Cultural impediments slow down sustainability transitions
Häyrynen and his colleagues have studied European attitudes towards organic farming, nature conservation, and transport, among other things. In sustainability transitions, cultural impediments are strongly – and sometimes surprisingly – present.
“Slovenia, for example, is a country the size of Kainuu, a region here in Finland. Almost everyone in Slovenia uses a private car to get around, public transport is inadequate, and commuting congests the highways. There, having a private car is seen as an important demonstration of individual freedom. Public transport is frowned upon because it reminds of the country’s socialist past. That’s why arguments criticising private cars are hard to get through,” Häyrynen says.
Cultural impediments to sustainability transformations thus reveal people's conventional ways of thinking and their attitudes towards authorities, for example. At the same time, they create meaning for nature. While Finns rely on strict certificates in organic farming, sheep farmers in Sardinia, Italy, feel that certificates are a manifestation of unnecessary bureaucracy and control by the central government.
When reacting to change, the old familiar attitude keeps coming up: everything was better before. Indeed, environmental policy is not just about formal rules and legal provisions, but also about emotional interpretations and their management.
“To be nostalgic is to be human. It is perfectly normal to get defensive about a change that will affect us and our everyday life.”
In questions relating to peat, the cultural impediments Finns have can be found in different everyday encounters.
“These are remarks made and heard in passing at, for example, public swimming pools or gas station cafés. Social media plays a big role in polarisation. In Finland too, it would be important to find a middle ground for the debate. With the extremes in conflict, it often seems like there is no room for negotiation,” Häyrynen says.
Suffering strikes emotion
Cultural impediments are good fuel for populist politics. When making environmental statements, politicians understand that references to, and quotes from, The Unknown Soldier, a classic Finnish war novel, resonate with people.
“In the face of major transitions, politicians know how to take advantage of cultural impediments, and certain politicians will do so with great skill. Formal environmental policy has little means to respond to such arguments.”
An emotional approach to environmental issues easily leads to “a hierarchy of suffering”, where someone’s suffering is somehow more important than someone else’s.
“I’ve always found the hierarchy of suffering strange. Losing one’s job and livelihood always hurts, no matter if it happens in the textile, mining, or peat production industry, or if it’s due to a collapse in trade with the eastern neighbour, depletion of natural resources, or climate change.”
However, the pain caused by the loss of a livelihood seems to gain a different amount of public attention depending on how politically interesting it is. It has been easy to frame peat production in a way that artificially creates a divide between the rural and the urban, and that is also partially politically orchestrated. Peat is at the frontline when defending the existence and rights of rural areas. At the same time, it is a useful enemy for those seeking political support in cities. And when people end up arguing about the imbalances between the city and the countryside, the original purpose of the debate is lost.
“To some extent, we are still being held hostage by the past rhetoric of development and politics from years ago, which exaggerated the possibilities to continue burning peat, and its status as a renewable resource.”
According to Häyrynen, we should find effective ways to help those hurt by the change instead of getting stuck in a hierarchy of suffering.
“It is very difficult to calculate who suffers the most in absolute terms from any change. Instead, our preparedness for change – our competency of change – can always be increased. If we know that an industry is going to decline, we need to stop placing blame and find a forward-looking change strategy.”
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