The knowledge about global warming and its consequences for people and the environment is now part and parcel of mainstream society, and most people are well aware of the goal of the Paris Climate Agreement to limit warming to well below 2 degrees above preindustrial levels. Many proposals for reducing human emissions of CO2 hinge on the deployment of new or altered technologies such as more efficient resource use, renewable energies, or carbon capture and storage (CCS). The problem is that new technologies often result in even more energy and resources being used, so that any energy efficiency savings are often cancelled out by high overall consumption (the ‘rebound effect’).
Technological and political efforts in this area tend to focus on symptoms rather than underlying causes in the hope of tackling climate change without fundamentally changing how people in industrial nations live their lives. But does that actually work? To date there has been no evidence of a reduction in global emissions, not least because people in China, India, and other countries all aspire to Western lifestyles. So the question of how we can cultivate sufficient lifestyles that allow for a good life with minimal consumption of material resources is of central importance.
Sufficiency does not mean sacrifice
Many people equate sufficiency with sacrifice and, as a consequence, with reductions in meat consumption, air travel and car usage. For others, it’s more about nurturing values that are being eroded in our consumerist culture. They understand sufficiency as a value shift, a transition to a life based on being rather than having. Seen from this perspective, sustainability becomes a cultural challenge. Because on their own, technological advances and political regulation will not be enough to prompt a change in people’s behaviour if our culture remains focused on consumerism.
Following the first broad discussions of this subject in the 1990s, in 2011 the influential German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU) emphasised the importance of a shift towards a culture of mindfulness and participation.
Mindfulness can foster nature conservation and sustainable consumption
The cultivation of mindfulness through such practices as yoga and meditation has been attracting a huge amount of attention for some time now, with some people speaking of a megatrend. Mindfulness is rooted in a 2,500-year-old Buddhist meditation practice and denotes a consciously perceiving, non-judgemental attitude towards the present moment, the here and now.
Brain research has shown that, with practice, we can become more mindful. In the process, our awareness levels increase and our concentration improves. The practise of mindfulness, the research shows, leaves us less judgmental and decreases our tendency to identify with our feelings and thoughts. In addition to its potential health benefits, mindfulness enhances our capacity for reflection and counteracts reactive behavioural patterns. Regular mindfulness meditation practice leads to a more conscious experience and appraisal of the present moment.
In the context of sustainability, the Federal Agency for Nature Conservation is investigating the potential of mindfulness for nature conservation, while economists and psychologists at the TU Berlin are interested in how it can contribute to educating people for sustainable consumption.
Closing the gap between knowledge and action
Neuroscientists like Ulrich Ott report that those who practise mindfulness experience a holistic sense of being and can access their innermost selves. Back in the 1950s, the psychoanalist Erich Fromm already described how people in the West try to fill an inner void with a craving for possessions. “If having is the basis of my sense of identity because ‘I am what I have’, the wish to have must lead to the desire to have much, to have more, to have most.” It follows that being more mindful of our condition can can help us not to define our well-being based on what we have or what we do – and this kind of reflection can contribute to a more sufficient way of life.
Mindfulness training can advance the cultural shift towards a sustainable society – by encouraging us to reject materialistic values and making it easier to drop old habits and concentrate more on the self. In a recent ZEIT article about her attempt to lead a climate-friendly life for a year, the journalist Petra Pinzler writes about cognitive dissonance, i.e. the observation that people often act against their own knowledge and convictions without realising it. Practising mindfulness makes it possible to develop a deeper awareness of one’s actions and their effects. It makes us conscious of the things that really matter for us. Ott puts it like this: “When you recognise who you are and get in touch with your innermost self, then you can start to live in a more self-determined way and close the gap between what you want and what you do.” Isn’t that precisely the kind of awareness that we need to cultivate lifestyles that are consistent with what we have long come to realise? And if we sincerely wish to achieve the two-degree goal enshrined in the Paris Climate Agreement, then it is obvious that our societies and lifestyles must change fundamentally.
Let’s get to grips with the difficult questions!
In recent decades, many technical advances have been made towards the goal of sustainability, but our behaviour has in many cases become even more damaging. So the need for a discussion of our consumerist lifestyles is becoming increasingly urgent. And this brings us to a central problem of mindfulness research within the field of sustainability: While people have long been aware of the connections described above, the discourse on sustainability and climate protection continues to focus on efficiency and eco-effectivity, and the issue of sufficiency is being pushed even further into the background. Perhaps because it doesn’t deal with the symptoms, but gets to the very heart of the problem? Is it simply too painful for us to question our own habits? Do we really believe that new technological solutions can (and should) ensure the continued existence of our industrial lifestyle? Are in this way are we not just lumbering future generations with the costs of our own inertia?
Let’s get to grips with the difficult questions that get to the root of the problem! How do we define a ‘good life’? What do we really need and what values do we cherish? And how can we finally succeed in living in tune with our deepest insights and convictions so that life and civilisation on Earth can be preserved?
A version of this article was published in German on 27 April 2018 on the Deutsches Klima Konsortium blog.