“Sobriety cannot rest solely on individuals”

Sophie Dubuisson-Quellier, sociologist, member of the High Council for the Climate, returns for CNRS Le Journal to the concept of sobriety, its objectives and its locks.

What is the sobriety that we have been talking about a lot for a few months? How to define it?
Sophie Dubuisson-Quellier. It all depends on what angle you look at the concept. The arrival of the concept of “sobriety” in public discourse is very recent and very rapid. Until a few months ago, the term was considered taboo because it evoked punitive ecology. The sobriety to which the French are called today, and the Europeans more broadly, was imposed in a particular context, which is a context of energy crisis linked to the war in Ukraine; it is a question of moderating energy consumption, which above all targets the final consumer and is based on the empowerment of individuals.

But in reality, the notion of sobriety has existed in social science research for twenty years already. It has been the subject of numerous studies, mainly by Anglo-Saxon researchers, under the term “sufficiency” – a concept taken up by the report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) for the entire first time in 2022, and which could be translated as “what is enough”, “what is enough”.

What does this term “sufficiency” cover, which sounds different from its French translation of “sobriety”?
SD-Q. In the scientific literature, the sufficiency concerns the moderation of consumption, but also, further upstream, new directions for production and services. It raises the question of the sustainability of our way of life, of what is “enough” or “enough”, and suggests the introduction of limits. Several models have been developed in this direction, such as the “Donut” model proposed by the economist Kate Raworth. With low limits, which are the minimum base corresponding to the satisfaction of the needs of the individual and a decent life, and high limits, which represent the ceiling not to be exceeded in order to preserve the resources and the habitability of our planet (see diagram below). What is “sufficient” would lie between these two limits.

The “Donut” model, with its donut shape, designates the space in which the economy can develop without harming the planet or the well-being of individuals.

The notion of sufficiency goes well beyond the short-term management of an energy shortage. It presupposes redefining the levels of needs and well-being, and raises the question of the methods to be used to decide what is sufficient and what is “too much”. Issues of sobriety, as we can see, are above all a problem of social organization – a concept that is absent from current thinking in France. They also pose a real problem of democracy: behind, looms the question of the fair distribution of limited resources, in societies that are already deeply unequal.

How are social inequalities an obstacle to sobriety?
SD-Q. Behavior change requires people to choose between several options. We know that depending on your level of income, where you live, the decisions you make are in fact extremely constrained. Taking your car less requires that you have access to alternatives: walking, cycling, or public transport for example, which is feasible in the city center, but is much less so when you live in a rural area. Similarly, when you rent accommodation that is poorly insulated and equipped with a heating method that depends on carbon energies, you don’t really have the choice to do otherwise. The current recommendation to limit the temperature at home to 19°C may thus seem burdensome for the 20 million people who live in fuel poverty and do not reach these 19°C in winter.

Behavior change requires people to choose between several options. But we know that depending on your income, where you live, the decisions you make are extremely constrained.

Today, much of the energy transition is based on the good will of individuals. However, research in sociology clearly shows that the constraints that weigh on each of us are very unequal, and strongly condition our ability to act. This is why the work on the sufficiency insist that social justice dimensions must be at the heart of sobriety policies. This involves undertaking structural actions such as the energy renovation of buildings, in particular, so that changes in behavior are truly accessible to all.

Beyond the central question of inequalities, how to achieve sobriety in our so-called “consumer” societies?
This is called a contradictory injunction: we are asked to be sober in a society that is entirely organized around abundance. The productivity gains made since the end of the Second World War have mainly served to increase production, reaching a situation in which manufacturers have more products to offer than consumers opposite. To sell these surplus products on saturated markets, companies are always putting more money into sales techniques – marketing, advertising, and more recently, artificial intelligence – and find themselves having to produce even more, to absorb these costs and maintain an affordable selling price.

Sobriety cannot rest solely on individuals

Marseille, November 2022. Being sober in an economic system organized around consumption and marketing: a real challenge.

It’s a frenetic, extremely energy-consuming system that we don’t know how to stop. Introducing here or there a little sobriety will not change much. Especially since public action repeatedly encourages this mass consumption: think of car scrapping bonuses or economic recovery policies after the Covid shock…

Are the efforts that each of us can make, at our small level, of any use?
S DQ. It is important that individuals commit to the transition and that they have orders of magnitude to do so. But not everything can be based on them: small gestures added to each other will never create a groundswell. Moreover, with this policy of small gestures, small steps, we run the risk of discouraging, through the absence of conclusive results, people who are already making major efforts today, either out of conviction or because they are subject to strong constraints. It is the collective that will set individuals in motion, by giving itself clear objectives and the means to achieve them, not the other way around.

What is the right collective level to act according to you?
SD-Q. Public authorities – government, local authorities – have a crucial role to play, by acting on the regulatory framework and showing direction, planning and organizing the transition. But other levels of action are possible, in companies and professional organizations, in neighborhood associations, condominiums, etc. Each of these collectives can reflect on its uses and produce new standards.

Society will only move if we are on a collective trajectory, in which everyone takes their fair share.

In the world of research, for example, we have to fly regularly, in particular to attend international conferences. Is it up to each researcher to question his practices, or could we not all discuss them together? Thinking at the collective level does not necessarily mean laying down a single rule for everyone: one could thus consider that young researchers at the start of their career have a greater need to travel to meet their peers.

Society will only move if we are on a collective trajectory, in which everyone takes their fair share. Today, the authorities may have the impression that the constraints imposed by climate change are too heavy for individuals; but in reality, some social groups, such as farmers, are already in difficult situations and need this collective change now.

On this issue of climate change and the necessary transition it implies, we hear a lot from climatologists, and much less from social science researchers…
SD-Q. It is true that we are still too little solicited. Today, and this is a huge paradox, it is to climatologists that we ask the questions of social change. But if they are very eager to drive this change, they do not necessarily have the conceptual tools for it.

1669211149 591 Sobriety cannot rest solely on individuals

Extend the life of items, rather than throwing them away. This is what the volunteers of the “Repair cafés” offer, like here in Paris.

Climate science has made it possible to understand the mechanisms and impacts of climate change, but this climate change is due to the material and institutional forms that our economic organizations have taken: the centrality of the use of fossil fuels, the the way in which the financial circuits are organised, the choices for the development of cities and transport systems, or even the method of defining our prosperity objectives.

The transition involves profound changes in our economic, political and social organisations, and we need the social sciences – sociology, political science, economics, anthropology… – to do so.

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“Sobriety cannot rest solely on individuals”

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