Culture’s relative stability is often described as one of its defining features. Certain cultures (or aspects of culture) have long lifetimes, some over centuries or even over millennia. Cultures that change very little can be both beneficial and disastrous for a sustainable future.

There are many lessons to be learned from longstanding cultures that have worked out how to live sustainably, not the least to show that cultures can adapt to become sustainable once they become familiar with what it takes to not over-exploit their environment. Apart from a few inspiring examples, this is not something that Western civilisation has yet learnt how to do very well. On the other hand, many more sustainable cultures have suffered greatly from the onslaught of colonialism and modernity but still retain knowledge and worldviews that can play an important role in sustainability transitions. We must honour the tenacity of life-affirming cultures such as these and ensure that they are supported and empowered to act.

But the overwhelming problem for the world is that too many unsustainable cultures are stubbornly resistant to change. We can see these at many scales, from global cultures of unsustainable consumption and production to households and businesses that are locked into unsustainable patterns despite knowing that they should change. To have any chance of transition, we need to know how and why such cultures continue to be replicated. As I have already noted, cultural reproduction has been a significant focus of cultural research for many years, particularly theories relating to culture-as-structure and culture-as-practice (Chapter 2). The cultures framework offers a complementary approach to help unpack cultural stability.

In this chapter, I discuss how applications of the cultures framework have helped to reveal processes of habituation, and to show why groups of people maintain similar cultural ensembles even when they aspire to change. I draw from over thirty research-based articles or chapters that have used the cultures framework to examine situations of cultural stasis and/or resistance to change. These papers all use the cultures framework in its earlier forms, so they use the conceptual language of norms, practices and materiality rather than motivators, activities and materiality. The research findings are nonetheless equally relevant and insightful, and indeed some of the findings have contributed to the broadening of the scope of the framework as reflected in the new terminology.

I start the chapter by illustrating ways in which culture plays a role in sustainability-related outcomes. I then discuss examples of consistent cultural patterns that are identifiable across populations. I provide examples of how cultures can resist change through the dynamics within a cultural ensemble. I show how culture can be seen to operate at multiple scales, with broader and more powerful cultures influencing those with less agency, and I finish by discussing examples of external influences shaping culture and constraining change.

Each example I use is unique to the time, place, people and context; what I aim to bring to the fore are generalisations about the workings of culture. The illustrations, sourced from some of these studies, use different iterations of the cultures framework but usefully demonstrate how the framework diagram can be used to summarise key features of cultural ensembles, cultural dynamics and external influences.

Culture and Sustainability Outcomes

It was a visit to Sweden many years ago that first impressed on me the stark differences in energy culture between Scandinavian and New Zealand households. Here, our older houses are traditionally detached, constructed from timber and poorly insulated. Despite recent government initiatives to improve insulation standards and promote insulation retrofitting, most homes are still cold by first-world standards. Many Kiwis know this first-hand from comparing it with their much warmer experiences in centrally heated northern hemisphere homes in winter, and because visitors from Europe and North America often complain about our cold houses.

The most common heating devices in New Zealand homes today are heat pumps and enclosed wood stoves. Generally, these just heat the main living space, although doors might be left open to spread the heat further. Sometimes bedrooms will be heated for a short period before bed time with an electric resistive heater. Centrally heated homes are rare. For most Kiwis it is normal to put on layers of clothes to stay warm when indoors. In our cool bedrooms, we use electric blankets or hot water bottles to warm up in bed. New Zealanders have a particularly frugal ‘heating culture’. Having (relatively) cold indoor temperatures is considered normal, and aligns with practices and material choices that have become cemented from childhood. This is not to say that we are all necessarily happy to live in cold homes. As I will show in later examples of energy poverty, people can be forced into an unhealthy heating culture because of circumstances beyond their control.

In contrast, for many readers in similarly cool zones of the global north, your homes will almost certainly have some form of central heating and will be well insulated. Warm inside temperatures throughout your house probably mean that you can wear light clothing indoors most of the year.

Here are two very different cultures related to home heating, with divergent implications for sustainability outcomes. If we were considering the outcomes in relation to, say, the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 3 (SDG3) (good health and wellbeing), a greater proportion of New Zealanders may be suffering from the health effects of cold indoor temperatures than Europeans and North Americans. In terms of SDG1 (end poverty), they may be suffering more fuel poverty especially if they attempt to heat to European-equivalent temperatures  and homes lack effective insulation (Howden-Chapman et al., 2012).

We can examine different sustainability outcomes from a given culture, but we can also turn this on its head. By starting with a sustainability outcome, we can use the cultures framework to trace the role of culture in influencing that outcome. Using greenhouse gas emissions from transport as an example, we can see how car culture operates at multiple levels or scales: on the one hand creating widely prevalent dependency on a single form of mobility, but on the other hand showing considerable variation in how that dependency plays out across populations. Over the past century, a ‘system of automobility’ (Urry, 2004) has created our current fossil-dependent mobility—a system that includes the technological dominance of internal combustion engines, powerful corporate actors, global supply chains of fuel provision, governmental investments in roading infrastructure and subsidies supporting fossil fuel use. These and other infrastructures have actively enabled the proliferation of fossil fuel using vehicles that are one of the most problematic sources of greenhouse gas emissions today. This system has normalised individual car ownership to such an extent that, for many, it is hard to imagine life without a car. The prevailing cultural ensemble in most developed countries comprises private automobiles, habitual personal car use even for short trips, low use of public transport or active travel, and social norms that associate cars with autonomy, freedom and perceptions of status (Stephenson et al., 2015; Wells & Xenias, 2015).

