As I wrote this book, I had four people in mind as my readers: a postgraduate student, a senior policy advisor, the leader of an interdisciplinary research project and an academic in cultural theory. I also wrote it for myself. It is the book I wish I’d had when I was starting out to inquire into what, in the first decade of the twenty-first century, was still mainly referred to as ‘behaviour change’, certainly in relation to energy research. Behaviour change never sat comfortably with me as a concept—it suggested there was something wrong with people who did not behave in desirable ways, or failed to respond to policy interventions in the ways that had been anticipated. Using culture as a frame of inquiry brings a different lens on how and why people act, think and make decisions, and brings new perspectives on sustainability problems and solutions.

The cultures framework offers a structured approach to cultural analysis. It is designed for the actor-centred exploration of cultural ensembles and their causal relationships with sustainability outcomes. The framework incorporates the concept of agency to account for constraints on actors’ capacity to make choices and take action to alter relevant cultural attributes. It draws attention to the ways in which culture is learned and transferred. It accounts for the context in which cultures emerge and are sustained or modified, including the effects of more powerful cultures or structures. The framework invites an orderly exploration of how these variables and their interactions have implications for measures of sustainability.

I did not anticipate the power and reach of this set of ideas. From a pared-down heuristic initially intended to underpin interdisciplinary research on household energy efficiency, it has proved useful for research on an extraordinary range of topics and is applicable to any actors and any sustainability issue. As previous chapters have elaborated, its applications have produced intrinsic findings about specific cultural ensembles and their outcomes, as well as generic insights into cultural dynamics. The framework helps to explain processes of cultural stasis and cultural change. It has aided studies into gender, power and equity. It is fruitful when used for research design, analysis and integration, and is helpful for the development of policy recommendations. The framework is sufficiently minimalist as to be understandable as a model by non-specialists, while also able to operate at a meta-theoretical level.

Although much of this book has been about the cultures framework, I have also tried to make sense of the many different perspectives on culture. Rather than give preference to a particular interpretation, I have argued that all of these approaches can assist in the momentous and complex transition to a sustainable future. I’d like to finish by sharing some further insights that I have derived while writing this book from examining culture through a sustainability lens and sustainability through a cultural lens.

Sustainability through a Cultural Lens

Unless humans can rapidly transition to more sustainable ways of living with the earth and each other, current and future generations will inherit a world filled with suffering. The biophysical limits of natural systems are already being breached, and climate change, species extinctions, resource depletion, widespread pollution and other consequences are rendering the planet less and less viable for human life. Transitioning requires the dismantling of established institutions and paradigms, global systems of power and financing, expectations of wealth and consumption, chains of debt entanglement and flows of resources and waste. It involves intentionally unpicking long-established norms, beliefs, everyday practices, purchasing decisions, business models, policies, investment choices and material assemblages.

The past transition of equivalent magnitude, the industrial revolution, took much longer and was impelled by the elixir of fossil fuels, new technologies, seemingly boundless resources and the promise of individual wealth creation. This transition is different and much more difficult for three reasons. It requires collective action for the greater good of humanity and for the natural systems we depend on; it will involve an intentional contraction of material expectations for wealthier countries and individuals; and it needs to take place at the very time that planetary destabilisation is starting to have financial and societal consequences. Yet if a deliberate transition to living within planetary limits is not achieved within a few decades, humanity will face a chaotic and even more inequitable future.

In all of this, culture matters. It is the scaffolding of the world’s unsustainable trajectory. The interlinked cultural ensembles of colonisation, industrialisation and modernity formed the seemingly unquestionable cultural edifices that have driven the sustainability crisis we face today. As I’ve discussed in previous chapters, culture is a major barrier to transitioning to a sustainable future because of its tendency to stability. Cultural dynamics can operate to preserve the status quo. Around the world, in all sectors, we can see how more powerful unsustainable cultures can act as structures that force the less powerful to continue harmful patterns of consumption and production.

