Our unwillingness to sacrifice comfort: 3 taboos preventing sustainable transformation

Why is it so difficult for us to change our current practices for more sustainable ones? Are there any explicit taboos that hinder decision-making? Sustainability Science Days, Finland’s largest event in sustainability science, addresses sustainability challenges, including both taboos and innovative ways of promoting sustainability.

Are we allowed to challenge the pursuit of continuous economic growth? What about people’s consumption practices, their eating habits, and ways of moving? What constitutes a good life in a sustainable future?

The aforementioned questions will all be addressed in Sustainability Science Days, Finland’s largest event in sustainability science, held on the 18th and 19th of May, 2021. In preparation for this event, we have identified three taboos on sustainability, that problematise the incorporation of sustainable practices into everyday life and, whilst we recognise that these may be difficult or largely ignored topics, tackling them is essential to a successful sustainable transformation.

By definition, a taboo for one person may be common practice for another and vice versa. However, these practices can all be unified in their ability to spark controversy, allowing them to become difficult subjects for both decision-makers and the larger public to address.

1. Breaking away from the pursuit of continuous economic growth

Societal decision-making continues to be deeply intertwined with the pursuit of economic growth. Our societies are founded upon the idea that economic growth creates jobs, purchasing power and tax revenue, which then determines government spending, e.g. on systems such as public healthcare.

However, continuous economic growth fuels the climate and biodiversity crises. Furthermore, most of the additional wealth generated by economic growth ends up benefiting those with the most wealth, to begin with. Increasing inequality hinders economic growth, resulting in a vicious cycle.

Separating economic growth, measured by gross domestic product (GDP), from increasing emissions and biodiversity loss is difficult. Despite efforts over the past three decades to detach the consumption of materials and energy from growth, their consumption continues to increase.

Decisions are guided by what is being measured. In fact, researchers have proposed that alongside GDP, what should be measured is sustainable growth, which includes wellbeing, as well as carbon dioxide emissions and biodiversity levels, and use these as indicators to steer decision-making. An example of such measurement is Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI).

“A common assumption is that the continuous growth of GDP is necessary for wellbeing. This link is the clearest when a society has not yet met the demand for basic necessities, such as water, food, housing and infrastructure. Yet, in developed societies such as Finland, a sustainable economy can generate even better wellbeing, particularly when the analyses avoids focusing solely on the GDP,” says Minna Halme, Professor of Sustainability Management at the Aalto University School of Business.

The theme of economic growth will be discussed at the Sustainability Science Days during session 11 on the 19th May: Taboos of sustainability transitions.

2. Reducing meat consumption

In 1960, the average Finn consumed roughly 30 kilograms of meat per year (link in Finnish only), the figure today is 80 kilograms. Food production and consumption constitutes approximately one-fifth of our consumption carbon footprint. Most of the climate impacts associated with food relate to the production of fertilisers or livestock.  Though domestically-produced meat is an environmentally better alternative to imported meat, meat consumption needs to be radically reduced in order to effectively respond to the climate crisis.

What does a future with a significantly reduced meat consumption look like? And how are we to achieve it?

“One way would be to raise taxes on meat products on environmental grounds. Instead of consumption, we should focus on what is sufficient. A sufficient and nourishing diet is achievable with a considerably smaller amount of meat than what it is consumed today,” says Lassi Linnanen, member of the Finnish Expert Panel for Sustainable Development and Professor of Environmental Management and Economics at the LUT University.

The reduction of meat consumption is also hindered by cultural and social factors.

“In Finland there exists a strong culture of meat eating. We have become accustomed to eating meat both at home and at restaurants, and we have learned that meat tastes good. Eating meat is also a social practice. It is difficult to stop eating meat, when others around you still continue consuming it,” says Mari Niva, Professor of Consumer Society Research at the University of Helsinki.

3. Reducing the use of private cars

If we are to alleviate the environmental crisis, the use of private cars must be reduced. Whilst societies are able to decrease traffic-related carbon dioxide emissions, the space required for the growing fleet of vehicles replaces other healthier and more pleasant uses of land. Instead of focusing on the idea of replacing the use of private cars, we should remind ourselves of the positive aspects associated with living a car-free life.

“Using your muscle power for mobility has a range of health benefits and improves vitality. Simultaneously, it reduces emissions and noise pollution in the surrounding neighbourhood. In urban areas, vacated parking lots can be converted into green spaces. Additionally, owning a private car in a city with a well-functioning public transport is troublesome, expensive and in most cases completely unnecessary. Cars stand idle for more than 90% of the time,” says Arto O. Salonen, member of the Finnish Expert Panel for Sustainable Development and Associate Professor at the University of Eastern Finland.

However, reducing the use of private cars is a sensitive topic, given that it is deeply connected to our need for comfort and our apparent ideals of freedom. In Finland, a large and sparsely populated country, the challenge we face is the lack of alternatives. Proposals to interfere with the use of private cars provokes a bitter response, making it difficult for decision-makers to impose restrictions on their use. Indeed, we continue to be a nation where people would prefer to see reductions in fuel taxes, rather than paying for toll roads.

Western overconsumption, the reconfiguration of private consumption, and dietary choices are discussed in sessions 7A, 7B and 11 of the Sustainability Science Days.

Sustainability Science Days is Finland's largest sustainability science event
  • Finland's largest sustainability science event, Sustainability Science Days, will be held on 18–19 May 2021. This year, the theme of the conference is destruction and creativity.
  • The free and open to all conference will be held entirely remotely and can be followed via live video broadcasts.
  • The conference is organized by the Institute of Sustainability Science of the University of Helsinki HELSUS and Aalto Sustainability.
  • See the programme and register on May 13 at the latest!