Within this overall pattern, however, there is considerable heterogeneity. In Switzerland, for example, French-speaking municipalities have 3–6% more energy-efficient vehicles than German-speaking ones, despite sharing the same sets of institutions. Research suggests that this may relate to French speakers having a stronger sense of collectivism and altruism (Filippini & Wekhof, 2021). People also have different driving cultures: Japanese drivers are more energy efficient because they are more strongly focused on safe driving and risk reduction, while US drivers prioritise individual freedom, which is associated with greater risk-taking while driving and more frequent crashes (Sovacool & Griffiths, 2020). Across European countries, considerably different mobility cultures have been identified in sub-regional clusters, which suggest very different policy interventions would be needed to achieve sustainable mobility (Haustein & Nielsen, 2016).

These studies all compared national or linguistically defined cultures, but cultural differentiation is equally able to be explored through other dissections. For example, although the evidence for this is mixed, recent studies suggest that some younger people in industrialised countries are less likely to want to own a car than their peers or previous generations (Delbosc, 2017). This trend was explored qualitatively in a study of 51 young people in New Zealand. Around half had a driver’s licence and owned a car, while the rest had made a choice not to. For the car-owning group, driving was the default choice for mobility, and most disdained other transport modes. They spoke of their cars as giving them freedom and independence, safety, job opportunities and a social life. In contrast, those who had chosen not to get a licence or own a car generally used multiple forms of mobility: they walked, biked, took buses and used shared transport. Some gave an environmental rationale for their choices, but for others it was about saving money or was simply the easiest choice. Surprisingly, they frequently referred to the absence of a car as giving them freedom and independence (Hopkins, 2017; Hopkins & Stephenson, 2016).

The New Zealand study also elaborated on the wider influences that were reinforcing car ownership among young people such as roading infrastructure and urban design, investment policies, fuel subsidies and the social status afforded to car ownership, as illustrated in Fig. 5.1. Recently emerging influences that were tending to support a multi-mobility culture included new policies and investments supporting walking and cycling, and growing health and environmental concerns across society (Hopkins & Stephenson, 2016).

Fig. 5.1
A cyclic block diagram includes material culture, practices, and norms with double-headed arrows between them and a dotted circle encapsulating it. External influences like policy, social, physical, and financial affect the diagram.

Mobility culture of young car drivers, showing features of their cultural ensemble (within the dashed circle) and external influences (beyond the dashed circle) (Reproduction of Fig. 2 from Hopkins and Stephenson [2016])

This divergence in mobility cultures among young people offers some insights into the process of transition towards a low-carbon mobility system, which by necessity will require far greater use of active, public and shared transport. The memberships of multi-mobility culture groups will need to grow rapidly, so it will be important to understand why some actors are not conforming to the dominant culture of automobility, and how this cultural divergence can be maintained.

One of the solutions often put forward to reduce the proliferation of cars is shared mobility, which involves sharing the use of a single vehicle between multiple people. This can be effected through means such as co-ownership, car-share and bike-share programmes, ride-hailing and other mobility-as-a-service offerings. From a cultural perspective, shared mobility challenges established norms, especially those that prioritise individuality and the symbolism of personal ownership (Axsen & Sovacool, 2019). Yet shared transport has a long history and is still undertaken in many less-wealthy communities in ways that do not require technologically ‘smart’ systems. Looking at other systems of mobility can help reveal how ‘cultural’ all mobility choices are, and that ridesharing does not have to be all about the financial benefits.

Research in an isolated Māori settlement in the East Cape region of New Zealand showed how shared mobility is a culturally significant aspect of everyday life (Haerewa et al., 2018). Community members frequently share cars or vans to travel to the nearest town or other urban centres for their shopping, or for social, cultural or health purposes. Shared transport is not only cheaper, it provides a comfortable environment for people to strengthen social bonds and share stories and information. Travelling together is a space in which to learn about culturally important places in the landscape, learn waiata (songs) and share sacred information. Although sharing is spurred by the cost of private car ownership and the fact that only some cars are roadworthy, it is also underpinned by (and supports) wider cultural principles such as whakakotahitanga (unity), whanaungatanga (family), māramatanga (enlightenment) and mana motuhake (self-determination). Shared mobility thus aligns with and reinforces many features of the wider ethnic culture.

Analyses such as these can help show how something as seemingly innocuous as using a private car is embedded in and reinforces cultural processes. Any mobility system‒whether it is dominated by private car use, multi-mobility or shared transport—is culturally embedded as well as having distinct social, environmental and economic outcomes.

Identifying Cultural Patterns

Depending on the sustainability outcome of interest, it is usually possible to identify clusters of actors within a population that have similar cultural ensembles and thereby similar outcomes. Here are four examples of studies that identified such clusters.

Energy Cultures in Transylvania

For some sustainability questions, there will be an easily identifiable dominant culture: a widely shared and largely similar ensemble of motivators, activities and materiality. In a rural area of eastern Transylvania in Romania, researchers found that most households shared a similar energy culture. Households typically had few appliances and frugal everyday practices. There was a widespread reliance on wood for heating and cooking, and around half the homes supplemented this with propane gas. Families saw themselves as stewards of the local environment and generally sought to conserve energy and other resources. The ubiquity of this cultural ensemble was statistically identified from survey data as well as through observations by the research team (Klaniecki et al., 2020).