The only way out of the unsustainable trajectory is through widespread cultural change. What we already know about cultural dynamics suggests that this is not impossible. Cultures can change rapidly in response to new circumstances. I am given hope by the many individuals, households, communities, organisations and governments globally that are adopting new ways of thinking, doing and having. These responses are variable in their measurable impact and are based on different perspectives of what sustainability means, but they show how culture can be responsive and innovative in the face of external challenges. I am inspired by traditional and Indigenous cultures whose worldviews encompass respect, reciprocity and relationality with the natural world. I am encouraged to see how new cultural ideas and practices can spread, and the potential for collective cultural change to subvert more powerful cultural ensembles.

To me, the sustainability transition involves cultural change that builds resilience to the consequences of destabilising natural systems and simultaneously reverses the unsustainable outcomes of human endeavours. For many households, that change might include buying fewer or different products, eating lower-carbon foods, making different mobility choices and becoming more responsible for the quality of the local environment. For businesses and organisations, this might mean developing different products and services, becoming part of a circular economy, accounting for carbon flows within the business, changing to different energy sources and paying more attention to worker welfare. But if meta-cultures fail to be transformed as well, these smaller-scale changes will fail to have the impact required. Transition thus also involves challenge and change to culture at multiple levels, including to the powerful actors and their meta-cultures that are still replicating the beliefs and actions that created the sustainability crisis.

Culture is complex, but it is not an excuse for inaction. If it is left in the too-hard basket while the action focuses on technological solutions, sustainability transitions will founder.

Culture through a Sustainability Lens

What does culture comprise, when we are wanting to explore its interplay with sustainability outcomes? I think this depends very much on the question we are wanting to explore, and thetheory of culture we bring to it. As I’ve previously discussed, there are many perspectives on culture which have originated in different knowledge systems, linguistic applications and academic interpretations. Each of the nine clusters of meaning that I identified in Chapter 2, if applied to a sustainability question, would interpret culture in a different way. Any of these interpretations could contribute to our understanding of how culture operates to enable or constrain sustainability journeys. Rather than being a weakness I see this diversity of perspectives as a latent strength, as discussed at the end of Chapter 8.

When thinking about complex sustainability problems, such as equity, climate change and biodiversity loss, I have come to see the social world as a cacophony of diverse overlapping cultures, from the smallest scale of a household to globally influential structures. Together, these multi-scale cultures are currently largely aligned to defiling and destabilising the world’s natural systems, and through that, the future quality of life of human and other species.

From a sustainability perspective, though, it is helpful to remember that culture is mutable. Most people have not freely chosen the cultural ensembles in which they are embedded; culture is learned and, although it may be challenging, people can and do adopt new cultural features. Although cultural actors may feel that the way they live or do business is the only possible way, this is an amnesiac trick of cultural learning. If they jumped back in time or were brought up in a different setting, they could be equally comfortable and satisfied with completely different cultural ensembles. The normalcy of one’s own culture is a powerful driver of resistance to change, but it is an illusion.

As I have discussed earlier, there are myriad ways in which cultures can be sustainable. Different places and people will develop distinctive cultures that suit local conditions and local populations. But does a sustainable culture have to be intentionally crafted? Does it matter if cultural actors are consciously aware of the sustainability implications of what they have, think and do? Looking to the past, the best examples of what we might today call sustainable cultures were traditional and Indigenous societies that had learned how to live so as to maintain the health and abundance of natural systems, and had embedded this into knowledge systems, values, spirituality, practices, tools and products. These involve unique concepts that are not precisely the same as what is called sustainability in Western scholarship, but they are great examples of intentional sustainability—where ways of life have been purposefully shaped by an awareness of the need to live with reciprocity and respect for the natural world. Many of these cultures are still extant, although the communities have often been marginalised and their knowledge demeaned by colonisation and modernity.

Then there are those whose lives may be sustainable by some measures, but who are just focused on surviving, living such frugal lives that their environmental impacts are miniscule. They might be thought to be sustainable through some measures, but not in terms of their own health and wellbeing. This reflects the situation of billions of people, mainly in underdeveloped or developing nations, and also the less advantaged in many developed nations. Others, particularly in the first world, may have no option but to live unsustainably, forced by broader influences such as urban form that dictates the need for car dependency. The common factor across all of these is a lack of agency.

