Engaging the everyday

Sustainability as resonance

Authored by: John M. Meyer

Routledge Handbook of Global Sustainability Governance

Print publication date:  November  2019
Online publication date:  October  2019

Print ISBN: 9781138048287
eBook ISBN: 9781315170237
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The question of how people might foster a more sustainable future requires us to better understand why efforts to promote such possibilities have so far been anaemic. This demands that we grapple with strategic considerations about how social change is best achieved. In an effort to do so here, I distinguish between two familiar diagnoses: the first that points to the everyday concerns of the masses of people in affluent, postindustrial societies of the Global North as a key obstacle to needed social change and a second that suggest that these everyday concerns might instead – or also – present opportunities for such change. By drawing from several different scholarly tributaries – including scholarship on environmental justice and social reproduction, on practice theory, and on new materialism – critics can boldly challenge the status quo while deeply respecting the values and concerns of those these seek to engage.

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Engaging the everyday


The question of how people might foster a more sustainable future requires us to better understand why efforts to promote such possibilities have so far been anaemic. This demands that we grapple with strategic considerations about how social change is best achieved. In an effort to do so here, I distinguish between familiar diagnoses that point to the everyday concerns of the masses of people in affluent, post-industrial societies of the Global North as a key obstacle to needed social change and others that suggest that these concerns might instead – or also – present opportunities for such change.

I don’t intend to offer a definitive rejection of the former sort of diagnosis in favour of the latter in this chapter. The pursuit of sustainability is such a “wicked” problem that no simple or single answer can possibly solve it. Yet I do suggest that there are characteristics of familiar diagnoses that make it harder rather than easier to pursue a more sustainable society. I will then argue that there are disparate threads of both academic discourse and movement activism in recent years that orient us towards a renewed engagement with everyday life. Drawn together, these can help us delineate an alternative diagnosis that cultivates a more expansive imaginary and so offers greater possibilities to promote social change democratically.

Two ways of thinking about the challenge of sustainability

In broad brush-strokes, one influential way of thinking about the challenge of sustainability goes like this: People are in denial. Many are too selfish, or greedy, or apathetic to make the changes that addressing the climate crisis or pursuing sustainability would require of them or even to accept the idea that they are needed. Others seem to be sympathetic, but are simply too preoccupied with daily life to even know what is required, nonetheless act on it. We must get people to “think globally.” A characterisation such as this one is likely to be familiar to readers of this chapter; it can be found in numerous works by both academics and activists. Even those who don’t defend such claims explicitly often echo this lament in more informal settings among colleagues.

It’s important to acknowledge, here, that “denial” does not mean the same thing throughout this discourse. Certainly, there are those who deny the scientifically established consensus of the occurrence of anthropogenic climate change. These “denialists” – backed up by a network of right-wing funders, corporate interests, think-tanks, and media organisations that have been characterised as the “climate change denial machine” (Dunlap and McCright 2011; see also Brulle and Aronczyk, this volume) – have an outsized influence on policy-making in the United States and a handful of other countries. Yet even in the United States, public opinion surveys consistently show that such views are held by only a minority of citizens (Leiserowitz et al. 2017). Yet when climate activist and author Bill McKibben argues that “we’re losing the fight … because, most of all, we remain in denial about the peril that human civilization is in,” this sense of being “in denial” need not – and often does not – entail a denial of the science itself (McKibben 2012). Instead, it is tied to a disconnect between the abstract cognition of climate change and the experiential realities of personal and political life, as well as the extent of social change required to address climate change meaningfully (for nuanced accounts of this sense of denial, see Norgaard 2011; Anfinson 2018; cf. Maniates’ discussion of magical thinking in this volume).

What is to be done? If the people are diagnosed as the problem, then this way of thinking leads many to conclude that overcoming denial in its various forms will require strategies that will shake people out of their apathy: we must shout louder to be heard over the din, we must emphasise the consensus of the world’s best scientists, we must make them see that catastrophe is imminent.