The researchers were exploring the potential for new low-carbon energy systems in the region. They found that the Transylvanian households were strongly interested in switching to renewables, especially solar. Based on the cultural analysis, they concluded that any new energy system should be designed to fit the prevailing culture: a reliable and affordable energy supply that supported the shared sense of stewardship and aligned with households’ norms including their interest in local resource use.

Energy Use in Older Households in Italy

In some populations, there may be more than one distinct cultural ensemble that relates to a given outcome. Sometimes cultural differences may arise from intergenerational divergence. In Italy, for example, researchers used a cultural analysis to explore why the now-elderly war generation used far less energy than the baby boomer generation. Using data from 22,000 households, they looked at changing energy expenditure over time as well as dwelling features and household characteristics. They found that the difference in expenditure on energy was less an age effect, and more to do with a cohort effect that was distinctly cultural. War generation Italians were more likely to be frugal in their old age while baby boomers were more profligate, had more energy-consuming appliances, greater use of heating and air conditioning, and less focus on energy saving. The researchers concluded that this intergenerational shift in energy cultures would have significant implications as the more energy-intensive cohort aged, as consumption tends to peak between 50 and 60 years. They concluded that if the effects of age and intergenerational difference in energy culture was not accounted for, it would result in a severe under-estimation of future national energy demand (Bardazzi & Pazienza, 2017, 2020).

Energy Efficiency Among New Zealand Households

Another study found divergent culture groups that had different energy efficiency outcomes (Lawson & Williams, 2012). Using data from a demographically representative sample of 2300 New Zealand households, the study identified four distinct clusters. The ‘Energy Efficient’ cluster had efficient practices as well as efficient houses and appliances, while ‘Energy Easy’ had relatively efficient material items but practices that were not particularly efficient. The ‘Energy Economic’ cluster of households tended to have inefficient material items yet very efficient practices, using relatively little energy—these were generally lower-income households. ‘Energy Extravagant’ tended to be higher-income households with inefficient practices, and with many energy-hungry or relatively inefficient appliances. This last group used the most energy. Many ‘Energy Economic’ households had young adults, and many in the ‘Energy Efficient’ group were couples whose children had left home, and the authors concluded that the clusters were related to some extent to life stage and to household income, but that these were not complete explanations. Based on the clustering, the research team recommended policy interventions for improving energy efficiency that were specific to each cluster (Barton et al., 2013).

These last two examples used statistical methods to identify distinct cultural clusters across a population, using a relatively small number of variables. Other studies have used qualitative methods to identify cultural differences within a population under study. For example, gender-related differences in energy culture identified through qualitative research include the habituated roles of males and females in relation to energy use (Jürisoo et al., 2019); gendered roles in energy-related decision-making (Bach et al., 2020); and the different effects of energy transitions on men and women within a given societal group (Johnson et al., 2019).

Cultural Resistance to Change

Established cultures can be remarkably stable even if there are considerable adjustments in the context within which actors operate. From a sustainability perspective, this is a beneficial quality to have if a culture is already sustainable, but cultural stability can be a problem if it means that interventions that are intended to improve social or environmental outcomes are not successful. The examples in this section reveal various cultural dynamics that have a role in resistance to change.

Household Energy Efficiency in Norway

Energy efficiency is arguably a rational choice because it saves people money, but cost is only one of many influences on energy decisions. Aspects of people’s existing cultural ensembles, such as beliefs, norms, knowledge and routines, can operate to maintain the status quo and trump the influence of price signals. Evidence of how cultural characteristics resist change can be seen in research that explored Norwegian households’ rationalisations and norms relating to energy efficiency (Godbolt, 2015).

Efficiency can be achieved in two main ways—through more efficient practices, or through the adoption of energy-efficient technologies. Drawing from focus groups, the researchers found that the Norwegian households largely failed to do either. Most households were not efficient in their energy use, and even those who were most price-conscious still used as much energy as they needed to remain comfortable. When it came to energy-efficient practices, householders mainly chose to undertake activities that easily integrated with their daily routines, and they avoided actions that involved hard work or were time-consuming. With regard to purchasing energy-efficient technologies, many participants did not feel that the cost savings were sufficient to motivate investments, and often used upfront cost as a reason not to invest. Where households had invested in efficient technologies, they usually explained it using non-cost rationales (e.g. better and more stable heating).

To investigate why this was the case, the researchers focused on the rationalisations and norms that were part of this inefficient energy culture. They found that the householders’ actions were underpinned by four principles of conduct that were repeatedly mentioned when people were asked to explain their energy use. These moral positions were often in tension or conflict. A morality of saving (i.e. valuing thriftiness) was moderated by a morality of merit (i.e. saving energy in one aspect of everyday life allowed profligate energy use elsewhere), a morality of needs (i.e. all of household energy consumption is needed to carry out everyday activities) and a morality of entitlement (i.e. a right to use as much energy as needed without justification). The ultimate outcome of this internally conflicted ‘ethos’ was that households were not particularly energy efficient even though it would have saved them money (Godbolt, 2015). This work reinforces the importance of understanding the motivators that shape people’s routines and investment choices, as these ultimately shape sustainability outcomes. Using the terminology of the revised cultures framework, it illustrates how disjunctions between motivators can prevent change in other aspects of culture (see Fig. 4.2 in Chapter 4).

