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25 March 2013

Moving Toward Social Change: the Role of Life Experiences

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A society is worth the worth of the individuals and organizations that form it. The challenges we face in this century demand that societies have more and better citizens. The idea of citizenship needed to tackle the economic, environmental and social aspects of this century has been called sustainable citizenship.

The E-SOST research group has addressed what factors influence citizens to adopt this civic dimension, especially within the market realm: how consumers introduce sustainability in meeting their needs.

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While governments persist in believing that it is an information problem and if the public receives sufficient information on the problems it will act to solve them, the findings of our study show otherwise: information plays an important role, yes; however, the life experiences the individual has and lead him to have an ethical disposition on the market are more or equally important.

These experiences are going to make the individual adopt the life project of being a citizen in the market to behave as a responsible consumer. Being responsible in the market means carrying out a wide range of behaviors aimed at improving social, environmental or animal wellbeing; from buying products with a lower carbon footprint to adopting vegetarian/vegan diets; from having energy-saving habits to the voluntary reduction of consumption; from cyberactivism to participating in bartering or time banking communities.

What are these life experiences? How and when do they occur? We have identified five key stages in the formation of this life project: laying the foundations or grounding, generation, planning, action and completion. These stages are listed below with the life experiences that take place in each being briefly identified.

Grounding. This is the first stage in the formation of life projects, ranging from childhood to adolescence. The main life experience is family: the parents’ parenting style will set the type of projects that their children take on. Parents have an essential influence on the values and goals that the child is proposed. If parents foster environmental and social awareness, the more likely it is that their children will take on this life project.

Generation. This stage generally occurs in late childhood and early adolescence and is extended (from about age 11 to 18). At this stage, individuals assume beliefs and goals that were proposed by their parents as their own values. Several experiences or events will play an essential role. For example, respondents have usually taken part in religious groups in childhood, which were replaced in adolescence/youth by social groups (NGOs, for example). Being a volunteer, going to camps, collaborating with groups are experiences that will strengthen the competencies of the sustainable city. Through these groups, individuals receive the necessary information to increase their awareness, but also learn strategies to act, increasing their perceived efficacy, and receive the necessary emotional support to stay motivated. Also through these groups or their families they go through another significant life experience: experiences in nature. Spending time in contact with nature and, in many cases, seeing its destruction, is recognized by consumers as a reason to take on the project of being a responsible consumer. Also, having vicarious experiences with nature/social problems in formal or informal courses (schools, associations, etc.) will enhance awareness and encourage the adoption of the life process.

Planning. At this stage, the consumer takes action. Of course to do this he has to know what actions he can take. The aforementioned groups, plus friend and family networks will play a key role: if your significant others are sustainable citizens, it is much more likely that you will also be. These groups empower the individual cognitively: suggest books, magazines, documentaries, practical advice on this or that brand, on this or that behavior, among other things. However, groups play a greater role, if this is possible: they act as models. The most effective way to provide information is by showing how to behave, not by giving a list of behaviors to adopt. We learn from the example of others. Seeing how others manage and conduct their own sustainable citizenship project is the most effective way to promote sustainable behavior.

Another significant experience is spending time in countries with other social norms. Social norms are very effective in promoting the life project. When a behavior is presented as a social norm, carried out by the majority of citizens, it is more likely to be adopted. For this reason, living in countries where certain behaviors are the social norm (recycling, reducing meat consumption, using sustainable transport to travel, buying fair trade) accelerates the implementation of the life project.

Maintenance or completion of the project. If there is something that is recognized by all respondents it is that being a sustainable citizen is not easy: it requires extra effort. For an individual to maintain the project, he needs to stay motivated. Social groups play a key role here because they provide emotional empowerment; they make the individual feel part of a large community working on this goal which helps keep him motivated to continue the life project. Individuals whose social groups do not support their life projects find it more difficult to continue with it. The case of one of the participants in the study who travelled 100 miles once a month to meet the other person he knew who had a similar project is noteworthy. These meetings strengthened his motivation because they made him feel part of a wider invisible group, thus increasing its perceived efficacy. If the individual does not have any support from any of his groups and/or moves between groups whose norms go against the sustainability project, he will end up leaving it. Facing social change.

Ortega and Gasset said “I am myself and my circumstances”. It is essential to create the right circumstances for citizens to become sustainable citizens. Using appropriate platforms and groups to germinate and strengthen the life project is key if we want to extend this project among citizens. And we want to do it. The future of the planet and all who live in it is at stake.

Carmen Valor

Miembro del grupo de investigación E-SOST, Universidad Pontificia de Comillas, Madrid (España)

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