Then there are consciously unsustainable cultures. Here I refer to the meta-cultures—the powerful nations, corporations and individuals that are still replicating the systems and processes that created the sustainability crisis and are now pushing our planet’s systems to the point of cascading destabilisation. These are not powerless or unaware actors—they are well informed of the implications and yet choose to maintain the status quo in order to benefit their own short-term interests. Even more cynically, many engage in misinformation, obfuscation and inappropriate influence. Consciously unsustainable cultures include actors with significant agency, who know they should change but choose not to do so or use greenwashing to obscure their lack of action. These actors stand in the way of the sustainability transition, normalising complacency and a lack of urgency.

At the same time, new forms of consciously sustainable cultures are emerging, impelled in part by awareness of the gravity of the sustainability crisis and a desire to be part of the solution. These are visible at all scales, from communities establishing shared gardens to businesses adopting circular economies; from the rise in veganism to policies for just transitions; from sustainable fashion to nations committing to rapid zero carbon trajectories. In all instances, these involve the adoption of new ways of thinking, new material choices and new actions and practices.

Ultimately, to achieve a sustainable future, it will be critical to extend the membership, vitality and power of new and established sustainable cultures, diminish those of consciously unsustainable cultures, and support unintentionally unsustainable cultures to extend their agency and develop livelihoods and lifestyles that improve health, wellbeing and equity.

Culture gives me hope. Even though cultural dynamics can tend to replicate unsustainable cultural ensembles, the fact that cultures can and do evolve shows that transformational journeys are possible. Cultural variability shows that people can live simply, sustainably and happily in a wide range of environmental conditions. It shows how a multiplicity of cultural arrangements, tailored to place and people, will be needed for a sustainable future. Culture gives me hope because cultural actors can rapidly and creatively adjust their ensembles to respond to new circumstances or in anticipation of shocks. I also gain hope from seeing the potential of collective cultural change to destabilise more powerful cultures and structures that reinforce the status quo. The sustainability crisis requires that these cultural processes are better understood and become more visible.

Culture and Sustainability

Culture is the missing link when it comes to the sustainability transition. There are vast reservoirs of knowledge about technical solutions, policy options, economic tools and human psychology, but relatively little is known about the role of culture. Despite its fundamental influence on unsustainable systems of production and consumption, culture is often overlooked, ignored or glossed over. Its apparent intangibility and complexity become a reason for inaction. Yet culture does not need to be a mystery.

Cultural analysis can provide insights that are not achievable through other lenses, reveal possibilities for change and give impetus to efforts for a sustainable future. It can reveal processes of social stability (resistance to change), social fluidity (responding to a changing context) and social reorientation (purposeful transformation). We can get trapped into thinking the human race is doomed because of problematic psychological tendencies such as an inability to consider the needs of future generations, forgetting that plenty of cultures already embed intergenerational thinking. Cultural analysis can help augment the positive role of culture in sustainability transitions: solving problems by dynamically adjusting to changing external circumstances; generating and rapidly proliferating new ideas, practices, knowledge and products; being a source of traditional knowledge, values and practices that are aligned with a sustainable future; and delivering collectively desired outcomes.

The cultures framework works at this nexus of culture and sustainability. As a stripped-down model of culture’s relationship with sustainability, the framework is for anyone to use. It can help individuals and households to notice their own cultural ensembles. It can help businesses and organisations look reflexively at themselves and see where to start a journey of purposeful transformation. It can help governance institutions and policymakers to craft more holistic policies and interventions, and to value cultural actors who are already demonstrating what it means to live sustainably. More generally, it helps explain why and how people matter in conversations that are usually dominated by technology and economics.