Cooking in Zambian Households

In Zambia, interventions by the government and by non-governmental organisations were failing to persuade households to replace their charcoal stoves with clean, low-cost cooking methods such as electric stoves or fuel-efficient biomass pellet cookstoves (Jürisoo et al., 2019). This attempt to alter household cooking methods was in part because the charcoal stoves cause respiratory problems, especially among women and children, who spend more time indoors. Additionally, demand for charcoal was a cause of widespread deforestation, and charcoal prices were high because of the consequential supply issues. Sector experts considered that because alternative cooking methods were cheaper and had no supply issues, households would be keen to switch. However, families largely resisted change and the take-up of other cooking methods was low.

Using the cultures framework to analyse why this was the case, the study found a strongly habituated cooking culture whereby the charcoal stove was central to Zambian identity. ‘This is how cooking is done in Zambia: it connects us to our roots’, explained one woman (Jürisoo et al., 2019: 62). Use of the charcoal stove gave food the desired traditional flavour. Because it didn’t require ongoing supervision, the stove also allowed women to carry out other household chores alongside cooking. Going out to get charcoal was an opportunity for socialisation and to catch up on the latest news. The charcoal stove was thus integral to patterns of behaviour, socialisation and expectations around food. Despite the high price of charcoal, the apparent advantages of other cooking technologies weren’t enough to trigger change.

Relating this to the cultures framework, the researchers concluded that households had very little agency, and were largely locked into cultural ensembles involving norms around food and daily routines, the material culture of cookstoves and food, and practices including cooking, housework and socialisation. These were mutually reinforcing and further reinforced by external factors such as the presence of charcoal sellers in nearby streets, electricity shortages and national policies which included a lack of monitoring of illegal charcoal supplies. Together, the strongly linked cultural ensemble, lack of agency and reinforcing external influences meant that the cooking culture was highly resistant to change.

Energy Efficiency in the US Navy

Similar resistance can be seen in an example from the US Navy (Dew et al., 2017). Efforts had been made to improve lighting efficiency in the fleet for at least 12 years through navy programmes, but nearly all the ships still used inefficient lighting despite the technical, safety and cost advantages of LED lights. Many different justifications (e.g. less labour, reducing fuel consumption, improving fighting capability, reducing overall energy expenses) had been used to support the change, but these had gained little traction.

Using the cultures framework, the research revealed aspects of the navy’s norms, materiality and practices that were strongly aligned, and interacted to support the existing inefficient and costly lighting system. This included beliefs about energy being cheap and abundant and the navy’s mission being war not efficiency; material aspects like existing fixtures and their maintenance requirements; and various practices such as acquisition processes and officer rotation. These are summarised in Fig. 5.2. The external influences on this culture are elaborated later in this chapter.

Fig. 5.2
A looping diagram includes material culture, practices, and norms with respective examples and double-headed arrows between them. Two arrows labeled external influences point towards the diagram.

Internal elements of US Navy energy culture (Reproduction of Fig. 2 from Dew et al. [2017])

Together, this system of interlocked cultural influences was preventing the navy from making a very simple change to LED lights that would be cheaper because they would be longer lasting and require far less energy. The study authors looked at eight alternative explanations for the sluggish adoption of more efficient lighting technologies and concluded that the most plausible explanation was ‘the difficulty of crafting a good justification for adoption, one that has a favourable fit with the prevailing energy culture’ (Dew et al., 2017: 64).

Housing Retrofits in Ireland

In some instances, cultures can be impervious to change even where there is a significant alteration in context. This resistance is illustrated by a study in Ireland which showed why the intended benefits of an energy efficiency makeover in a social housing estate were not fully achieved. Prior to changes to their houses, householders experienced indoor condensation and mould growth, and were concerned about how cold and draughty their homes were. The intervention included installing wall and ceiling insulation, double glazing, ventilation systems and new heating systems with thermostats that could be manually over-ridden. Using the cultures framework, the study followed 20 households before and after the retrofits, looking at changes in material conditions, energy-related practices and in householders’ attitudes, perceptions and norms (Rau et al., 2020).

The research found that the physical retrofit resulted in some improvements in thermal comfort, but not to the extent intended by the designers. They concluded that this was because of the persistence of inefficient routines around heating and appliance use, and also because the householders lacked the knowledge and practices required to successfully operate the new water and space heating systems. Despite the intention that heating would be automated, many of the households continued to operate the heating system manually as they had done in the past. They set the thermostat high and physically turned it on and off rather than using the more efficient option of setting the thermostat at a lower level and letting the adjustments occur automatically. Only half of the households increased the average temperature of their houses despite having previously been unsatisfied with levels of warmth.

The cultures framework provided a helpful basis for integrating physical measures and qualitative information to illustrate variations between households in whether and how their energy culture changed following the retrofit, and how this related to changes in gas and electricity consumption. The average outcome was a 19% reduction in total energy use—a positive result given many households were economically vulnerable and were able to increase the comfort of their homes. However, this varied between households: the energy savings were lower than expected, and the energy rebound absorbed any further potential financial savings. The material changes to hot water and space heating resulted in modest changes in related practices but did not shift the prevailing energy culture in any fundamental way, and nor did it result in more efficient use of other appliances.

