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The Power of One

The media are constantly coming up with new suggestions as to how people can contribute to sustainability in everyday life. But what do the scientists actually have to say on the subject? Does a sustainable lifestyle really make the difference many of us expect it to? Or are we exaggerating the influence of everyday behaviour out of all proportion?

Ulrich Brand is a Professor of International Politics, and has been a member of the German Bundestag’s Enquete Commission into “Growth, Prosperity and Quality of Life” since January 2011. “On the one hand, we can change quite a lot through our individual activity – at work, in the political sphere and in our everyday lives,” the political scientist explains. “On the other hand, we should always be questioning what we actually mean by sustainability.” Brand warns: “All too often, the ‘interest of humanity’ in sustainability disguises economic and political interests – introducing genetically modified seeds under the guise of sustainable technology was one example.”

Agricultural economist Ika Darnhofer is convinced that, “With a little awareness, every one of us can do a great deal. It doesn’t matter whether it’s showing a preference for produce from your own region, turning off all those devices round the house, or using public transport. It all helps.” What’s important, Darnhofer says, is that we regain an awareness of what we need. The dominant material greed can only make us discontent, she says: “Reflecting on what we really need – and makes us happy at a deeper level – would be a huge, huge step towards achieving sustainability.”

Marina Fischer-Kowalski, founder of the Institute of Social Ecology at Alpen-Adria University in Klagenfurt, views the situation similarly. “Even though a sustainable lifestyle wouldn’t do much in terms of the actual numbers being saved, “That’s not the only measure, because at the end of the day, any change has to pass through the eye of a needle that is everyday behaviour.” In her opinion, there have to be “groups in the population and people who credibly show – and that includes through their personal behaviour – that this is important to them, and they want to take another route.” Otherwise there will be no other way politically either, if nobody is credibly expressing that – and not just through their words, but through their lives too.”

S For Franz Sinabell, Consultant in Agriculture at the Austrian Institute of Economic Research (WIFO), the right consumption decisions are of secondary importance. “The most important things are the basic life decisions: where I do want to live and work, what do I want to do as a job, how do I want to behave.”

Dietmar Kanatschnig, founder and Director of the Austrian Institute of Sustainable Development (ÖIN), is of the same opinion. He believes “what we can do privately should not be highlighted to anything like the extent it is.” The influence exerted by individuals goes far beyond the private, of course, “because almost every one of us has a job. This really is an area where, if a person has values which agree with sustainable development, then they shouldn’t give up on those values at work”. And if necessary, they should find themselves a new employer.

Michael Rosenberger is a Professor of Moral Theology at Linz Catholic-Theological Private University. Sustainable lifestyles are amongst the focal points of his work. In his opinion, what can the individual contribute to sustainability? “A huge amount – because sustainability so clearly demands drastic changes in our lifestyle. And then again, we can’t really achieve all that much – because as long as the framework conditions of our market economy are rewarding environmentally damaging behaviour and making environmentally-friendly behaviour difficult, many lifestyle changes are still going to be very difficult.” His final thought: “This is somewhere we need to make far-reaching change.”