Transformation to Sustainability: An Innovative Perspective on Societal Change – With and Against Sociological, Psychological, Biological, Economic and Ethnologic Findings

  • Felix Ekardt
Part of the Environmental Humanities: Transformation, Governance, Ethics, Law book series (EHTGEL)


Both the slow transition to new technologies and the lack of behavioural changes need explaining. This will only succeed if the many disciplines contributing to behavioural science (sociology, psychology, sociobiology, economics, ethnology, religious studies, history, etc.) are looked at together to form an overarching theory of individual and collective change. On the road to this transformation research, some fundamental methodological problems must be taken into account (see above). The success or failure of the transformation towards more sustainability, which has essentially failed so far, can be explained, like any social condition, in looking at the complex interaction of individuals. Most important for analysing social change are complex interactions of various actors that culminate in vicious circles e.g. of politicians and voters as well as businesses and consumers. The sole emphasis on factors such as political and economic power or the role of consumers leads to abridging analyses. The complex interaction and vicious circles do not arise primarily from a lack of knowledge about sustainability. The relevance of knowledge to behaviour is widely overestimated and it is overlooked that factual knowledge does not prove normative objectives right or wrong.

Important, but sometimes also overestimated, are the factors of self-interest, path dependencies, problems with collective goods, and values – that assume a person who acts consciously and calculatingly throughout. The irrational and unconscious or semi-conscious factors that influence the behaviour of politicians, entrepreneurs, voters/ consumers, lobbyists, media representatives, etc. are constantly overlooked. Such factors are conceptions of normality (not to be mistaken for values) and emotional factors such as convencience, habits, a lack of orientation in spatio-temporal distance, denial, a lack of thinking in complex causalities, dissonance of talking and acting, striving for recognition, etc.

All these factors are reflected within an individual and as a structure; the dispute over supposedly individualistic versus supposedly collectivist approaches to explaining behaviour and change is proving to be of little consequence. Generally speaking, having a look at real-life individuals instead of remaining too abstract, makes the real motives more transparent. The emergence of unsustainability can be seen as a prime example of these diverse motivational factors and conditions of social change.

Diagonally to the motivation factors mentioned above, it can be said that a lack of sustainability is based on a mixture of biological, cultural (including economic, e.g. capitalism-related), biographical and external factors. Findings from sociobiology and brain research can contribute to explaining human behaviour; however, neither their radical rejection nor their overestimation proves to be tenable. However, today, we see a historically unique situation of comprehensive danger to human livelihoods as a particular manifestation of self-interest, conceptions of normality, values, etc. This can only be explained by additional consideration of cultural factors. A special cultural aspect is the genesis of modern economics, natural science and technology in a complex interaction with originally religious, today often secularised values.The objection that people were – so the claim – in reality largely cooperative (or, even more so, altruistic) and only became what they are today through capitalism, proves to be crooked. Such an objection is empirically implausible, and it neglects the – in parts – biological nature of humans. In addition, it mixes the analysis of living conditions of today and the more recent past with living conditions of the Stone Age and forgets that sustainability is not about collaboration in a small group of hunter-gatherers but between billions of people that will never know each other. Furthermore, focussing on (the cultural factor of) capitalism neglects that an economic system consists of complex interactions of managers, workers, trade unions, consumers, politicians setting the framework for economic activities, and people voting these politicians into office.

The findings of happiness research cannot serve as an objection either. They show that people can be happy with different levels of material wealth. However, there is no clear evidence that a change towards sustainability per se makes all people happier; nevertheless, the necessary transformation holds potential for happiness. Despite of all non-sustainable developments, however, the freedom- and wealth-creating effects of capitalist economic activity should not be overlooked. Consequently, social change in general and transformation towards sustainability in particular are only possible through the interaction of different actors and by influencing those motivational factors which can at all be influenced. Self-interested economic-peace-political, ethical and eudaemonistic (luck-related) considerations could certainly motivate a genuine behavioural and technological change towards sustainability. But for this, self-interest calculations need to be reconsidered, values revised, knowledge used more strongly, path dependencies altered, problems with collective goods addressed, and above all conceptions of normality transformed. This requires a variety of activities by different actors, ranging from completely different policy approaches to the (not verbal or only occasional) establishment of a new day-to-day behaviour of people. Because of the interdependencies, one actor alone cannot bring about the sustainability change. Asking for the one and only relevant actor takes the debate to pointless chicken-and-egg games.


Economics/economic Psychology/psychological Ethnological/ethnology Biological/biology Sociological/sociology Interconnectedness Micro versus macro Chicken-and-egg game Knowledge Values Environmental awareness Self-interest Evolutionary biology Neurophysiology Motivation Individual factors Structural factors Path dependency Concept(ion) of normality Emotions Culture Environmental history Protestantism Capitalism Politics Citizens Interest groups Cooperation research Happiness research Ping-pong 


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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  • Felix Ekardt
    • 1
    • 2
  1. 1.Forschungsstelle Nachhaltigkeit und KlimapolitikLeipzig/BerlinGermany
  2. 2.Rostock UniversityRostockGermany

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