The authors concluded that efficiency retrofit programmes should put equal effort into analysing and, if necessary, seeking to adjust all aspects of a household’s energy culture, not just the material aspects. It is equally important to pay attention to householders’ energy-related expectations, aspirations, understandings and practices if real and lasting reductions in energy use are to be realised along with health and wellbeing benefits (Rau et al., 2020).

Cultural Dynamics in Switzerland

Household adoption of solar photovoltaics (PV) is arguably one route to lower-carbon electricity, and many nations have used subsidies to encourage their uptake. However, households vary in their willingness to adopt PV. A study of households in Berne, Switzerland, looked at how cultural attributes influence the uptake of PV (Bach et al., 2020). Interviews with adopters and non-adopters showed that they were quite alike in many aspects of their ‘electricity cultures’: both groups engaged in similar energy behaviours in the home, both perceived electricity efficiency as important and both perceived PV as a reliable technology. However, adopters of PV showed some cultural differences—they were more environmentally motivated, aspired to energy independence, did more to reduce electricity use and generally owned more renewable technologies.

Non-adopters’ rationalisations of their positions revealed how their cultural dynamics essentially closed out the potential for PV adoption through the strong reinforcing linkages between their norms, practices and materiality, while adopters had somewhat different cultural ensembles and more flexible links between cultural elements. This is illustrated in Fig. 5.3, which uses quotes from the non-adopter interviews to indicate how the cultural dynamics create a self-sustaining system that hinders PV adoption. The authors concluded that this cultural analysis shows the need for a shift from homogenous financially focused policies encouraging PV uptake, to policies that account for cultural difference across households (Bach et al., 2020).

Fig. 5.3
A looping diagram includes material culture, practices, and norms and uses quotes from the non-adopter interviews to indicate how the cultural dynamics create a self-sustaining system that hinders P V adoption.

Dynamics of a non-adopter culture. The positive interplay between cultural attributes creates an ensemble that is resistant to change, hindering PV adoption (Reproduction of Fig. 3 from Bach et al. [2020])

Cultural dynamics can thus complicate or inhibit interventions designed to improve sustainability outcomes. This is further demonstrated by a review of interventions for more sustainable forms of mobility and energy use in 28 countries (Sovacool & Griffiths, 2020). Mobility examples included aggressive driving, speeding and eco-driving, automated vehicles, and ridesharing and carpooling. Energy-related examples included solar home systems, improved cookstoves, and energy-efficient heating, cooling and hot water practices. The findings revealed how cultural ensembles can play as significant a role as price signals, national programmes and regulations in the adoption of new technologies and more efficient behaviours.

The review paper showed that impeding cultural factors included social customs, conspicuous consumption to project wealth or power, peer pressure, spiritual beliefs, traditional practices, gender roles, and misperceptions and biases in technology design. The authors concluded that ‘[s]ome emerging energy and low-carbon innovations can create, challenge, or reinforce existing cultures; in other situations embedded cultures can challenge, shape, and entrench particular low-carbon innovations and practices. Ideas, customs, and social behavior merge with technological artefacts and material infrastructures to create cultures (or sub-cultures) of driving, automation, riding, domesticating, cooking, and heating’ (Sovacool & Griffiths, 2020: 7). Culture is often overlooked in policy development for low-carbon transitions which are usually designed on techno-economic considerations and assumptions about individual decision-making processes. The authors concluded that policy would be much more effective if it accounted for the ways in which cultures shape aspirations, capabilities and agency for low-carbon transitions.

Culture at Different Scales

Cultural stability is observable at many scales. It can be noticed in the enduring cultural ensemble of a single household or an organisation, and equally it can be seen in relatively stable cultural features at national or pan-national scales. The examples below reveal dimensions of culture as a multi-scalar concept, describing a global culture of academic air travel, national energy cultures and multi-scale cultures within the timber industry in New Zealand.

Academic Air Travel

Academics frequently fly internationally to conferences and meetings, and to undertake research. This activity has major sustainability downsides—it causes a significant proportion of many universities’ greenhouse gas emissions and contributes to global emissions. Yet air travel has long been an integral part of what it means to be an academic. It maintains visibility within a discipline, enables the development of international networks, and supports international collaborations and jointly authored papers. These are regarded as key measures of academic success and can affect promotions. Furthermore, comparative rankings of universities take into account the international outlook of individual universities, which is in part assessed through the proportion of a university’s academic publications with at least one international co-author. International travel, including flying, is therefore an expected part of scholarly life.

Tseng et al. (2022) described this as an academic transport culture and were particularly interested in how the COVID-19 pandemic destabilised this culture (possibly temporarily). Academic transport culture involves scholarly norms about career development, network building, sharing of research, keeping up with academic advances, research collaborations and co-authored papers. These norms align with the practice of flying frequently, and this has been further encouraged by funding available through universities to support international travel. Transport culture can be seen to be operating in at least two scales of actors—at the scale of academics and at the scale of universities.

With COVID-19, academics were forced to adopt new practices (virtual conferences, online meetings) and new materialities (technologies and software that allow stable high-speed videoconferencing) which have resulted in the normalisation of virtual meetings and conferences and the new forms of social interaction that they involve. Generally, positive experiences with these virtual interactions have shown that the need for academic flights to support scholarly life may not be as great as assumed. The authors suggest that in a post-COVID-19 environment, these temporary culture changes could be made more permanent to maintain the reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. This should include changes in transport culture at the university scale, including adjustments to institutional expectations for academics to travel, institutional investments in quality videoconferencing equipment and new practices around the organisation of conferences.