It leads others to dismiss the prospect of democratic social change that will advance sustainability, concluding that popular attitudes are most likely to sustain unsustainability (Blühdorn and Deflorian, this volume). This has led some who accept this sort of conclusion to go on to reject democratic strategies and argue that only authoritarian powers might be able to advance sustainability (e.g., Shearman and Smith 2007; Beeson 2016).

It is clear that much of the blame, as diagnosed by this way of thinking, is placed on the people. But who is the “we” who must address this problem? This is less commonly articulated but no less important. “We” appear to be a minority – an enlightened elite, by virtue of having transcended the ignorance, apathy, or greed of the masses. “We” are informed by science and expertise, motivated by morality and the common good. To be sure, “we” are not perfect (after all, “we” fly too much) but at least “we” care.

In this way of thinking, concerns about climate change and the pursuit of sustainability require both individuals and societies to overcome the material self-interest that foster denial in all its forms. This self-interest is reflected in a focus on jobs, economic and physical security, and time-consuming everyday matters connected with children, family, friends, home, and other aspects of our lives that preoccupy most of us. Countless public opinion polls in the United States and other societies identify issues related to these quotidian matters as top political priorities, while – despite some recent upward movement – action on climate change and environmental concern linger much lower on the list (Guber 2003; Pew Research Center for the People and the Press 2018). Only if “we” can move these to the top of the priorities list, the thinking goes, will meaningful action follow. In earlier writing, I’ve called this characterisation a “resonance dilemma:” the challenges of climate change and sustainability don’t seem to resonate deeply with most people’s everyday lives, yet public pressure for change will only emerge if or when it does (Meyer 2015). Within this frame of reference, I argue, the resonance dilemma is unlikely to be resolved, because few are truly willing or able to overcome their everyday concerns.

One of the most influential social scientific efforts to understand public opinion in the past half century has been political scientist Ronald Inglehart’s analysis of the World Values Survey. This has led to the development of his “postmaterialist values thesis,” which contrasts individuals preoccupied with material, economic concerns and those who are said to have transcended this preoccupation to be motivated by “postmaterialist” values focused on quality of life, self-expression, and self-fulfilment, which are higher up on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (Inglehart 1990). Although environmental concern is only one instance of this thesis, it captures – in often precise and revealing language – a way of understanding the basis for environmental concern as values-oriented and non-materialist (Meyer 2015, chapter 3). This thesis echoes in a wide variety of contemporary environmental claims, like the ones mentioned earlier.

The danger in applying Inglehart’s thesis to environmental and – even more so – to sustainability concerns is that it presumes that these are subjective values that tend to be activated only once more fundamental and material needs are met. Certainly there is an influential image of an environmental activist in many affluent post-industrial societies – especially those who focus on protecting and recreating in majestic wild places – which is consistent with this presumption. Yet – despite its familiarity – the generalised notion that a concern for climate, environment, or sustainability is a product of relative comfort, education, or affluence does not bear scrutiny. There is more than one sort of motivation for such concern. In many cases, it is rooted in a concern for livelihood and material vulnerability or the survival of a way of life (Dunlap and York 2008; Kim and Wolinsky-Nahmias 2014). Even Inglehart has acknowledged this (Inglehart 1995). More to the point, by characterising concerns as at odds with, or requiring us to transcend, everyday ones we reinforce a flawed dichotomy between post-material values and material needs.

In sum, if one perceives sustainability as the sort of concern that is likely to be embraced by those whose more quotidian and material needs have already been met, then we will expect it to be a preoccupation limited to the relatively affluent middle- and upper-classes and those who have access to education and resources to live a comfortable life. This perception is then reinforced by (some) people who fit this image proclaiming that we are in denial about climate change and must change our ways by prioritising values that require us to turn away from everyday concerns and preoccupations. This, I have argued earlier, is a recipe for paternalism that has too often been followed by prominent environmental organisations and activists (Meyer 2008).

