 2005; Redman, 1999). However, these consequences were
encountered only by people who lived centuries ago. As a result these conseGRANT
quences do not act directly upon anyone's current behavior and instead act only
indirectly through application of derived rules or instructive analogies, weakening
their relative effectiveness (Malott, 1986).
Harmful Delayed Consequences
The effectiveness of behavioral consequences on behavior change is
lessened when they are delayed (Ainslie, 2001; Rachlin, 2000) and some of the
harmful consequences of a growth economy are likely to be delayed by as long as
several decades before they actually materialize. This principle is often described
in terms of temporal discounting: The effectiveness of a consequence on behavior
is lessened or discounted the more it is delayed. Sustainability is difficult in part
because the consequences at issue are delayed and currently inapparent. Harmful
effects such as climate change, overpopulation, shortages of fossil fuels and fresh
water, are all delayed consequences that are less effective than they would be if
they were current.
The Nature of Avoidance Responding
Even with practice avoidance responding is difficult to acquire because
nothing immediately occurs following the response (Catania, 1998). Under
avoidance contingencies the avoidance response merely maintains current
conditions by preventing or postponing an aversive consequence. Failure to
respond produces the aversive consequence, but its occurrence is also delayed.
Implementing a steady-state economy, the avoidance response, would prevent the
harmful effects of unsustainable practices, but no immediate prominent
consequent advantages would be apparent to the public or to any political group
opposed to a steady-state economy. In order to implement the avoidance response,
a steady-state economy, resources, education, and effort must be mobilized.
However, this mobilization must compete with efforts to solve many other
important problems (e.g., economic recessions, crime, poverty, child welfare etc.)
that are currently harmful.
Avoidance responding is often successfully acquired when it is preceded by
escape responding, in which something does happen after the response: the escape
response terminates the aversive stimulus. For example, once acquired as a
response that escapes an acute water shortage, water conservation can be
maintained as an avoidance response because it prevents future shortages (Geller,
1992). In escape responding, the learner receives practice in removing the
aversive stimulus, which appears to facilitate learning how to prevent it as well.
However, the nonrecurring nature of the harmful consequences of unsustainable
practices means there is often no opportunity to learn to use a policy like a steadystate
economy as an escape response.
Variability in the Predicted Delay of the Harmful Consequences
One influence that is seldom explicitly discussed and not well understood is
the variability in the predicted delay of the aversive consequences of
unsustainable practices. Both climate models and estimates of depletion of natural
resources are widely variable in their predictions of when problems will occur.
For example, some estimate that a peak in world oil production has already
occurred, whereas others envision no oil peak for the foreseeable future (Grant,
2007). Avoidance responding was successful in addressing the Y2K computer
problem, which included the possibility of an accidental nuclear war (Knelman,
1999) largely because the aversive consequences were scheduled to occur on a
very specific deadline date. Neither global warming nor resource depletion can be
precisely tagged with specific dates, which helps foster the view that their
solutions can be postponed. Another complicating factor is that current use of
energy and other resources is highly inefficient relative to even what current
technologies can provide (Hawken, Lovins & Lovins, 1999). Additional
improvements in efficient technologies are likely to further postpone the aversive
consequences, but by a time factor that is difficult to predict in advance.
Since the industrial revolution began technological advancement has been a
wild card in foiling accurate predictions of future crises due to unsustainable
practices. The impact of technology in improving agricultural and industrial
productivity, communications, ability to extract fossil fuels, providing laborsaving
machines, etc. has been impressive since the industrial revolution. During
this time technological advancement has confounded certain predictions of a dire
future. Malthus (1798/1998) for example was incorrect in his predictions of
famines due to population growth outrunning the food supply because he did not
anticipate the increased rate of technological advancement, as well as fossil-fuel
use, that occurred just about the time he proposed his theory (Galor & Weil, 1999;
Hardin, 1993). Although Malthus is often cited and even derided as a prototype of
a faulty predictor of the harmful effects of growth, his model correctly accounted
for the relationship between population size and food supply during most of
human history prior to the modern era (Galor & Weil, 1999; Krugman, 2009).
Some observers see the current technological era as anomaly in human history
that has created a collective illusion that growth can continue indefinitely (Catton,
1982; Hubbert, 1981).
The variable nature of the delay of projected onset of the aversive
consequences of unsustainable practices is manifest in the successive predictions
of M. King Hubbert, well known for issuing a correct 1956 prediction that the
United States oil production would peak in 1970 (Hubbert, 1956). In making
projections as new data became continuously available Hubbert altered his
outlook several times, varying the projected delay of the aversive consequences of
unsustainable practices. For example he initially discounted the potential
contribution of solar energy because it was too highly dispersed. He nonetheless
eventually came to regard electricity generation from photovoltaic and solar
thermal technologies as a viable replacement for fossil fuels as a source of energy
(Brenno, 2009) that would have the potential to "provide an environment for the
flowering of a great civilization" (Hubbert, 1981, p. 1029). Changing projections
of future prospects due to technological innovations can lead to dismissal of
future predictions in general due to the operation of extinction of attending to
predictions, but ongoing alterations of predictions are essential in data-based
decision making. For his part, Hubbert's projection of a bright future for humanity
was dependent on stabilization of the population and adoption of a steady-state
economy: Adoption of even powerful renewable solar technologies without being
coupled with a steady-state economy would produce consequences that he
described as "not pleasant to contemplate" (Hubbert, 1981, p. 1029).
Current discussions of sustainability generally fail to recognize the
intractably variable nature of predictions of the delay of the aversive
consequences of unsustainable practices. Instead of trying to come to terms with
the nature of the parameter, discussions are often mired in vituperation over the
accuracy of individual predictions. A more helpful approach is to accept the
nature of the variability-of-the-delay parameter and take a risk management
approach (Grant, 2007; Hirsch, Bezdek, & Wendling, 2005), to the issue by
adopting an economy that will be sustainable whether a disastrous future is either
impending or decades away.
In reinforcer habituation, a reinforcer loses it effectiveness over time due to
repeated application (Murphy, McSweeney, Smith, & McComas, 2003).
Habituation is a general problem for sustainability because loss of effectiveness of
purchased goods or income can spur people to work for more income to purchase
new products, whose effectiveness has not diminished due to habituation.