National Energy Cultures

As already touched on above, sustainability-related cultures among citizens can differ greatly between nations. Cultural differences can also be identified at a state level. One example is a study that sought to explain the significant variability in countries’ decarbonisation ambitions relating to the Paris Agreement (Stephenson et al., 2021). Prior research on this question had failed to establish any single compelling reason for the wide variance in countries’ nationally determined contributions and their intended low-carbon pathways. Previous comparative studies had generally each focused on only one or two potential explanatory factors for this divergence. These included countries’ natural resource endowments, political structures, levels of wealth or development, current dependence on fossil fuels, political leadership, job creation or geopolitical ambitions. This study used the cultures framework as an organising structure around which to explore these and other factors in an integrated fashion.

Using case studies of India, Denmark, China and Russia, the authors investigated cultural (and other) influences on energy policy evident in each nation over a 30-year period. They concluded that national low-carbon ambitions are contingent upon how a nation perceives the role of energy, and the choices, policies, investments and actions that flow from this. These interactions create a cultural ‘system’ that comprises the interplay between normative, material, institutional and policy-related attributes of national decision-making bodies.

The habituative nature of this system shapes the extent to which nations are willing to respond to the global challenge of climate change. For example, Denmark’s energy culture was described as being proactive and innovative for low-carbon wellbeing, while Russia was characterised as having a hegemonic energy culture, focused on geopolitical dominance and economic restoration. By revealing the heterogeneity of national energy cultures, the study showed why their responses to the climate crisis are so different. It concluded that because of this cultural variability, each nation would require different stimuli to strengthen its low-carbon ambitions (Stephenson et al., 2021).

Multi-Scale Culture in the New Zealand Timber Industry

A study in New Zealand looked at the barriers to the use of energy-efficient drying technologies in the timber industry. Larger firms preferred vented kiln dryers (less efficient and producing significant particulate emissions) over the newer heat pump kiln dryers (more efficient and no emissions) even though there were no significant differences in the average operating costs, drying costs or commercial success. The newer technology offered the advantages of energy-efficient drying and better-quality wood products, and would help firms avoid the risks of path dependency in an increasingly emissions-conscious world. The study identified culturally based resistance to change among individual firms and across the timber drying sector as a whole (Fig. 5.4) (Bell et al., 2014).

Fig. 5.4
A looping diagram includes three sets with firms 1, 2, and 3 in the center and vented kiln, drying practices, and firm norms surrounding it. Encapsulating the three sets is another looping diagram with a vented kiln infrastructure, technical and research support, and industry norms.

The energy culture of individual firms is shaped and constrained by the prevailing energy culture of the timber drying sector (Reproduction of Fig. 4 from Bell et al. [2014])

At the sector level, the dominance of vented kilns was strong supported by the prevailing technologies, practices and norms, including research investments and the focus on this technology at industry-wide events. The sector-wide culture hindered the adoption of innovations and technological learning at the scale of individual firms. The sector culture acted as an ‘external influence’ on the energy cultures of individual firms, constraining their choices and normalising the traditional kiln systems. Influential stakeholders in the industry were embedded in the dominant energy culture, while the few smaller firms who had adopted heat pump dryers had little influence in the wider sector. The researchers concluded that this multi-level culture created such a strongly self-replicating system that any transformative change would need to be initiated from outside the sector (Bell et al., 2014).

These examples show how the cultures framework can be used as an analytical framing regardless of the actor or the scope of their influence. The academic travel and timber drying examples reveal how cultures can operate at different scales, each with its particular ensemble of motivators, activities and materiality, with the broader-scale culture shaping the cultures of less powerful actors. The study of national energy cultures shows how cultural qualities can evolve and consolidate over time, and that cultural expressions regarding a resource like energy can be highly diverse. Culture’s tendency to durability is notable in all the examples, apart from way in which COVID-19 disrupted academic transport culture. There, a significant change in context reset the culture into new patterns, some of which may continue to endure even now that international travel restrictions are lifted.

External Influences Shaping Culture and Constraining Change

Cultures exist within a contextual soup of influences that include the geographic context, political arrangements, laws and policies, infrastructure, media, and broadly shared ideologies and beliefs. The cultures framework invites consideration of how these influences may shape, constrain or reinforce the cultural ensembles in which we are interested. As I will discuss in Chapter 6, externalinfluences can also engender cultural change, but for now I will focus on examples that illustrate how external influences can combine to shape and maintain (unsustainable) cultural patterns.

The phenomenon of consumer culture that developed over the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries is a good example of the power of external influences. Over this period, an ideology that equates consumption with success has been operationalised through marketing, shopping infrastructures (physical and virtual) and the planned obsolescence of products, all designed to fan the fires of capitalism and increase corporate profits. The resulting culture of consumption involving the rapid turnover of possessions and unprecedented waste streams became normalised and almost unquestionable among Western households. Even where people chose to be involved in waste minimisation or recycling, this did nothing to reduce the flow of products at the start of the consumption system. Households became a conduit of matter that was being transformed from resource to consumer item to trash. The outcomes are well understood, from plastic gyres in the ocean, e-waste dumps in developing countries and microplastic pollution in soils and water. Even with a greater awareness of the environmental and social costs, most households are still largely locked in to these problematic patterns of consumption by structures and ideologies that are beyond their control (Davies et al., 2014).

