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Sustainability: From Excess To Aesthetics

By Lyle K. Grant

21 July, 2010
Energy Bulletin

Selections from an academic paper by Lyle K. Grant, professor of psychology at Athabasca University in Alberta, Canada. It is due to be published in the journal Behavior and Social Issues.

A PDF of the complete paper is online.


Sustainability is defined as the operation of a steady-state economy in which natural resource inputs and waste-product outputs are held constant. Key issues in attaining sustainability are addressing the problems of overconsumption of resource-intensive reinforcers, underconsumption of resource-light reinforcers, and lack of consumption skills that yield an enduring source of intrinsically reinforcing challenges and pleasures. Behavioral impediments to a sustainable society are described together with opportunities to achieve it. Opportunities emphasize sustainable futures people will find appealing rather than austere. These opportunities include a replacement of consumer culture with alternative value systems, embodied in John Stuart Mill’s art of living, Tibor Scitovsky’s cultural reawakening, B. F. Skinner’s arts-based utopia, voluntary simplifiers, and the aesthetically-based values of Bohemian communities.

... [The] 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. ...

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 resource-intensive 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 agreement.

… Sustainability is often framed entirely as a problem of overconsumption, but this view restricts potential solutions to those involving abstention and self-denial. ... 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:

... 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)

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.

... 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 as it:

... 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)"

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:

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)

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).

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. ...

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. ... 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). ...

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 consequences 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. ...

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. ...

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. ...

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.

Reinforcer Habituation

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:

... 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)

… Competing Reinforcers

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.

... 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: ...

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.

… 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). ...

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:

...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)

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. ...

Government Policies

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. ...

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. ...

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. …

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). ...

Adopting Bohemianism and Other Alternative Positional Reinforcement Systems

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. …

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. ...


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:

... 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. …

Behavior and Social Issues, 19, 5-45 (2010). © Lyle K. Grant. Readers of this article may copy it without the copyright owner’s permission, if the author and publisher are acknowledged in the copy and the copy is used for educational, not-for-profit purposes. DOI: pending

PDF of complete paper.

About author Lyle K. Grant:

I am professor of psychology at AU (Athabasca University in Alberta, Canada), where I have worked since 1981. I received a Ph.D. in educational psychology from West Virginia University, where I became interested in how people learn from written materials, especially self-instructional exercises.

... I have also become interested in the phenomenon of Peak Oil from a number of different perspectives, including the way in which projected future events function to influence current behavior. This, combined with concerns with public safety, human freedom to have a future, simple living, the environment, and Gustav LeBon's work (i.e., what might be called group hypnosis), has in part led me to advocate a car-free lifestyle. I've written an Open Letter to AU Colleagues advocating telecommuting because of its environmental and energy reduction benefits.

About this article, he writes:

One of my goals is to write material of this type that will make the message more accessible to people. There are many people who work in the arts who do not realize the potential the arts have for facilitating a cultural transition and it would be helpful to bring them on board.

Persuading people about a transition to a lower-energy culture will be a long process of chipping away at conventional thinking, and academic papers have a place to play in this arena along with blogs and other unreferenced opinion pieces. I wrote an article about peak oil in 2007, and it is one of a few articles of its type to appear in an academic journal. Many people have linked to it and it seems to have had more staying power than most blog entries, even good ones.

People normally think of the academic community as enlightened and more sensitive to energy depletion issues than other populations, but I don't believe this is true. My academic colleagues are sleepwalking like other people, perhaps even more so because their attention is so often narrowly focused on very specific research domains.

Grant's previous paper on peak oil, "Peak Oil as a Behavioral Problem," is online and was noted in Energy Bulletin.

This paper will be appearing in Behavior and Social Issues:

Behavior and Social Issues is a peer-reviewed, interdisciplinary journal that serves as a primary scholarly outlet for articles that advance the scientific analysis of human social behavior, particularly with regard to understanding and influencing important social problems. The primary intellectual frameworks for the journal are the natural science of behavior, and the sub-discipline of cultural analytic science. The journal is particularly interested in publishing work related to issues with social justice, human rights, and environmental implications, but all significant social issues are of interest. Published by the University of Illinois at Chicago Library in association with Behaviorists for Social Responsibility.