TOPIC GUIDE: Environmental Sustainability

"Behaviour change is the best route to sustainability"

PUBLISHED: 31 Jan 2013

AUTHOR: Tim Black

Share this Topic Guide:

Download topic guide (500k)


In 2009, on the eve of the Copenhagen climate conference, the head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Rajendra Pachauri issued a warning: ‘Today we have reached the point where consumption and people’s desire to consume has grown out of proportion. The reality is that our lifestyles are unsustainable” [Ref: Observer]. Ahead of last year’s Rio+20 Earth summit, Prince Charles, the founder of the International Sustainability Unit, re-iterated Pachauri’s concerns: “Like a sleepwalker, we seem unable to wake up to the fact that so many of the catastrophic consequences of carrying on with “business-as-usual” are bearing down on us faster than we think, already dragging many millions more people into poverty and dangerously weakening global food, water and energy security for the future.” [Ref: BBC News]. What both Pachauri and Charles touch upon is the issue of sustainability. That is, they believe that human society as a whole is currently consuming more than the planet can provide, a process that many sustainability advocates believe will lead to resource shortages and contributes to climate change. Not that this view is shared by everyone: some counter that it is excessively pessimistic [Ref: Reason], a case of environmental alarmism that down plays our capacity to change the quantity and quality of environmental resources [Ref:].

For further reading use the menu bar on the right hand side.


This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.

Unsustainable behaviour
Regardless of how aware we are today of our effect on the environment, it seems we still make choices that are to the environment’s detriment. As professor of sustainability Tim Jackson describes it, we continue “to consume certain products and services or to live in certain ways rather than others”, which has direct and indirect impacts on the environment, as well as on “personal (and collective) wellbeing” [Ref: Sustainable Development Research Network].  For example, we are aware that carbon emissions contribute to climate change, but we continue to take carbon-emitting flights abroad [Ref: Guardian]; we are told that resources are finite, that we are using them faster than we are able to replenish them, yet we continue to lead energy-intensive lifestyles [Ref: Telegraph]. As Unilever’s Inspiring Sustainable Living report puts it: “Creating a sustainable future will require fundamental changes in attitude and behaviour across society”. The former head of the Sustainable Development Commission, Jonathan Porrit argues that we need to shift our collective focus from “consumptive, life-threatening growth” to a focus on “improved wellbeing and real quality of life” [Ref: Guardian].

A nudge in the right direction
How behaviour change is to be achieved, however, is far from simple. Some suggest legal measures and incentives, such as the idea of a carbon tax - ‘the sole necessary solution to climate change’ [Ref: Forbes]. A carbon tax would effectively mean that companies have to pay a fee for every amount (for example, a tonne) of carbon gases produced. Another similar example involves the use of smart metering to address the problem of the overconsumption of water. That way people would not only know how much water they are using, but, because of the financial incentive, would be encouraged to use less [Ref: BBC News]. Others, uncomfortable with the force implicit in legal measures, argue that it is best if people choose to change their own behaviour. This sentiment is most evident in nudge theory, also known as ‘libertarian paternalism’, which rests on the assumption that we can be encouraged, through ‘choice architecture’ to freely make decisions that our in our best interests [Ref: BBC News]. For instance, principal nudge theorist Richard Thaler argues that by locating a salad bar near cash registers, consumers can be encouraged to make the healthier food choice [Ref: National Record]. Likewise, people can be nudged into behaving in a far more environmentally sustainable way by shaping the context in which they make everyday decisions. For example, researchers demonstrated that by making sustainably sourced foods an implied default in cafeterias (that is, they could be chosen by diners and served up most quickly) as opposed to less sustainable options for which diners had to wait a little longer, 80 per cent more consumers chose sustainable dining options [Ref: Guardian].