Habituation or habituation-like processes are seen in surveys in which people rate
whether particular goods are luxuries or "necessities" or as part of "the good life".
For example, in 1973 a second car was rated as a "necessity" by only 20% of U.S.
residents, but by 1996 this value had nearly doubled to 37% (Schor, 1998).
Likewise, from 1975 to 1991 a vacation home, swimming pool, and foreign travel
showed large increases in the extent to which they were rated as "part of the good
life" (Schor, 1998). Although designations of necessities and luxuries can be
reversed during economic contractions (Pew Research Center, 2009), overall
these data suggest that as income continues to rise in a standard growth economy
people's definition of what is a necessity will continue to expand, producing
increasing consumption of newly perceived necessities.
Baseline of Abnormal Exponential Growth and Behavioral Momentum
Due to the growing use of fossil fuels as well as the increase in the rate of
technological progress, the era since the industrial revolution to the present has
led to a rich rate and magnitude of reinforcement in developed societies. An effect
of this infusion of wealth and resulting growth has been behavioral momentum,
the resistance of behaviors to change (Nevin, 2005). This resistance to change in
consumption makes it difficult to reduce the level of behaviors responsible for
exponential growth in population, resource use and emission of harmful waste
products. The rhetoric of political leaders continues to reflect resistance to
change. Former President George H. W. Bush said "The American way of life is
not negotiable" (quoted in Wheeler, 2004). President Obama shares this inertial
stance, declaring in his inaugural address: "We will not apologize for our way of
life, nor will we waver in its defense..." (Obama, 2009).
A manifestation of the growth economy in creating behavioral momentum is
the perception that any decline or moderation in economic growth is abnormal.
Yet as Hubbert (1981) observed:
Resistance to change due to affluence also occurs in the outlook ordinary
people have on life and work. Hayden (1999) quoted a French worker's disdain
for a 32-hour work week on the grounds that it is impossible to enjoy extra leisure
time without money. For Hayden, this illustrates:
... the events of the last two centuries, including exponential growth in
industry and a nearly six-fold increase in the human population, instead
of being the normal order of things, actually represent the most abnormal
events in human history." (p. 1029)
Resistance to change due to affluence is particularly the enemy of
imaginative and creative behaviors, which are defined in terms of change and the
emergence of novel forms. Data show that the absence of customary
reinforcement increases novel response variants, which are one of the sources of
creativity (e.g., Epstein, 1993; Lalli, Zanolli, & Wohn, 1994).
… how capitalism has created people with no identity beyond being
worker-consumers, and it shows how dependent many of us have
become on the market to satisfy all our needs and wants. Although this
dependency is clearly related to capitalism's generation of new "needs"
and its hindering of the capacity of people to fulfill their needs and wants
outside of the market, the problem also reflects a failure of the
imagination. Surely we can still find ways to engage in leisure and
provide our own amusements, just as people have done throughout
history, without first having to generate income from the sale of our
labour. (pp. 89-90)
Efficiency: Reduced Response Requirements per Reinforcer
Reductions in the quantity of behavior required per reinforcer unit can be
achieved either by improvements in efficiency or by lowering the cost of required
resources. When less behavior is required to obtain the same quantity or
frequency of reinforcement, this is widely regarded as a net benefit. Politically
there is often little objection to enjoying the same reinforcers for less behavior or
cost. Therefore much of the current focus of the United States Department of
Energy for example is on improving the efficiency of energy use (The White
Although both improvements in energy efficiency and supply represent
potential benefits, their impact is more complex than is generally regarded due to
the operation of Jevons effects, also known as the Khazzoom-Brookes postulate
(Saunders, 1992). Jevons (1866) found improving machine efficiency saves
energy in the short term, but produces a rebound effect that increases energy use
in the long term. The disparity between these short- and long-term effects is
known as Jevons' paradox. For example, if a more efficient tractor is invented, it
is possible to plow the same amount of land at lesser cost or more land at the
same cost, so there is a tendency to plow more land and increase output and
potential profits. The more efficient tractor therefore brings more land into
production, supports a greater human population and increases economic growth.
In the short-term, increased efficiency appears highly attractive as a means of
reducing resource use, but in the long-term, improving efficiency increases the
available reinforcement for the same behavioral requirement (i.e., same cost, same
response magnitude, or same number of responses), resulting in greater use of the
fuel-using machine along with greater use of fuel and other resources.
Advances in technology that provide energy at low cost have the same net
effect as improvements in machine efficiency: The same amount of reinforcement
is available for less behavior or cost. Advances in renewable energy sources are
occurring and will accelerate as fossil fuels are depleted (Gilbert & Perl, 2008).
Technological breakthroughs in alternative energy sources (e.g., geothermal, oil
shale recovery, nuclear fusion, increased solar cell efficiency, solar thermal
technology, cellulosic and algae biofuels, etc.) would ostensibly lessen the
aversiveness of a crisis of sustainability or even eliminate such a crisis. Although
injection of a source of inexpensive energy into the economy would have the
short-term effect of increasing the supply of energy, over the long-term such
developments are likely to increase demand for energy due to Jevons' effects.
Only within a steady-state economy, in which throughput is held constant, can
efficiency improvements maintain or reduce resource-reinforcer requirements.
Predicted Aversiveness of a Sustainability Crisis
Unimpeded growth without countermeasures will eventually result in climate
change and resource depletion, but perceptions of how harmful this will be vary
widely. Although there is a consensus among climate scientists that global
warming will have disastrous effects (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate
Change, 2007), a minority believe warming observed to date is not due to carbon
emissions (e.g., The National Post, 2009). Maibach, Roser-Renouf, and
Leiserowitz (2010) found that people skeptical about global warming believe that
there is little scientific consensus on the issue. Divergent perceptions are also
prevalent with respect to the availability of energy. Some authorities foresee a
future in which renewable energy sources power increasingly efficient vehicles
and other machines, whereas others envision a cultural collapse (Catton, 1982;
Kunstler, 2005) when carrying capacity is exceeded. This divergence of opinion
leads many to the conclusion that there is no valid knowledge base and that
therefore there is no clear problem (Deffeyes, 2005).
