RESOLVE is a novel, cross-disciplinary research collaboration between four separate groups in the University of Surrey: the Centre for Environmental Strategy, the Environmental Psychology Research Group, the Surrey Energy Economics Centre and the Department of Sociology.
The overall aim of RESOLVE is to develop a robust understanding of the links between lifestyle, societal values and environment. In particular, RESOLVE will work to provide robust, evidence-based advice to policy-makers in the UK and elsewhere who are seeking to understand and to influence the behaviours and practices of 'energy consumers'. Specific objectives of the proposed research group will be:
The Climate Change Act commits the UK to an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. It’s fanciful to suppose that such ‘deep’ cuts in emissions can be achieved without impacting on people’s lives and lifestyles. Even if this only means that people need to insulate their homes, use more efficient appliances, buy low-energy light bulbs, drive a little less or walk a little more, it implies changes in how people live, eat, shop, work, invest and spend their leisure time.
Understanding the challenge of sustainable living is central to the work of RESOLVE – the ESRC Research group on Lifestyles, Values and Environment.
RESOLVE is a unique inter-disciplinary collaboration located entirely within the University of Surrey. The team currently consists of around 25 researchers and involves 4 internationally-acclaimed academic departments: the Centre for Environmental Strategy (CES), the Surrey Energy Economics Centre (SEEC), the Environmental Psychology Research Group (EPRG) and the Department of Sociology.
Funded by the Economic and Social Research Council as part of the Research Councils’ Energy Programme, RESOLVE aims to unravel the complex links between lifestyles, values and the environment. It draws on a variety of disciplinary perspectives including sociology, psychology, economics, geography, engineering and environmental science to shed light on these multi-faceted relationships.
The guiding ethos for our work is to combine academic excellence with policy relevance. There has never been a more critical time to make progress in understanding the relationship between people’s lives and values and the environment. In particular, an explicit goal is to provide robust, evidence-based advice to policy-makers in the UK and elsewhere who are seeking to understand and to influence the behaviours and practices of ‘energy consumers’.
Since RESOLVE was launched in 2006, the challenge of sustainable living has become an increasingly important aspect of debates about the environment – in particular in relation to climate change. Progress in understanding the technical, social and behavioural demands of low-carbon living has gone hand in hand with burgeoning media and policy interest in the subject. Policy commitments to carbon targets are all very well. But what do these targets mean for people’s lives? Which areas of our lives will need to change? How easy will this be? How effective are policy interventions likely to be? Which forms of governance are most successful?
These questions have been thrown into an even sharper relief through the recession. It is still unclear exactly what the long-term impact of this will be in terms of sustainable living. Will people adopt a more frugal approach? Will this frugality spill over into more sustainable ways of living? Could it last beyond the recession – given appropriate policy support? Will people’s longer term aspirations and attitudes changed?
None of these questions is easy to answer, particularly in the context of fast-moving politics and a changing economic climate. But the ESRC Research group on Lifestyles Values and Environment (RESOLVE) is ideally placed to ground policy debates about sustainable lifestyles in sound scientific research and to build realistic visions for a low-carbon society.
Our unique, inter-disciplinary research programme arranged around six thematic research strands:
This research theme is developing the tools to find out which aspects of people’s lives use how much carbon. The Surrey Environmental Lifestyle Mapping framework (SELMA) is a suite of tools that aims to attribute carbon to specific social practices (the way we eat, how we commute to work, how we spend out leisure time and so on). The framework can also explore how this changes across different population groups and segments. It takes into account both the direct emissions from heating our homes (eg) and also the indirect emissions embedded in the goods and services that we consume.
Vitally, our consumer-oriented perspective captures the carbon ‘traded’ across the UK boundary and allows us to assess the global impact of UK lives and consumption patterns.
An important research objective is to understand changes in these trends over time. Econometric analysis is being used to explore the relative importance of price, income, technology and other ‘non-economic’ effects in changing consumption patterns. These tools will allow us to test the feasibility of carbon targets over different timescales and also to explore the carbon implications of different ‘lifestyle scenarios’.
