NEWS 2020-03-15

Group dynamics untapped potential for sustainable development

People look to others when making their own decisions. This could help reduce global consumption and population growth.

Humans are competitive creatures, but they also have a need to conform to the social life around them. Those two contrasting features can decide whether a sustainable future for the whole planet is feasible or not.

In a study recently published in PNAS, a host of international sustainability experts look at how group dynamics can boost the quest for a more ecologically desirable environment. The study,  led by Beijer fellow and former chair of the board Scott Barrett (Columbia University), Aisha Dasgupta (UN, Population division), and Beijer Fellow and first chair och the Board, Partha Dasgupta (Cambridge University), is a result of the the Beijer Institute’s Askö meeting 2016. The annual Askö meetings are informal workshops for internationally leading ecologists and economists at the island of Askö in the Baltic Sea, held since 1993. Several other Beijer Fellows as well as Beijer staff are on the author team.

We want what others have

Specifically, they consider two aspects of the human enterprise that profoundly affect the planet: population and consumption. By studying fertility patterns in sub-Saharan Africa and consumption in the rich world, the researchers find commonalities that help spur actions to alleviate the human pressure on the biosphere.

Start with consumption. The desire for goods and services is substantially influenced by the tastes of people in our social networks and other groups we aspire to belong to. This means that a strong need to consume can either be encouraged or curbed by our surroundings. In the case of the latter, it is much easier for the individual to reduce their desire to buy if others around them do the same.

”Though competitive impulses create a tragedy of the commons as regards goods, conformist preferences can create a positive feedback to a mutually preferred collective outcome,” Scott Barrett says.

Family size is also influenced by others

Fertility and reproduction shares some similarities. Although associated with a range of complex social, cultural and even religious aspects, giving birth is not only connected with a private desire to have a big family, but also the opportunity to acquire a higher social status through reproductive success. This attitude has been called “Children as wealth”. As long as others aim at large families, no household will wish to deviate from such practice. If however, were all other households to restrict their fertility, every household would wish to restrict its own fertility.

According to the researchers, successful family planning programmes can be designed to encourage members of communities to share information about contraception and discuss the advantages of smaller families.

Practices can be changed for the better

Both examples demonstrate how bottom-up social mechanisms rather than top-down government interventions can be better placed to bring about positive change for the environment They also show how individual needs may be completely incompatible to the resources made available.

Fortunately, humans come with the capacity to change.

”That human attitudes and practices are socially embedded suggests that it is possible for people to reduce their fertility rates and consumption demands without experiencing a loss in wellbeing.”, the team of authors argue.

Link to publication