Green lifestyles and real constraints

ResearchBlogging.orgA couple of weeks back, I attended a workshop in Copenhagen on the STS field and climate change. Some bigshots were there too (well, bigshots in our field, at least). Lots of interesting discussions and presentations, so I’m sure I’ll come back to some of the papers presented.

For now, take a look at the contribution by Noortje Marres: an article in the European Journal of Social Theory titled “Testing Powers of Engagement Green Living Experiments, the Ontological Turn and the Undoability of Involvement”. In it, she analyzes some online attempts at showing how the individual consumer can make small adjustments to their lifestyles to affect large changes in environmental impact. Several of these attempts center around a specific person blogging about attempting to reduce the carbon footprint associated with regular life in the Western world [1].

Marres’ article has several interesting points about how these kinds of experiments work as engagement instruments, and how they can quickly end up as too centered on the person conducting the experiment (a sort of “intimization” of green politics). I want to point to what I see as the main point in any critique of these accounts (my emphasis):

Certainly, green living experiments cannot be said to perform the same tasks as object-centred sociologists, that of describing socio-material relations. They tend to articulate a very particular set of entanglements and not others, as in the case of accounts of smart meters, which tend to focus on ‘unnecessary’ power
consumption and changeable domestic routines. These accounts have little to say about rather more ‘constraining’ or inescapable entanglements, such as for instance, energy infrastructures and landlords, or the regulatory arrangements of measurement and monitoring that smart meters may or may not enable in the future. They tend to highlight socio-material relations that can be reconfigured through individual intervention, by switching appliances off or installing saving devices, and as such, they may indeed have to be interpreted as dramatizations of ‘self-improvement’, similar to other mediatized home experiments. But, as green living experiments present socio-material practices in the home as sites of public involvement, they raise further questions about the sociological valuation of public experiments as sites of ontological intervention.

While it certainly is praise-worthy to experiment with greener ways of living everyday life, and also to document it meticulously for others to get inspiration from, it has often struck me when browsing books like “Living Green” how little they have to say about the very real limitations to living like this that exist for most people. In this, it strongly resembles the Fair Trade movement, which is equally good and equally unwilling to enter a discussion of the larger framework around the economic, physical and institutional organization of modern life. This is perhaps a good thing, as they want to reach a large audience who don’t wish to be preached at about the Evils of Capitalism, but it also means there is something lacking in their accounts of the world can be completely changed without really changing much at all.

Oh, and for the record, I do try and buy organic, locally produced and (if not produced by Norwegian farmers/workers) fair traded goods whenever possible, and so should you. But…

[1] For example, the blog by Canadian journalist Vanessa Farquharson called “Green as a thistle


Marres, N. (2009). Testing Powers of Engagement: Green Living Experiments, the Ontological Turn and the Undoability of Involvement European Journal of Social Theory, 12 (1), 117-133 DOI: 10.1177/1368431008099647


6 Responses

  1. I wish there were more attention paid, at least in terms of looking at individual changes in lifestyle, to how many environmentally-conscious lifestyle changes (especially in the current culture) amount to essentially rolling back the clock on women’s ability to be independent of and separate from the home. The fact that many of these environmental lifestyle alterations fall squarely within the domain of traditional (and usually still) “women’s work” — and entail much more time and/or labour than their less environmentally-conscious alternatives — is really concerning from a feminist sociological perspective.

    The larger systemic picture is, of course, that if the environmentally-conscious heteronormative household requires more work than its less environmentally-aware counterpart, that additional work needs to be divided equally and not according to gender lines, which is simply not going to happen.

  2. […] the rest here:  Green lifestyles and real constraints « STS guru – Energetic … var addthis_pub=”welcome2green”; Posted under Green Politics, green living Comments […]

  3. Interrobang, I agree that this is another aspect of the issue. The point about the time- and work-saving potential in new household technologies is not to be forgotten. It also applies to other kinds of consumption critique, like the “slow” movement.

    But one might maybe turn it on its head: if making energy-intensive household machines was a way to escape the very real gender conflict in terms of domestic labor, is this then a good thing? I mean, shouldn’t we try to work out a fair division of labor instead of trying to remove the labor totally? Whether this is easy or not is another question…

  4. Moreover, as Ruth Schwarz-Cowan and Elizabeth Shove argue, with new technologies new and higher standards were introduced into the home resulting in even “more work for mother” – at least in some areas.

  5. That is true. In many cases the so called labour saving devices of the households replaced the maid, and thus created more work for upper middle class ladies which formerly had rented other people for doing the housework.

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