Psychology of Energy Behaviours
This theme explores the psychological factors which underlie energy-related behaviours and behaviour change. We aim to explore the role of internal psychological variables such as values and identity as well as the role of contextual variables. The theme tries to understand (changes in) consumption in the past (by means of historical interviewing with elderly people) as well as the future (by conducting surveys among young people and field experimental studies).
Qualitative research methods are used to provide an in depth understanding of people’s lives and consumer choices, particularly in relation to food related behaviours and compulsive consumption. Quantitative survey methods are used to test responses to a range of interventions aimed at reducing their household energy use (21st Century Living project). Experimental studies examine whether information about pro-environmental behaviour result in resistance rather than behaviour change, if people feel this information threatens their identities.
Together these studies aim to provide both an in-depth understanding of the internal psychological and external contextual variables which play a role in promoting sustainable behaviours.
Sociology of Lifestyles
This research theme focuses on sociological aspects of lifestyles and lifestyle change, with particular reference to the sometimes problematic relation between the cultural meanings of sustainability and the conduct of everyday life. A series of research projects is exploring: the extent to which different categories of people are able to make lifestyle choices; the relation between narratives of sustainability, forms of identity, and everyday practice; and the ways in which the meanings of consumer products are constructed by both producers and consumers.
A study of intentional ‘sustainable lifestylers’ has been completed, highlighting how the practice of sustainable lifestyles is more complex than the rhetoric would suggest and cannot be understood outside of wider social and cultural processes. A follow on study will focus on a more heterogeneous collection of households, and examine how forms of sustainable practice fit or conflict with the everyday realities of their lives.
Two other current projects are looking at the role of business in sustainable lifestyles. The first is an ethnographic study of a music industry working group on climate change. The second is an empirical study, interviewing key actors in the global electronics business and consumers to explore the negotiation of the meaning of products.
Carbon Lifestyle Scenarios
This theme involves the development of scenarios depicting the carbon intensity of UK lifestyles to 2030. The research focuses on consumption clusters relating to: what we do in the home, what we eat and how we travel - both to get around and to get away. By pursuing a scenario approach, the work will investigate how these areas of consumption might change in response to various external pressures including the social, technological, economic, political, psychological, and environmental forces that might occur over the next twenty years.
The scenarios will be presented as a series of narratives, complemented by illustrative forecasts of the key consumption categories. In addition to this applied work, this theme aims to carry out an assessment of the epistemological contribution of the scenarios, allowing the research group to gauge the effectiveness of the scenarios as a decision-making tool and to deliver any resulting insights to policy- and decision-makers in a way that is sensitive to the speculative nature of the work.
Governance for Sustainable Lives
This theme explores the role of policy in enabling a transition to a sustainable energy economy, assessing the implications for governance. Research is undertaken to examine the transition from planned to a market economy in the UK and the challenge that environmental and social goals present to the market paradigm. This includes analysis and assessment of specific energy policy instruments and their relationship to wider policy objectives. Our work continues to examine the impact of evolving international climate and energy regimes on national and local energy and climate agendas.
The role of community-based governance mechanisms and initiatives is another core focus in this theme. Empirical work focuses on local initiatives pursued by state actors as well as non-state actors, and the comparative advantage associated with a variety of community-based interventions. Research carried out in collaboration with several English local authorities looks at the opportunities and challenges associated with their attempts to engage individuals and communities in addressing climate change through lifestyle change over time.
Additionally work is being carried out to explore and analyse the role of grass roots initiatives for low-carbon living as ‘new social movements’.
- to explore material, economic, psychological, sociological and cultural accounts of the relationship between lifestyle choice and environment;
- to develop theoretical and empirical understandings of the potential for long-term lifestyle change in moving towards a sustainable energy economy;
- to understand the economic, social and psychological implications of a technological transition to a sustainable energy economy;
- to develop an empirical 'evidence base' for effective policy intervention in energy-related behaviours and practices;
- to engage effectively with policy-makers, opinion-formers and the media in developing and communicating this new body of research.
The work programme will be structured around three inter-woven intellectual strands: energy lifestyle mapping (V1), social and environmental psychological influences (V2), and socio-cultural understandings of lifestyles (V3). These three 'vertical' strands are informed and supported by two (horizontal) cross-cutting themes - on energy lifestyle scenarios (H1)and on policy and governance (H2). These themes are summarised in the table here.