The growth economy is supported by a large variety of reinforcers. Even
modest changes in the direction of a steady-state economy must compete with
these powerful reinforcers. Selected examples of these reinforcers include those
that work against consumption skills, the work ethic, positional reinforcers,
international competitive reinforcers, novel material reinforcers and limited-hold
contingencies, and advertising.
Reinforcers that compete against consumption skills. Consumption skills,
in the sense Scitovsky discussed them, can contribute to a sustainable culture
because they have the potential to improve the quality of life without a substantial
draw on natural resources. Reinforcers that maintain activities incompatible with
consumption skills and the free time necessary for their acquisition are therefore
impediments to sustainability.
Productivity growth and associated material affluence have had the effect of
making paid work more reinforcing relative to free time, creating modern freetime
scarcity (Linder, 1970). This influence is even seen in education, in which
increasingly narrow and specialized job training has displaced a broader liberal
education that includes general intellectual and aesthetic content (Scitovsky,
1992). Time scarcity poses a serious problem for the acquisition of advanced
consumption skills, which requires lots of free time (Bianchi, 2003; Linder,
1970). Learning and perfecting consumption skills, including musical and artistic
competence, is also often initially stressful because task demands challenge the
learner's abilities (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997; Scitovsky, 1992). Scitovsky
maintained that once acquired, artistic and intellectual consumption skills produce
a beneficial cascading or multiplier effect: Once acquired, additional intrinsic
reinforcers are progressively forthcoming in rate and magnitude as the skills are
increasingly perfected, an effect also exemplified in Csikszentmihalyi's (1990)
concept of flow and in Nell's (1988) concept of ludic reading. Scitovsky's
advanced consumption skills are analogous to a chained schedule of
reinforcement in which the initial link has a high response requirement and a lean
reinforcement rate, but the terminal link has a moderate response requirement and
a rich and enduring reinforcement rate. Advanced consumption skills in part
produce enduring reinforcement because they produce a continuing source of
intrinsic aesthetic reinforcers. As Bianchi (2003) observed:
In Scitovsky's view, most people lack both free time and a suitable education
necessary to acquire significant consumption skills, and are therefore consigned to
spend their free time repeatedly doing things like watching standard TV fare,
shopping, buying, and driving motor vehicles. These activities are immediately
reinforcing and demand relatively less time than advanced consumption skills, but
do not lead to further intrinsic or endogenous reinforcers. Activities such as
watching TV are arguably resource-light behaviors that appear to be compatible
with a sustainable use of leisure time. The problem however is that such activities
are insufficiently reinforcing to produce enduring intrinsic reinforcers, and
therefore fail to compete effectively with material goods for the allocation of
people's time. This problem is further compounded because many people with
weak consumption skills are not able to sample and compare the applicable
He [Scitovsky] also allows that there are some activities whose
characteristics make them less likely to cause negative habituation. These
are those creative activities that, because of their very complexity and
internal variety, are able to become an endogenous source of change and
novelty. (p. 403)
In reconsidering Scitovsky's concerns with weak consumption skills that
provide immediate reinforcers and effectively prevent the longer-term multiplier
effect, Bianchi (2003) discussed the role of both hyperbolic discounting
(Herrnstein, 1990) and melioration (Herrnstein & Prelec, 1991) as two possible
explanations. These phenomena may play a role in the suboptimal acquisition and
reinforcement of consumption skills.
Many stimuli require for their enjoyment little or no consumption skills
or skills already acquired for some other purpose; and it is natural for the
unskilled consumer to seek stimulation from these. If that proves costly
or yields less stimulation than he wants, he will never know it, unless by
chance he later acquires some of the consumption skills he has spurned
in the beginning and so can exercise retrospective rationality. (Scitovsky,
1977, p. 8)
The work ethic. Several commentators have questioned various aspects of
the desirability of the work ethic, a set of cultural practices aimed at boosting time
allocation to work over other activities, deferring reinforcement and avoiding
idleness (Beder, 2000; Kerr, 1962; Russell, 1935; Scitovsky, 1992). In his classic
work Weber (1904/1958) proposed that modern capitalism owes its success to the
work ethic, which he attributed in part to Calvinist beliefs that worldly material
success signaled divine salvation. Kerr however traced a parallel secular source of
the work ethic to the 18th Century, when utilitarian thinking (i.e., defining correct
behavior as that which produces the greatest happiness for the largest number of
people) became a dominant force, inducing people to consider doing things for
their own sake, as occurs in many artistic activities, as less preferable than
purposeful activities directed at benefiting others. (Some of Thoreau's
contemporaries for example suggested that he consider working to provide for
poor children, which he dismissed in part due to his valuation of aesthetic
motives.) Scitovsky (1973a) similarly attributed the high value we place on work
and production to the outwardly worthy motive of encouraging activities that
benefit others and curb selfish behaviors. The problem with this ostensibly worthy
and altruistic motive is that it functions unchecked in service of economic growth,
diminishes aesthetic sources of pleasure and is a source of collateral emotional
effects, guilt, evoked by leisure (Kerr, 1962; Scitovsky, 1992).
One component of the work ethic is the ability to defer reinforcers in time
and resist the influences of immediate reinforcers, a skill that increases over the
life span (Green, Fry, & Myerson, 1994) and is correlated with various measures
of general personal competence and success (Mischel, Shoda, & Rodriguez,
1989). This skill, combined with other societal consequences that encourage
work, works against the acquisition and maintenance of consumption skills that
often require susceptibility to and immersion in immediate reinforcers.
Kerr (1962) took the position that the contingencies associated with
utilitarian motives imprison people in a future-oriented present without pleasures:
Positional reinforcers. Positional reinforcers are ones that (a) are scarce due
to either natural or social conditions; and (b) are subject to change in reinforcing
effectiveness due to crowding or congestion (Hirsch, 1976). Income for example
is a highly positional reinforcer. An income of $10,000 is highly reinforcing if the
average income is $1000 because the higher income is relatively scarce. Oxygen
by contrast is not a positional reinforcer because it is not scarce and subject to
congestion or crowding only under unusual conditions. Prestigious jobs and
student admissions into top universities are positional as long as they are scarce
and relatively few people have access to them. Positional reinforcers are by
definition reinforcers that are scarce, but the scarcity can be due to different
factors (Hirsch, 1976). Prime real estate, such as fertile cropland or waterfront
properties, for example is naturally scarce due to geography. Many expensive
positional reinforcers such as houses and automobiles are limited in supply
because of natural limits on energy and materials. Some companies create scarcity
and reinforcer positionality by manufacturing limited quantities of their product in
order to elevate the selling price. Positional reinforcers can also be influenced by
crowding or overuse: A residence near a park can be a positional reinforcer that
can decline in value if the park becomes overused.
