A set of resources on the links between individual behaviour change and systems changeIndividual behaviour and system change – why it’s not one or the other, by Jill Kubit
The article below by Jill Kubit of Rapid Transition Alliance member DearTomorrow brings together insights from a project supported by the KR Foundation which explored the tensions and connections between individual behaviour change and systems change, sometimes depicted as separate and conflicting approaches.
It set out to establish the scope of this challenge and to create resources for the community of organisations worked with by the KR Foundation, in order to help link these two critical components of change. Jill’s article links to these resources which include a summary of insights from the project which frame the issues, a reading list, and recommendations.
In general there was found to be only a quite shallow understanding of sustainable behaviours amongst the general public but also among some in the climate community. In particular the project assessed certain gaps in knowledge by looking at a number of themes. These included:
This work was carried out before the Covid-19 pandemic hit the world. Since then our capacity to rapidly and radically change behaviours has been widely reported, not least by the Rapid Transition Alliance on-going work on ‘lessons from lockdown’. Experts on behaviour change point out that a number of factors now make the issue of behaviour change even more urgent and relevant. As societies emerge from the pandemic, what we do, observe and change now will be remembered better in future than normal. The disruption of behaviours also creates a positive ‘fresh start effect’, increasing possibilities, and the very scale and impact of Covid-19 may diminish barriers to change on climate that exist in more normal times. Crucially it is possible that organisations and institutions that are seen to have done good things, may hold increased trust.
Climate emergency protesters outside Parliament in London, UK
There is a long-standing debate within the climate movement over the roles of individual behaviour change and systemic change in curbing carbon emissions. For many, any push for individual lifestyle changes is seen as distracting at best, and even harmful—conflicting with the need to emphasise broader social and political reforms.
But new social science research suggests otherwise. Movements that encourage and support individual change do not come at the expense of the push for social and political change. Rather than being pitted against each other in a zero-sum, either/or conflict, these two levels of change are not only both necessary but directly connected, influencing and reinforcing one another.
Moving past this debate is of great importance to me. As a climate communications expert and founder of a storytelling project where people organise and make climate commitments, I’ve been asked over and over by friends and colleagues, activists and students: “Do my actions matter?” While it’s clear one person’s reduced consumption will not move the needle alone, there is a growing body of evidence that individual behaviour change is needed to spur and underpin cooperative and collective social and political action (something which is well articulated by scholars like Leor Hackel and Gregg Sparkman, for example in this article for Slate). To deepen my knowledge and get up to speed on the latest scholarship, I spent several months combing through scientific journals, interviewing practitioners in sustainable behaviour and social science researchers, and cataloguing my findings.
These were three key takeaways:
Individual actions matter. Only through individual behaviour change can we meet ambitious global emissions reductions targets, foster the conditions for broader social and political change, and guarantee a successful, broad-scale transition to a zero-carbon society and economy.
You can explore the complete results of the project in the framing document, annotated bibliography and set of recommendations below.