What, then, is an alternative way of thinking about the challenge of sustainability? The general contours are already coming into focus. It would engage with existing everyday concerns, rather than seek to transcend them. To the extent that these concerns are understood as “material” ones, then it will be a materialist rather than post-materialist approach, though labelling it as such will require us to think more expansively about what a materialist approach entails. Its starting point, in other words, is where people are at now, rather than where one might wish them to be in the future. Rather than exhorting others to begin to “think globally,” those cultivating a sustainability transition must first “think locally.” 1 Rather than diagnosing the central challenge as denial, here, we would focus on resonance: how can we rethink our understanding of sustainability – or of action to address climate change – in a manner that resonates with everyday life, rather than pursuing the Sisyphean task of trying to overcome it? How might we challenge social structures and institutions that serve as obstacles to a resonant vision of sustainability?

The point here is emphatically not to simply repackage sustainability as consistent with every popular attitude or belief. That would achieve little more than the legitimation of the status quo – what has been called “sustaining the unsustainable” (Blühdorn 2007, 2016). It is, however, to recognise that any social transformation will require public support and that a strategy that begins with a respect for local knowledge and popular concerns is more likely to succeed than one that begins with the message that these must be dismissed or overcome.

All too often, public arguments for change are countered by the claim that people in post-industrial societies are unwilling to sacrifice anything to address environmental challenges (cf. Maniates and Meyer 2010). As one scholar puts this pithily, we should not “expect a sudden moral epiphany that clashes brutally with contemporary lifestyles … it is unlikely that citizens abandon their smartphones in order to embrace the charms of a more embedded rural lifestyle” (Arias-Maldonado 2012, 118). Another asserts that

[n]ot only do the already rich people in industrialized countries value their current lifestyle … [but] billions in the developing world also aspire for a decent material living standard … these global aspirations to modernity make it impossible to win popular support for any radical green programme.

(Karlsson 2012, 464; cf. Nordhaus and Shellenberger 2007)

There’s a relevant insight in these claims that ought not to be casually dismissed. Yet the premise that seems to underlie this sort of retort is that people in post-industrial societies live in something like the best of all possible worlds now, and so there is little motivation for most people here to alter “contemporary lifestyles.” Similarly, it is assumed here that for those outside these societies to achieve a “decent material living standard” requires mimicking the particular development trajectory of the Global North. These assumptions are overstated and overgeneralised.

Reflecting upon everyday practices can help us to identify those spaces where these assumptions are least persuasive and so arguments for change most likely to resonate. For example, Christopher Buck identifies contemporary anxieties about a time-crunch as such a space (2012); he, as well as Jörgen Larsson and Jonas Nässén in this volume, argues for work-time reduction as a strategic response. Similarly, I have argued that reimagining automobility in contemporary society must begin by recognising the distinctive ways such a society enables a sense of individual freedom. Otherwise, ideas for reducing cars and driving will rightly be resisted as a paternalistic threat to this freedom. Yet the relationship between automobility and freedom is not unidirectional. Attention to freedom also enables greater clarity about the many ways in which dependence upon cars also constrains freedom. In this way, we can reorient our analysis towards changes to our practices and the built environment that would reduce this dependence. Here, the primary goal might be to enable greater freedom from automobility. For drivers, this could mean freedom from expensive car and insurance payments, from being stuck in traffic, from needing to drive for daily provisioning and childcare responsibilities. For those who can’t drive or don’t have access to a car, freedom from automobility can have a somewhat different meaning, including: greater freedom from reliance on others, from unsafe streets, from social isolation. A more complex and practice-based account of the relationship between cars and freedom does not determine answers, but it does open up possibilities that are otherwise all-too-readily dismissed as infeasible (Meyer 2015, chapter 6).

Engaging in material practices is something we all do every day. Reflecting upon them, in the pursuit of sustainability, is something we can and ought to do far more often. It would be a mistake, however, to imagine that by doing so we might fix upon a singular, determinate, end. It is precisely when our material practices lead to differences that a politics of sustainability emerges.