By making usefulness in the future our single talisman, we find ourselves
without a present or imprisoned in a present in which nothing real can be
known—a present that is empty of everything but our despair. We go to
our pleasures, when we dare to go to them at all, demanding that they
surrender to us a kind of knowledge that is not in them. And so we kill
them. (p. 244)
Competition for positional reinforcers sets individuals against each other in a
zero-sum contest in which work time and demands on natural-resource reinforcers
increase (Hirsch, 1976). Although a small percentage of wealthy individuals can
win the contest by collecting more positional goods than everyone else, on a
collective basis society loses, both because half the population will necessarily
fail to succeed in attaining average relative status (Frank, 1999, 2007; Hirsch,
1976; Schor, 1998) and because these competitive contingencies create and
maintain a heavy demand for limited natural resources and contribute to overwork
and overspending. In contrast nonpositional and less positional reinforcers do not
create competitive pressures. As Csikszentmihalyi (1999) points out:
Many positional reinforcers are valued due to a process of social comparison
that results in status seeking, in which the positional reinforcer's effectiveness is
due not to the usefulness of the products themselves but to the products' elevation
or maintenance of the individual's position within a social hierarchy. Relatively
conspicuous and expensive brand-name products often signal the user's elevated
level within the positional hierarchy (Chao and Schor, 1998). People typically
attribute their purchases of brand-name products to product quality rather than
status-seeking, even when these attributions are dubious (Claassen, 2008). Frank
(2007) maintains that positional competition for large, expensive houses, a highly
conspicuous reinforcer, has created a "positional arms race" that is especially
harmful to the happiness and welfare of middle class families.
To be rich means that others must be poor; to be famous means that
others must be anonymous; to be powerful means that others must be
helpless. If everyone strives for such self-limiting rewards, most people
will necessarily remain frustrated, resulting in personal unhappiness and
social instability. By contrast, the rewards of flow are open-ended and
inexhaustible: If I get my joy from cooking Mediterranean food, or from
surfing, or from coaching Little League, this will not decrease anyone
else's happiness. (p. 826)
Pursuit of positional reinforcers and especially status-seeking connotes
individuals with superficial value systems who envy others and define themselves
exclusively in economic terms. Working for positional reinforcers however does
not always reflect motives we consider unworthy. People often work to purchase
residences in neighborhoods with good schools because it enhances their
children's future social position or status, not because they wish to be seen as
superior to others. Some people work to purchase homes in areas with belowaverage
schools because those areas are a step up from their even worse existing
neighborhoods, in an effort to move off the bottom of the scale (Claassen, 2008)
and gain relative safety from crime and violence. Seeking positional improvement
of this type nonetheless represents the operation of the positional economy and
produces its harmful aggregate effects: Positional competition pushing up from
the bottom of the scale has effects throughout the hierarchy.
International competitive reinforcers. During the depression of the 1930s
there was an increased openness to new ideas and this included receptivity to
reduce the work week to 30 hours in order to spread the available work more
widely and increase employment (Hunnicutt, 1988). Had this occurred, it would
have had the potential to moderate the future level of economic activity and move
the economy toward sustainability. In 1933 legislation to implement the 30-hour
work week appeared on the brink of being enacted, but in the face of corporate
opposition President Roosevelt effectively opposed the legislation and it was
never put into law.
Later in the early 1950s maximizing economic growth became a part of the
U.S. government's cold-war strategy, as outlined in the 1950 National Security
Council Report 68 (NSC-68) (National Security Council, 1950), which envisioned
maintaining high levels of economic activity and full employment as a means of
generating tax revenues, which in turn would augment the defense budget in order
to contain the Soviet Union (Collins, 2000). The overall work week had been
reduced during the entire 19th century and this continued into the early 20th
century (Hunnicutt, 1988). Keynes (1930) had even envisioned an eventual 3-hour
work day and a 15-hour work week for the grandchildren of his generation. With
the onset of the cold war further efforts to reduce the work week became contrary
to U.S. national security.
Novel material reinforcers and limited-hold reinforcement schedules.
During the 19th and early 20th century work-week hours declined due in part to
the effectiveness of the labor movement and the application of collective
bargaining principles. Hunnicutt (1988) maintains that these reductions were
consistent with Mill's perspective:
Beginning in the 1920s however a new ethic called "the new economic
gospel of consumption" (Hunnicutt, 1988; Kaplan, 2008) prevailed. Corporations
had become concerned that rising material prosperity would usher in an era in
which workers would become habituated with commercial products and seek
more leisure time and shorter working hours, which were seen as a threat to
economic growth and corporate earnings. Working hours had after all declined
steadily during the 19th century. Concern with a continuation of this general trend
led for example Charles Kettering (1929), a General Motors engineer and
executive, to a solution: "Keep the Consumer Dissatisfied". Kettering held that it
was important to make new products more reinforcing so that the consumer would
be willing to sacrifice leisure time to work and consume more. The alternative to
keeping the consumer dissatisfied was seen as economic stagnation:
...the widespread belief in progress and human perfectibility in the
nineteenth century involved the acceptance of both higher wages and
shorter hours in the long term, reflecting the belief that work and even
material progress were, at least in part, means to nonmaterial ends. Thus
shorter hours, as a practical labor reform and political issue, figured
prominently in nineteenth-century discussion about progress and the
values and purposes of work and wealth. (pp. 15-16)
Kettering's general strategy for maintaining consumption is a form of
planned obsolescence. In this form the strategy is to create a series of novel
products, each of which has a limited life as a fully effective reinforcer, placing
consumer behavior on a limited-hold reinforcement schedule (Ferster & Skinner,
1957). In such a schedule, behavior produces a reinforcer that is only available for
consumption for a limited period of time. Limited-hold schedules produce higher
rates of behavior than schedules without limited-hold requirements (Ferster &
Skinner, 1957). However, unlike reinforcers in the laboratory, older reinforcers
lose their reinforcing effectiveness relative to novel reinforcers, a form of a
reinforcer contrast effect (Grant & Evans, 1994), coupled with reinforcer
habituation. Packard (1960) distinguished between three forms of planned
obsolescence, obsolescence of function, in which a new product is more
reinforcing because it operates more effectively than an older product,
obsolescence of desirability, in which the new product is more reinforcing only
because it is superficially different from the well-functioning product it replaces,
and obsolescence of quality, in which a shoddy product is simply designed to fail
so as to ensure its repurchase. Packard called attention to the waste of natural
resources in all these types of planned obsolescence.