A shove too far
But there are others who contend that such attempts to change our behaviour, be they regulatory or nudging, violate our basic liberties. Of environmentalist taxation schemes, one commentator argues that they are an attempt to radically overhaul people’s lives using the threat of financial punishment [Ref: The Age]. And nudging, some insist, while not as explicitly coercive as taxation as a mechanism for behaviour change, is just as much an infringement on individual freedom. A society governed by nudging policymakers, argues one commentator, does not ‘enable people to make better choices for themselves’; it corrals people into making a particular choice according to the design of others, namely, the government’s ‘choice architects’ [Ref: spiked]. As one psychologist writes, behaviour modification is fundamentally a means of controlling people and, therefore, by its very nature “inimical to democracy, critical questioning, and the free exchange of ideas among equal participants” [Ref: Salon].
Rational optimism
Others contend that behaviour change is simply the wrong way to approach the issue of sustainability. Bjorn Lomborg, for instance, calls for less scaremongering about climate change, and more investment in the research and development of new energy technologies [Ref: Wall Street Journal]. For those keen on pursuing technological solutions to the problem of sustainability, human history shows that people have consistently innovated and expanded what are considered to be natural limits. ‘Rational optimist’ Matt Ridley argues that the possibility of cost-effective nuclear fusion (or thorium fission), would allow us to continue to consume energy at the current rate without having to worry about unsustainable carbon emissions [Ref: Economist]. There is nothing fixed about what is sustainable and what is unsustainable, he argues, “Humanity is a fast-moving target. We will combat our ecological threats in the future by innovating to meet them as they arise, not through the mass fear stoked by worst-case scenarios” [Ref: Wired]. Indeed, as Dieter Helm argues, innovation can change things very quickly and in unpredictable ways: “in just the past seven years, fracking and shale oil and gas have transformed the fossil-fuel markets. North America is now moving towards energy independence… The important point is that none of this was foreseen a decade ago” [Ref: Spectator]. Some counter that such faith in technology - ‘techno-fetishism’ or ‘techno fixes’ - is dangerous. As one commentator argues, imagining the possibility of a technological solution to climate change makes people and governments complacent. It distracts us from “the difficult challenges of cutting greenhouse gas emissions or finding a way to live together on a shared planet” [Ref: Yale Environment 360]. As another columnist suggests, the best and cheapest solution to our environmental concerns is not to be found in our “techno-fixation” but in “consum[ing] less” [Ref: Guardian].


It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.

Switching our whole way of life

Shaun Carney The Age 2 March 2011


Why is the left silent on the scourge of consumerism?

Neal Lawson New Statesman 29 November 2012

Nudging people towards sustainability

Joe Arvai and Victoria Campbell-Arvai Guardian 1 October 2012

An alternative to the new wave of ecofascism

Micah White Guardian 16 September 2010

Resisting the Dangerous Allure of Global Warming Technofixes

Dianne Dumanoski Yale environment 360 17 December 2009


Climate-Change Misdirection

Bjorn Lomborg Wall Street Journal 23 January 2013

Environmentalist praises the ‘vital wisdom’ of anti-doomster

Julian Simon and Ronald Bailey Reason 10 January 2013

Why are Americans so easy to manipulate?

Bruce E Levine Salon 13 October 2012

Getting better all the time

Economist 13 May 2011


Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.


Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.

Resilience, not static sustainability, is what world needs

Robin Mills The National 29 January 2013

In Praise Of Pigou Taxes: Especially A Carbon Tax

Tim Worstall Forbes 6 January 2013

New paths to power

Dieter Helm Spectator 10 November 2012

Eight radical solutions for the water shortage

Vanessa Barford and Lauren Everitt BBC News 4 April 2012

The Royal Society: Geoengineering: taking control of our planet’s climate?

Andy Ridgwell, Chris Freeman, Richard Lampitt The Royal Society 2012

Why a nudge is not enough to change behaviour

Baroness Julia Neuberger BBC News 19 July 2011

Harrabin’s Notes: Population overload?

Roger Harrabin BBC News 11 January 2011

An end to infinite growth and blind consumerism

Jonathan Porritt Guardian June 2009


Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.


Relevant recent news stories from a variety of sources, which ensure students have an up to date awareness of the state of the debate.

This site contains links to websites operated by parties other than Debating Matters. Although we make every effort to ensure links are current, they will sometimes break after Topic Guide publication. If a link does not work, then the publication reference and date should enable you to find an alternate link. If you find a broken link do please send it to the webmaster for review.


© 2005-2023 Debating Matters Competition, boi, Unit 208, Cocoa Studios, The Biscuit Factory, Drummond Road, London, SE16 4DG, UK

Tel +44 (0)20 3176 0827 - | admin login