Scholarly tributaries that flow into a view of sustainability as engagement with everyday life

Elements of a resonant view of sustainability that engages with everyday life can be found in a range of activist and academic discourses and literatures. Rather than begin from an abstract or technocratic orientation inaccessible to non-experts, these attend to experiences and practices familiar to many. Rather than privileging certain (i.e. post-materialist) values or (i.e. wild) places as paradigmatically “about” environmental sustainability, these open up the question of why people are motivated to care or to act and what spaces or places are vital to protect. Rather than projecting a class, gender, or racial profile onto sustainable practices, these are regarded as – at least in part – a product of how “environment” and “sustainability” come to be understood in particular social contexts. Rather than a narrow focus on ethical consumerism and individual behavioural change, these focus on large-scale practices that lie at the intersection of individuals and social structures. As a result of some or all of the mentioned earlier, the framing of sustainability can turn away from the recitation of a litany of foreboding catastrophes meant to overcome denial and towards the diverse, sometimes elusive and fragmentary, but nonetheless real possibilities for engaging the everyday.

One integral tributary here is the expansive scholarship and activism around environmental justice (EJ). While activism in poor and marginalised communities addressing threats to their health, livelihood, and vitality has deep roots in many places, the explicit framing of this as a matter of EJ emerged first among African-American anti-toxics organisers in the 1990s (First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit 1991; Bullard 1993; Schlosberg 1999). Crucial, for our purposes here, has been the emphasis on the importance and consequence of re-conceptualising the “environment” as – at least in part – “where we live, work, and play” (Gottlieb 1993; Novotny 2000), and the focus on race, gender, and class as central to differences in how injustices are experienced and how individuals and communities respond to these experiences.

EJ discourse has expanded in several directions in recent years (for a more detailed account, see Schlosberg 2013). First, this discourse has been increasingly used in other national contexts and to highlight commonalities among movements and constituencies to preserve and promote sustainable livelihoods in the Global South – what Ramachandra Guha and Joan Martinez-Alier have termed the “environmentalism of the poor” (Guha and Martinez-Alier 1997; Martinez-Alier 2016). Second, it has been used to address the experiences of other social groups, including people with disabilities (Ray and Sibara 2017; Salkeld 2017). Third, it has expanded beyond the protesting of injustice and location of environmental harms to the promotion of what Julian Agyeman and his collaborators have termed “just sustainabilities” – a pluralistic framework for addressing inclusive community spaces, alternative bases for livelihood and economic production, and environmental quality together (Agyeman 2013; McLaren and Agyeman 2015). This framework is also reflected in a variety of other contemporary movements and discourses, including food justice, energy justice, climate justice, and – more inclusively – the notion of “just transitions” (Akuno and Nangwaya 2017; Heffron and McCauley 2018; Gottlieb and Joshi 2010).

In a complementary fashion, Giovanna Di Chiro and Alyssa Battistoni have both highlighted the Marxist-feminist concept of “social reproduction” as a lens for understanding how inequality and differential vulnerability to the effects of climate change, toxic pollution, and other hazards can impact and impair the ability of many to provide for their daily lives and the lives of others in their households and communities. Gender is central to this dynamic of social reproduction and these authors make it clear that environmental injustice can neither be fully understood nor adequately challenged without attention to it (Di Chiro 2008; Battistoni 2017; see also Krauss 1994; Mellor 2017). While this growing diversity of EJ and feminist work may seem to make it harder than ever to characterise succinctly, it seems clear that the animating premise is that people’s everyday lives and experiences are the foundation upon which the pursuit of sustainability must be based.

A second tributary that has buoyed this engagement with everyday life is interdisciplinary work advancing a “new materialism.” While it should be clear that EJ work is already attentive to both social and biophysical materiality, this wide-ranging body of work pushes back against the dichotomy between human agency and vitality on the one hand and “dead” matter on the other hand. Scholars including Bruno Latour, Jane Bennett, Stacy Alaimo, Noortje Marres, and many others have drawn our attention to the inescapably complex webs of humans and non-humans within which action and agency exist (Latour 2007; Alaimo 2010; Bennett 2010; Marres 2012; for valuable overviews and anthologies, see Braun and Whatmore 2010 and Coole and Frost 2010).

Similarly, Maria Kaika, Fiona Allon, and others’ close attention to metabolic flows in and out of homes and cities brings to the forefront elements of everyday life often literally hidden beneath the surface: those that enable many people to heat our homes, flush our waste, cook our meals, and draw a bath (Kaika 2005; Allon 2016). David Schlosberg and Romand Coles also argue for the tracing of material flows – of food, energy, and other commodity chains – as the basis for emergent social movements that seek to reconfigure these. This new materialist work operates in many different registers, but what is most notable and relevant here is its renewed confidence in our ability to attend to the material world without collapsing into reductionist and deterministic frameworks that have often been associated with materialist philosophies (Schlosberg and Coles 2016).