If everyone were satisfied, no one would buy the new thing because no
one would want it. The ore wouldn't be mined; timber wouldn't be cut.
Almost immediately hard times would be upon us. You must accept this
reasonable dissatisfaction with what you have and buy the new thing, or
accept hard times. You can have your choice. (Kettering, 1929, para. 24)
Advertising: The commercial persuasion industry. Mass-media product
advertising emerged during the early 1920s and expanded rapidly during that
decade in the U.S. (Hunnicutt, 1988; Shi, 1985). It was credited with being an
important force in driving increased consumption (National Bureau of Economic
Research, 1929), allaying concerns expressed in the early 1920s that in order to
create more leisure time for themselves, consumers would cut back on both their
work and consumption. Today worldwide yearly advertising spending is
estimated at about $450 billion dollars (BBC, 2009). In the U.S. alone in 2007 ad
spending totaled $279 billion dollars (Galbi, 2008), then equivalent to $925 for
every American. The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations
(2008) has estimated the cost of completely ending world hunger at $30 billion
dollars per year, a value U.S. ad spending could pay for nine times over.
Despite these massive expenditures, U.S. consumers have an increasingly
negative opinion of advertising. In a 2004 poll conducted by Yankelovich
Partners, one-third of those surveyed would be willing to accept a slightly lower
standard of living if they could live in a society without marketing or advertising
(Greenspan, 2004). Advertising in the U.S. is a deductible business expense. In
one survey 65% of respondents favored ending this tax-favored status (Schor,
Ads function through several mechanisms including Pavlovian conditioning,
vicarious reinforcement, and escape conditioning. Much advertising employs
Pavlovian conditioning in the form of conditioned attractions (Grant & Evans,
1994) in which the product is differentially associated with other stimuli that
already elicit positive emotional responses (e.g., Stuart, Shimp, & Engle, 1987).
Advertisers differentially associate their products with attractive nonmarket
stimuli (e.g., friendships, sensuality, positive emotions, family life, social
gatherings, upbeat music, and humor), imparting the deceptive message, for
example, that success in personal social relationships can be achieved though
product purchases (Jhally, 2002). In addition, advertising makes use of a stimulus control
procedures known as vicarious reinforcement (Bandura, 1969; Hawkins &
Hane, 2000), in which attractive models appear to be better off though use of the
advertised product or service. High-status models make modeling more effective
(Bandura, 1969) and 25% of current ads portray a high-status celebrity, double the
percentage in 1995 (Conley, 2008). Advertising also employs escape
conditioning, in which a motivating operation (Michael, 2004) is used: The ad
creates the impression that people who do not have or use the product are
personally inadequate or lacking, a state that can be escaped only through regular
product purchase and use. Richins (1991) found that advertising using attractive
models initiates a process of social comparison that induces consumers to rate
normal people as less attractive and to feel less satisfied with their own
appearance. Advertisements have appeared in increasingly more subtle and
pervasive forms, as illustrated by product placement methods in which attractive
movie stars playing heroic roles use branded products in films, including
dangerous products like cigarettes that are banned from conventional ads in many
countries. Engels, Hermans, van Baaren, Hollenstein and Bot (2009) found that
viewing televised movie or ad models who drank substantial alcohol caused the
viewers to increase their consumption of alcohol when given the opportunity.
Ads induce people to consume inessential products and unnecessarily
increase the use of natural resource reinforcers, but people falsely believe that as
long as they are aware that advertisers are attempting to influence them they can
control the extent of that influence (Wilson, 2002). People use introspection, a
faulty method of assessing actual influence, to conclude that ads do not influence
them significantly. This dismissal of advertising's influence in turn has the
insidious result of increasing advertising's effectiveness because people are
caught off guard (Wilson, 2002).
From the perspective of behavior analysis, the operation of conditioning in
day-to-day life is ubiquitous rather than something to be regarded as necessarily
menacing. What makes advertising so dangerous and powerful as a form of
behavior control is that it is relentlessly concentrated on producing only one type
of behavior, consumption, at the exclusion of all else. Sneddon (2001) considers
this concentration of influence a moral problem because it "works against the
willingness of people to examine their lives against a rich background of values
and possibilities" (p. 23). With many daily conditioning trials, this has contributed
to development of a culture in which people neglect nonmarket reinforcers
(Waide, 2001) and even go so far as to develop a sense of trivialized personal
identity based on the products they use rather than based on more substantial and
important human values (Cushman, 1990; Fromm, 1976; Jhally, 2002; Walker,
Opportunities for Sustainability
Successful implementation of a steady-state economy requires a constant rate
of throughput such that a uniform rate of natural-resource reinforcement
maintains a steady-state of economic behavior. The major general challenge to
such an implementation is to change the basic pattern of the existing economic
system, in which a growing supply of inessential consumer goods reinforces more
labor from more workers to pay for these products. Because economic growth has
such a well-fortified position, any ultimately successful attempt to move from a
growth economy to steady-state economy is likely to occur only incrementally.
Relatively little is known about how to manage a successful transition from a
growth economy to a steady-state economy because of the lack of historical
precedents. Experimentation with small scale pilot projects would be useful in
identifying effective transition strategies.
From among a large number of potential steps toward a steady-state
economy, only a select few are briefly discussed here: Goal setting, government
policies, countering advertising, reducing work time, adopting voluntary
simplicity, adopting Bohemianism and other alternative positional reinforcement
systems, and education.