The cultures framework helps to identify and depict how external influences, including broader-scale cultures, shape the culture of the actors in whom we are interested. Most of the studies I have discussed so far in this chapter have identified external influences that have shaped the relevant culture/s or are constraining change. In the US Navy example, a range of external influences maintained its inefficient energy culture. These included Congressional appropriation processes, the energy culture of the Department of Defense (which differed from that of the navy), executive actions of the Federal Government, a limited supplier base, formalised instructions and the cost of energy relative to other costs (see Fig. 5.5). In order to undertake a simple action of investing in LED lightbulbs, naval personnel were faced with justifying this action through complex processes to other more influential organisations with little interest in acting outside of business-as-usual.

Fig. 5.5
A looping diagram includes material culture, practices, and norms with external factors like federal government executive actions, congressional appropriation processes, evolving security mission, and O C D instruction in fuel cost among others affecting them.

External influences on US Navy energy culture (Reproduction of Fig. 1 from Dew et al. [2017])

External influences on culture often involve power differentials. Influential organisations and individuals, systems of governance, infrastructure, ideologies, media and resource allocations can all shape less powerful cultures. Because of this, we should never assume that people have necessarily freely chosen to adopt cultural attributes. These may have been absorbed and learned over time from family and peers, but equally they may also be imposed and reinforced by structural forces beyond people’s control. This is illustrated in the following examples.

Consumer Expectations of Urban Freight Deliveries

A study in the urban freight sector in New Zealand revealed how changing external influences were causing freight deliveries to become less efficient despite many freight businesses wishing to become more efficient and sustainable. The sector was being fundamentally changed by the impacts of escalating online orders, leading to increasing home deliveries, new tracking technologies and rising customer expectations of tracking and delivery times. Together with freight firms de-risking through subcontracting deliveries to owner-drivers, this meant freight drivers had to be highly competitive and make multiple journeys with low-bulk deliveries. There were significant social, economic and environmental outcomes: owner-drivers faced high stress, low profitability and lack of security, and the delivery system generated high fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions and contributed to increased congestion on urban streets. The owner-drivers interviewed felt they had little option but to meet consumer expectations, and although some drivers could envisage other more sustainable ways to operate, they had insufficient agency to be able to make changes themselves or to work together with other drivers to change the system. This would have required a more supportive environment including changes to industry norms, customer expectations and urban transport policies (Hopkins & McCarthy, 2016).

Living in Energy Poverty in New Zealand

Families living in energy hardship in New Zealand typically live in low-quality houses, usually as tenants. These homes frequently have poor insulation and inefficient (or no) heating systems. In a study of fuel poverty in New Zealand, a cultural analysis showed how the poor material conditions of the houses and inefficient appliances had strong influences on how inhabitants used energy, because they could not afford to reach comfortable levels of warmth (McKague et al., 2016). Most were in private rental accommodation, the standards for which are very low compared to most European and North American countries. Even where people owned their homes, they lacked agency to fix them. For a variety of reasons the households were on low incomes or had additional costs such as illness or large families. There was an absence of state support to improve housing standards apart from an insulation subsidy that was not available to landlords. An electricity pre-payment system that was intended for households on low incomes turned out to be more expensive than standard payment systems.

Given these circumstances, common practices included avoiding using heating appliances and staying in bed for extended periods to keep warm, or heating only one room of the house, thus confining activities to that room. Family members often suffered ill health, and also were socially isolated because they were ashamed to bring others to their cold house. Some spent much time scavenging for free firewood to keep their stove burning. They experienced high levels of anxiety about covering their energy costs, and this competed with their ability to afford food. This energy culture was the only response possible by the households due to circumstances that were almost entirely beyond their control. For these families, there was no way out of their frugal and unhealthy energy culture, so these characteristics will likely endure unless there is a change to the families’ agency and/or the material conditions in which they live.

Distributive Injustice in Slum Rehabilitation Housing in Brazil, India and Nigeria

My final example is an investigation of distributive injustices in slum rehabilitation housing in the cities of Mumbai, Abuja and Rio de Janiero (Debnath et al., 2021). In each city, the families had been rehoused into a distinctive type of rehabilitation housing and provided with appliances. The researchers undertook focus group discussions with women in each location and designed the questions around the elements of the cultures framework. The study found that their energy practices, norms and materiality related strongly to the type of building and energy appliances they had been allocated. In Abuja, for example, the housing units were single storey with common spaces, and these allowed for community ownership and shared use of appliances. The high-rise buildings in Mumbai meant practices such as cooking and cooling which were energy intensive due to a lack of outdoor and shared spaces. In Rio de Janiero, energy practices were shaped by appliances that had been donated by higher-income groups and which were not necessarily a good fit with cooking traditions.

Other external influences compounded the energy injustices experienced by these households. For example, in Ajuba the families faced high and irregular power bills, low-power quality and frequent load shedding that damaged their appliances, which were hard to repair or replace. They also suffered health impacts as they often used firewood when the power was down, leading to indoor pollution from smoke. In Rio, the donation-based model passed on inefficient appliances with the associated burden of higher operational and maintenance costs, and poor housing design meant that significant energy needed to be spent on cooling. The researchers concluded that the families in each case suffered from structurally derived injustices, where the external influences on households maintained them in a situation of energy poverty. The imposed energy cultures were almost impossible for the household members to alter.