For my postgraduate student reader, I offer this book as a resource to help you design and undertake your research. It brings the cultures framework up to date, drawing inspiration from the many researchers around the world globally who have used it as well as from its diverse applications by the original Energy Cultures team and my own postgraduate students. My talks to students and researchers on using the framework to undertake research has informed the step-by-step guide in Chapter 8. I have tried to cover all the questions that my own students have asked, and queries that have come in from other postgraduate students around the world. You can find further guidance in the various studies I have cited and the theories and methodologies they have used. I hope you are inspired to explore new questions of culture and sustainability, and I look forward to seeing your work when it is published.

For my policy-oriented reader, I hope that the framework helps you to see how and why behaviour-change policies are often not as successful as you would hope. Taking a cultural perspective helps to explain those thorny issues for policy such as value-action gaps, rebound effects and non-rational responses to financial signals. It helps you to see why some policies might have unintended consequences, and why other policies might face stiff resistance from your intended audience. Once you understand the entanglements between what people think, do and have, it becomes clear why an intervention to change one of these can have consequences for the others, or why its effectiveness might be constrained. I hope that the step-by-step guide in Chapter 7 can help you to develop culturally informed policies that account for the heterogeneity of cultural ensembles relevant to the problem you are seeking to address. Accounting for cultural dynamics, agency, cultural vectors and external influences can help you to design targeted policies that respond better to the complexities of everyday existence for households and organisations. Once you have designed your policy, the framework also offers a scaffold around which to develop evaluations of the effectiveness of interventions. I trust that this book has also opened your eyes to the importance of supporting and learning from cultures that are already sustainable or are on self-initiated journeys of sustainability.

For my would-be leader of a research programme: you already see the critical importance of interdisciplinary research to address complex sustainability problems, but you may be wondering how to develop a programme of research that benefits from and integrates the varied contributions of your team members. The cultures framework can be useful as a core integrative structure for your research. Your team can use the framework to help depict the research problem; develop hypotheses regarding the relationship between cultural ensembles and outcomes; identify the key questions and variables to study; specify team members’ roles and the theories and methodologies they will use to explore variables and their dynamics; triangulate and integrate findings; and identify opportunities for supporting positive change. With your large programme you may have capacity to explore heterogeneity across cultures and the nature and influence of multi-level cultures. I hope that in respecting the contributions of many disciplines, you will extend that respect to knowledge-holders from outside of traditional Western disciplines. Local and Indigenous knowledge has a huge amount to offer to the pursuit of sustainability.

For my academic in cultural theory, I offer this book with some trepidation. Each of the fields of cultural scholarship that I discuss in Chapters 2 and 3 would require a lifetime’s worth of study to fully comprehend, and there is no way that I can do it justice. I may offend some of your colleagues by my seemingly scanty representations of rich bodies of work and their many shades of meaning and contention. I hope that you can see that this is because my intention was to be integrative rather than reductive, spanning rather than deep-diving. I sought to draw out high-level differences and similarities, and explore the potential for all forms of cultural theorising to contribute to questions of sustainability. My broad categorisations of theories of culture, including Indigenous theories, may offer some novel perspectives for cultural scholars. What excites me most, and I hope you as well, is the potential for all cultural theories to make a much greater contribution to resolving global and local sustainability challenges.

To all of you, and for other readers who have dipped into this book from personal interest or concern about the world’s unsustainable trajectory, I hope you can now ‘see’ the operations of culture in the sustainability outcomes of your own lives or of the organisations for whom you work. Understanding the multiple overlapping cultures of your own consumption and production, and the external influences that shape them, can reveal why it is so hard to extricate yourself from unsustainable patterns. I hope it alerts you to the consequences of norms, beliefs, meanings, forms of knowledge and other shared aspects of cognition, and how these inexorably shape what you do and what you acquire and make. I hope it is easier to see how powerful but largely invisible cultures have quietly shaped your own culture and the world we have inherited. I hope it helps you to unpick and analyse the workings of culture at multiple levels and to see that it is possible to take collective action to reach beyond the agency barrier and re-shape wider unsustainable structures. There is huge promise in getting to know ourselves as cultural creatures and understanding the sustainability transition as a cultural transition.