Setting goals and identifying target behaviors is a basic feature of behavioral
interventions that has been shown to be useful in a variety of settings (Locke,
Shaw, Saari, & Latham, 1981; Mento, Steele, & Karen, 1987), especially when
combined with ongoing feedback concerning whether the goals are being met
(Erez, 1977; Reber & Wallin, 1984). Goal setting is however only helpful if the
appropriate goals are being set. The issue of selecting the appropriate behavioral
targets has been an extensive area of work, often discussed under the rubric of
social validity (Wolf, 1978). Developed economies have measured their progress
using indices of economic activity such as gross domestic product (GDP) as an
index of economic strength and health. One problem with GDP as a measure is
that it encompasses all economic activity including spending on undesirable
events such as automobile accidents, hurricanes, treating fatal diseases, etc., all of
which boost GDP but do not have a net positive effect on personal well-being
(Cobb, Goodman, & Wackernagel, 1999). Use of GDP also defines progress in
terms of economic growth, which is not sustainable. These difficulties with GDP
have been addressed through the development of alternative indices of well-being
composed of measures broader than mere aggregate economic activity. For
example the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) (Anielski, 2007) was developed to
measure changes in the quality of life. It uses traditional indices such as GDP, but
also taps a wide variety of other indicators including self-rated happiness, life
expectancy, leisure time, strength of personal relationships, personal
indebtedness, foreign indebtedness, poverty rates, youth suicide, violence in
society, income and wealth inequality, and environmental health. The GPI was
developed in part to take issues of sustainability into account.
Whereas U.S. GDP rose by 64% from 1980 to 1998, GPI declined during this
time by over 10% (Cobb et al. 1999), a pattern seen in other independent studies
(Anielski, 2007). One rationale for maintaining economic growth is that it makes
people better off, but during 1980 to 1998, when the GDP grew strongly, the GPI
showed that people were left worse off. These data indicate that GDP should be
largely abandoned as an index of societal progress and be replaced with the GPIlike
indicator that measures well-being and sustainability. Continued use of GDP
to assess progress is analogous to a behavior-analysis intervention in which a
target behavior lacks social validity.
Replacement of GDP with GPI-like indicators may be one of the more
relatively achievable opportunities in building a sustainable culture. French
President Nicolas Sarkozy, known as a political conservative, has established a
commission to study measuring the well-being of the population using a broader
range of statistics (Wordsworth, 2009).
One solution to reducing resource-intensive consumption is to tax it, which
would encourage people to allocate their time away from overconsumed
reinforcers in favor of toward underconsumed reinforcers. As a means of
addressing the problems of overconsumption, Frank (1999) proposed a
progressive consumption tax as a replacement for income taxes. Under this plan,
everyone would receive a standard per-person deduction that would be exempt
from taxation. This standard deduction would shield low-income earners, who
cannot afford to save anything, from a consumption tax. Savings, defined as
money contributed to a special (IRA-like) account, would not be taxed.
Consumption, defined as the remainder of income minus savings and taxes, would
be taxed, with an increasing percentage of tax levied on progressively higher
levels of consumption. This incentive system would still make it possible for
people to engage in competitive status-seeking through consumption, but doing so
would invoke tax penalties, with taxes increasing with rising consumption.
Government policies that provide good schools, parks, recreational facilities,
health care and other services are all helpful in mitigating the harmful effects of
positional and status reinforcers by lessening their influence. Galbraith's (1998)
concerns regarding the effects of a society of private affluence and public squalor
have renewed ecological importance because of the harmful effects of positional
reinforcers on sustainability. Turning desirable waterfront property into public
park lands, for example, makes reinforcing activities more widely available and
allows people to share, rather than compete for scarce resources. Providing good
schools for all students reduces competition for housing in good neighborhoods
(Sanne, 2002), as does allowing students to cross geographical boundaries to
attend good schools and establishing affordable public universities (Warren &
Product advertising can be countered in a variety of ways. Two options
considered here are prohibiting advertising and promoting reverse advertising.
Prohibiting unsustainable products. In Walden Two, radio programs were
rebroadcast into the community with the advertisements removed. Even in our
society advertising has come to be increasingly regulated and prohibited due to
the dangers of advertised products. Tobacco and alcohol advertising, once
accepted as normal, is either banned or restricted in many countries. If sufficiently
comprehensive, bans on alcohol and tobacco ads do reduce the use of these
products (Saffer & Chaloupka, 2000; Saffer & Dhaval, 2006). As awareness of
the dangers of all unnecessary resource-intensive consumption grows, more
advertised products can be subject to restrictions. Monbiot (2009) for example has
called on newspapers to cease accepting advertising from auto dealers and airlines
because what they sell is so harmfully resource-intensive.
Reverse advertising. Outright bans on advertising may be only gradually
successful in Western democracies due to strong historical protection of freedom
of expression. One option is to require public media to provide public-service
anticonsumption ads or ads promoting sustainable time-use alternatives to
material consumption. Anticonsumption campaigns against cigarette smoking
have been shown to be effective (Pechmann & Shih, 1999; Wakefield, Flay,
Nichter, & Giovino, 2003), suggesting their application to address problems of
There are currently public-service advertisements for both curtailing
consumption and for promoting the consumption of underconsumed reinforcers.
An organization called Adbusters (Adbusters, 2009; Bordwell, 2002), through its
Media Carta campaign, has conducted anticonsumption advertising, making
television ads to promote "Buy Nothing Day" and to diminish the reinforcing
effectiveness of specific brand-name products. Most TV networks have refused to
broadcast these ads. Adbusters is currently pursuing these refusals in the Canadian
court system in order to allow private citizens and noncommercial interests the
right to make use of the public airwaves in the same way that corporations do.
The Mormon church has also produced television and radio advertisements
(Mormon.org, 2009) that seek to increase the reinforcing effectiveness of family
activities, desirable time-use alternatives to material consumption.
Reducing Work Time
Reducing the amount of time spent working for disposable income is
sometimes seen as a extreme proposal, but such a development would simply be a
reinstatement of the trend of the entire 19th and early 20th centuries (Hayden,
1999), before what Hunnicutt (1988) refers to as "the gospel of consumption"
became so well established. Work time reductions would lessen resource
depletion, provide free time that could be used to acquire consumption skills,
enhance social capital, allow for the creative use of leisure time, and fulfill the
promise of a participatory democracy by giving workers time to be actively
involved in political processes (Hayden, 1999; Reid, 1995). Hunnicutt (1992,
1996) identified many of these benefits in his examination of the effects of the
Kellogg cereal company's adoption of a 6-hour workday in 1930.