The third tributary is reflected in what has been termed social practice theory. Here, Elizabeth Shove, Gert Spaargaren, Alan Warde, and others have crafted a framework for the empirical examination of everyday practices such as bathing, heating and cooling, and shopping and cooking (Warde 2005; Spaargaren 2011; Shove et al. 2012). Following on earlier theoretical work, they position these practices as mid-level phenomena that cannot be properly understood as simply individual-level choices (Reckwitz 2002; see also Giddens 1984; Schatzki 2001). At the same time, they avoid the abstraction and disempowerment that can result from thinking of these practices as determined by distant structures that individuals have no ability to influence. By examining practices in this way, they lend greater empirical specificity and insight to the ways in which everyday practice can be understood and the relation of theory to such practices.

While the three tributaries described here are interdisciplinary, it is unfortunately the case that there is relatively limited interaction among those involved in each. Yet all can contribute to an agenda of scholarship and activism that seeks to promote the engagement with the everyday as a basis for fostering greater sustainability. Rather than conceptualising the material world in contrast to social values or activities, practice theory recognises them as thoroughly enmeshed with each other. Echoing an insight of new materialism, but in a more empirical vein, practices are understood as the appropriate level of inquiry precisely because they bring together an engagement with the material world and careful attention to values, interpretations, and activities. An engagement with practices, in turn, demands attention to their social location and positionality of their practitioners – are they more widespread among urban, suburban, or rural dwellers, for instance; among the poor and marginalised, or among privileged elites; are practices gendered, do they assume certain bodily abilities, are they racialised? Empirical and normative concerns are intermingled, here.

What I hope has become clear is that engaging the everyday is in no sense an ideology, a political position, or a singular scholarly agenda. In its inescapable plurality, it is probably best understood as a disposition or orientation, one that begins with a recognition and respect for the embodied experiences of people who constitute a society in which a sustainability transition is even possible. It is only upon the basis of this recognition and respect that we can begin to imagine what the pursuit of sustainability might mean in practice and it is only upon this basis that we might imagine what strategies might resonate and allow for movement in this direction.

Conclusion: engaging the everyday as insider criticism

I have argued elsewhere that strategic questions about social change explored in this chapter are best advanced by immanent or engaged social critics who boldly challenge the status quo, yet deeply respect both the values and the concerns of those they wish to persuade. In this way, such critics break down a dichotomy between “reformers” who seek only modest, incremental change within the existing structures of society and “radicals” who reject such structures and advocate for systemic transformation from what seems to be an Archimedean point disconnected from society (Meyer 2015, 5–8).

The likely success of the engaged critic depends crucially upon their ability to speak in a manner that resonates with citizens, while simultaneously arguing for extensive, meaningful change from the status quo. With the proponents of practice theory, engaging the everyday focuses us on the intermediate level of analysis at which much change happens (Geels et al. 2015). These critics engage pragmatically with existing concerns, while it also offers critical distance from the status quo and a reimagining of what is possible. This is also what is so promising about much of the work to promote just sustainabilities. It draws our attention to the diversity of spaces and opportunities for sustainability strategies that resonate with the everyday concerns of many. It has transformative potential precisely because for many if not most of us, our everyday lives do not now even approximate the best of all possible worlds. Recognising this requires truly listening and respecting diverse voices, especially those that are least privileged and most marginalised. Val Plumwood has called this a reduction of “remoteness” that deepens democracy by cultivating local knowledge and experiences of those least heard (Plumwood 1998). In an age where “populism” has come into wide use as a label for authoritarian forms of exclusion and hierarchy, engaging the everyday can foster a more expansive political imagination by allowing us to envision the pursuit of sustainability as grounded in a vision of popular, political action.


Thanks to Frank Baber and Bob Bartlett for suggesting this as the message embedded in my analysis (Baber and Bartlett 2016).


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