Culture’s Tendency to Resist Change

As shown by these examples, some cultures can exist in a state of relative stability with very little change over long periods of time. Sometimes this can be positive for sustainability ambitions (e.g. the retention of Indigenous knowledge and practices through shared mobility), but most of the examples focus on negative implications, such as for health and equity (e.g. households locked into energy poverty), energy efficiency (e.g. timber firms, Norwegian households) or greenhouse gas emissions (e.g. car culture, academic transport culture).

The dynamics between elements in cultural ensembles play a role in this continuity. With the Zambian example, charcoal cookstoves were strongly tied to the food flavours that people enjoyed and set a pace of cooking that enabled other tasks to be carried out simultaneously. The purchase of charcoal from street sellers was an important part of social life. The comfortable normalities of these routines and foods, and their central role in creating a sense of community, meant that people strongly resisted a change in cooking technologies. The lock-in was a result of the strong links between motivators, activities and the material items of the cookstoves and charcoal. Similar dynamics between elements of cultural ensembles were seen in the Switzerland example of non-adopters of PV.

The Norwegian example shows a different situation, where resistance to change to more efficient household practices arose from internally conflicting motivators for their energy use. Despite valuing thriftiness, they simultaneously held other justifications for using as much energy as they needed or desired. The result was that the householders’ inefficient energy cultures were maintained.

Culture can be so tenacious that cultural traits continue even where some cultural elements change. This is illustrated in examples where alterations to the material aspects of people’s lives failed to alter everyday activities to the extent anticipated. In Ireland, some households continued with their old routines despite new heating systems, thus failing to benefit fully from the promised financial and efficiency gains. In Italy, the war generation cohort was still far more frugal with energy use than the baby boomer generation, carrying norms and practices from the past throughout their lives despite positive changes in wealth and housing quality.

The examples also reveal the role of external influences in constraining cultural change (as with the US Navy example), forcing cultures to become more unsustainable (as with the urban freight example) and impelling actors to adopt cultural ensembles that are not only unsustainable but also threaten the actors’ health and wellbeing (as with the fuel poverty and slum rehabilitation examples). In each case, the actors had limited agency and, due to power differentials, would have little chance of altering their own cultural ensemble, let alone altering the external influences that were shaping their particular energy culture.

External influences can be cultural, and the examples also show how more dominant and widespread cultural ensembles can act as an external influence on other less dominant cultures. Such multi-scale cultures can be identified where certain actors’ cultural attributes influence the cultural attributes of others with less agency, such as the energy culture of the timber sector compared to that of individual firms, or the energy culture of landlords in relation to tenants. In these instances, the more powerful culture acts to shape (and often constrain) the cultures of the less powerful.

Cultural attributes are rarely adopted by actors in a conscious and purposeful way. Cultural ensembles—ways of thinking, acting and having—are learned from others over time, often relatively unconsciously. They are also a response to the conditions in which people find themselves. Where cultural actors lack power, they can become accustomed to patterns of behaviour and material choices, and this too can constrain them from changing their culture despite their aspirations to change, as with the examples of freight drivers and households in energy poverty.


When one is inside a culture, it is hard to see it as anything but ‘just how life is’. It can be even harder to identify the dispersed influences that shape one’s culture. For those who have always been dependent on cars, have always lived in cold houses or have always operated within the US Navy hierarchy, their particular cultural ensembles may appear normal and largely unquestionable. It seems to make little difference to the longevity of a culture whether a cultural actor is unhappy with the ensemble of which they are part (e.g. households in energy poverty) or entirely comfortable with it (e.g. most car users). Making culture visible, including to cultural actors themselves, is one of the challenges of achieving a sustainable future.

The examples in this chapter have explored cultural characteristics in relation to a wide variety of sustainability-related outcomes, including energy efficiency, health and wellbeing, energy consumption, energy poverty, transport emissions, retention of cultural values, uptake of new technologies and distributive injustice. The examples underline that what culture is for one question is different to what it is for another question. A household’s cultural ensemble relating to water consumption will likely be very different to their cultural ensemble relating to mobility: both the cultural ensemble and the membership of the respective culture groups are likely to differ. The energy culture of a business will comprise a very different set of features to the energy culture of a nation state. Yet all of these cultures can be described using the language and structure of the cultures framework. The framework thus offers a universal, scale-free model for the analysis of culture.

Applying the cultures framework to investigate relatively stable cultures has revealed several factors involved in cultural stasis. These include situations where cultural elements are closely and positively linked (as with the Zambian cookstove example), situations where actors hold internally inconsistent motivations or rationalisations (as with the Norwegian household example), situations where actors have limited agency to change even if they wish to (as with the energy poverty and urban freight examples) and situations where external influences, including more powerful cultures, shape and continually reinforce cultural ensembles (as with automobility). These dynamics can operate singly or collectively to reinforce cultural stability.

In this chapter, I have explored how culture can become habituated and relatively difficult to change. Cultural habituation is not necessarily a bad thing in sustainability terms. Some cultural patterns have positive sustainability outcomes and should equally be studied to understand their longevity. But cultural habituation is a problem when humans are caught up in unsustainable patterns of consumption and production. In the following chapter, I use research-based examples to discuss a more positive topic—how and why cultural change occurs.