There are practical, though resolvable problems in implementing work time
reductions (de Graaf, 2003; Hayden, 1999). For example, one impediment to
reducing working hours is that employment in industrialized countries is mainly
offered on a full-time 40-hour/week basis or not at all (Sanne, 2002). Although
part-time jobs are available, they are lower paying, have fewer opportunities for
advancement and provide less heath-care and pension benefits than full-time jobs.
Part-time workers are 87% less likely to receive health insurance or pension
benefits (Wenger, 2001). In addition, many government social-insurance (social
security) and unemployment insurance programs provide benefits only to fulltime
employees (Shulman, 2008). Working 40 hours per week or more is
therefore differentially reinforced.
The problem of offering jobs at full-time or not at all could be addressed by
enacting legislation that gives prospective employees the right to accept jobs on,
for example a three-quarters or half-time basis and gives existing employees the
right to reduce their work time by one-quarter or one-half, both conditions subject
to only prorated reductions in benefits. In developed economies that have
considerable discretionary spending, allowing people to work less than the
standard full-time work arrangements would help to slow the unsustainable cycle
in which people use natural resources in their work to pay for products that are
themselves resource-intensive. [See Hayden (1999) for a treatment of this and
other practical issues involved in implementing work time reductions.]
Adopting Voluntary Simplicity
How and why underconsumed reinforcers gain influence over overconsumed
ones is not well understood, but a useful starting point is understanding the
behavior of voluntary simplifiers. Voluntary simplifiers are people who spend
money on only essentials and have otherwise altered their lifestyle so as to work
less, consume less, and yet improve the quality of their lives. Pierce (2003b)
Yet, the focus of simplifiers is not to avoid material consumption but to
progress beyond it:
Proponents of simplicity as a way of life reject the notion that our life
goal should be to amass as much material wealth and prestigious
accomplishments as we possibly can. Their lifestyles tend to involve
patterns of working less, wanting less and spending less. (para. 2)
Voluntary simplifiers are important because their behavior is already largely
consistent with a sustainable society and they have achieved this without the
application of systematic external contingencies, prodding by government
policies, etc. For this reason simplifiers can serve as a role model group for use in
studies using the social comparison method of social validity (Kazdin, 1977).
Voluntary simplifiers are also of interest because many of them are not centrally
motivated by purely ideological concerns with sustainability, the environment
(Schor, 1998), or excess corporate power (Huneke, 2005). In her study Pierce
(2003a) found that more than half of her sample of voluntary simplifiers had little
or only moderate concern with the Earth and its resources. These findings suggest
that many adopt voluntary simplicity practices not as a form of ideological selfdenial,
but as a means of maximizing reinforcers other than those popular in
Simplicity can best be achieved by paring your life down to its
essentials--those things, activities and relationships you either truly need
or genuinely cherish. Simplicity involves unburdening your life, and
living more lightly with fewer distractions that interfere with a high
quality life, as defined uniquely by each individual. (Pierce, 2003b) (para. 3)
Voluntary simplifiers take a pragmatic approach to work, finances, and to
providing for basic day-to-day reinforcers (Dominguez & Robin, 1992; Etzioni,
1998). This pragmatism, which stands in sharp contrast to the waywardness of
both early 20th century Bohemians (Nicholson, 2002) and the 1960s
counterculture (Skinner, 1978), may serve to help make voluntary simplicity
sustainable as a cultural alternative to consumerism: Voluntary simplicity has
already endured since the early 1980s (Elgin, 1993) and continues to grow
Adopting Bohemianism and Other Alternative Positional Reinforcement
As described earlier positional reinforcers based on income, wealth, and
material possessions pose a difficult problem in achieving a sustainable culture
because once even a substantial minority the population is in competition for
these reinforcers work hours, consumption, and the draw on natural resource
reinforcers rises. Possible solutions are to infuse mainstream culture with
alternative values such as the artistic values of Bohemian communities (de
Botton, 2004) or to create a separate Bohemian community. Various forms of the
performing, visual and literary arts have thrived since ancient times, attesting to
both their appeal and independence from modern industrial and consumer culture.
In Walden Two, Skinner (1976, Chapter 11) described a society in which
people pursued aesthetic reinforcers instead of material affluence, creating a
Golden Age in the arts. This artistic focus in Walden Two, coupled with its
rejection of conventional economic materialism, qualify it as a Bohemian
community and as a model for a cultural Renaissance (cf., Shafer, 2008). Walden
Two's Bohemianism is often overlooked due to its explicit design, its brevity of
the depiction of artistic life, its fleeting references to experimental art forms that
are characteristic of Bohemian communities (Stover, 2004; Wetzsteon, 2002), and
the community's pragmatic approach to providing for food, shelter, and clothing.
The community's attention to providing for necessities, something it shares with
modern voluntary simplifiers, offers a model for a practical and therefore
enduring populist Bohemian culture.
As de Botton (2004) has acknowledged, positional reinforcers operate in
Bohemian communities, but position is conferred by artistic and intellectual talent
and skill; positional placement by money or material possessions is actively
repudiated. Skill-based positionality within Bohemian subcultures can itself be a
concern. For example, the emergence of competitiveness and skill-based
positional reinforcement among Walden Two's singers was forestalled through "a
special bit of cultural engineering" (Skinner, 1976, p. 82). Whatever relatively
minor adverse effects skill-based positional reinforcers may have, they encourage
competition for underconsumed reinforcers, displacing time spent competing for
natural-resource reinforcers, and therefore promote sustainability.
Bohemian values, along with philosophical and religious perspectives that
embrace voluntary poverty, are the most diametric challenges to consumerism
because they explicitly reject material values. Other alternative value systems that
compete with the positional economy also exist, but are less explicitly
anticonsumeristic or antimaterialistic. To take only a few examples, open-source
computer communities, amateur sports and fitness subcultures, bridge players,
conversationalists, and individuals pursuing various hobbies are often avidly
motivated by conceptions of success and failure distinct from those of
consumerism. However, because many of these activities do not explicitly shun
consumer culture, they are more apt to be co-opted by that culture, as for example
seen in the way many types of athletics have been professionalized and otherwise
overwhelmed by financial interests (e.g., Zimbalist, 1999). Each of these activities
is nonetheless valuable because it provides a means of defining success and
failure in a way that departs from the consumer culture's unitary focus on wealth
and possessions. Further, the more of these alternative value systems that are
available, the more likely any one individual is to have a means of finding
personal reinforcers that are compatible with sustainability. However, because of
the power and behavioral momentum of consumerism, Bohemian culture is likely
to be at least transitionally important in any even partial displacement of
consumer culture due to both its steadfast repudiation of consumerism and the
multiplier effect the arts have in generating an enduring sources of intrinsic
Beyond simply using education to establish greater awareness of
sustainability issues is an imperative to shift the maintenance of behavior from
overconsumed to underconsumed reinforcers by teaching consumption skills. The
consumption skills implicit in Mill's art of living, in Walden Two's Golden Age,
and in Scitovsky's prescription for cultural invigoration are all acquired tastes
established as reinforcers only through informal or formal educational
experiences. The recognition that the arts are a potential means of furthering
sustainability dramatically reframes educational and other public-policy priorities.
As Scitovsky (1989b) points out:
To further arts education, Scitovsky (1992) advocated a broad education
throughout the curriculum that encompasses arts instruction. His promotion of
arts education is based in part on avoiding the harmful effects (i.e., negative
externalities) of alternative reward-seeking behaviors, which include crime,
violence and drug use, in addition to squandering natural resources (Scitovsky,
1977; 1992). He cited the teaching of arts in kindergarten and the elementary
grades as an exemplary practice because only there students are given freedom to
pursue aesthetic challenges and pleasures independently of vocational
considerations. He further suggested that existing practices in promoting athletics
in schools are "a fine example that cultural education easily could and ideally
ought to follow" (p. 301). Scitovsky (1992) envisioned formal arts education as an
important supplement to domestic life, pointing out that children acquire an
enjoyment of literature and music relatively effortlessly when grow up in literary
and musical families. Under no illusions of the difficulties in making a transition
to an arts-centered society, Scitovsky (1989b) anticipated that the process would
"be a matter of generations rather than of years" (p. 158).
... the argument just presented favours subsidies, not to the arts or access
to the arts, but to the process of learning to enjoy them. Such subsidies
therefore should be immune to the criticism often leveled at public
support for the arts on the ground that it represents a regressive
redistribution of income from taxpayers to the elite that forms the bulk of
theatre, opera and concert audiences. For the purpose of art education is
to increase and keep increasing membership in that elite until it ceases to
be an elite. (p. 157)
The connection between sustainability and arts education has important
implications for behavioral interventions. Programs to teach aesthetic and other
consumption skills should be clearly recognized as green interventions alongside
those (e.g., bike riding, recycling, etc.) that are traditionally associated with
sustainability and are in certain respects preferable to energy-efficiency
interventions, which are potentially compromised by longer-term Jevons effects.
Consumption-skill interventions address core issues of time allocation to
resource-free and resource-light activities. Such interventions have the potential to
produce enduring behavior changes though contact with natural reinforcers
(Ferster, 1967) and natural maintaining contingencies (Stokes & Baer, 1977).
There is a tendency in the developed world to turn to historically successful
scientific technologies to solve problems, an impulse that often leads only to
improvements in energy efficiency. Purchases of hybrid cars and development of
expansive wind and solar infrastructure projects, for example, are reassuring to
many in part because they provide concrete visible evidence that we are
addressing problems of sustainability. Yet, these salient interventions are by
themselves severely limited due to Jevons effects unless paired with broader
changes in lifestyle. Behavioral and cultural solutions, especially those focused on
consumption skills, arts education, and movement toward an aesthetically based
culture initially seem counterintuitive, irrelevant and insubstantial when
juxtaposed with the powerful technologies science and engineering have to offer.
This perception, seen even among those sympathetic to issues of sustainability,
represents the persistence of the material values that have precipitated a crisis in
sustainability. Behavioral, cultural and aesthetic solutions can, in contrast, alter
the fundamental motivation to seek material rewards and solutions, break the
cycle of work-to-consume and achieve genuine progress toward sustainability.
As Mill recognized in his time, it is ultimately necessary for economic
growth to cease and the economy to enter an era in which a stable rate of natural
resource use reinforces a steady state of human economic behavior. As Hubbert
foresaw it, our ability to make this transition, from a growth economy to a steadystate
economy, is the key challenge of our time. The worst danger is reaching a
state of overshoot, in which the human population grows too large to support
itself at a time when growth of natural resources collapses rapidly. Avoiding such
a calamity is a behavioral process, so understanding the specific behavioral
variables and processes underlying this process should also become a key
challenge of our era. As discussed here, time lines are difficult to fix but signs of
problems in resource supply have already appeared just at a time when growth in
many industrializing economies is accelerating.
Mill also recognized that the end of the age of growth held considerable
promise. A cultivated mind, like a patient understudy waiting in the wings during
centuries of material prosperity, would one day have a chance to take center stage
as economic growth went into a terminal decline. Acquisition of consumption
skills allows us to tap enduring sources of intellectual and aesthetic challenges
and pleasures that require relatively little in the way of material wealth. This
promising yet largely dormant notion has appeared sporadically, sometimes even
with flashes of prominence, during two centuries of expanding material wealth,
culminating in the consumerism of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Even in
the absence of any organized movement, individuals have taken upon themselves
to adopt lifestyles of voluntary simplicity, intuitively seeking a superior
alternative to lives of work-to-consume. Alternative Bohemian, counterculture,
and subculture communities, despite their faults, have always kept alive
alternative value systems that prize such things as aesthetic achievements over
accumulation of positional reinforcers. Skinner's Utopian vision of a
postconsumer society continues to offer a glimpse of a viable culture that
addresses the practical problems of Bohemianism while retaining the allure of an
alternative aesthetically-based value system.
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About the Author: Lyle K. Grant (Ph.D., educational psychology) is Professor of Psychology at Athabasca University, Athabasca, Alberta, Canada, where he has been working since 1981. His research interests include how humans learn from written materials, how to improve distance instruction via
adaptations of the Personalized System of Instruction (PSI), development of computer-based tutorials and other web-based resources that help students learn, and the way in which projected future events (such as Peak Oil) function to influence current behavior. For a more complete professional profile of this author, click here.
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