Understand the 3 dimensions of sobriety, this key notion of our time


Sobriety, I write your name! This could be the slogan for our time concerned with freeing itself from waste and overconsumption. But what realities does this notion that has become unavoidable cover? In this text, a slightly adapted excerpt from his recent book “Bifurcations: reinventing industrial society through ecology? », (Editions de l'aube, October 2022), the economist and sociologist Pierre Veltz, tries to clear a path to enlighten us.

The notion of sobriety suffers from an enormous handicap compared to that of efficiency. The latter can be objectified, measured, while sobriety depends fundamentally on the choices and values ​​that we decide to adopt.

The word refers to a form of virtue – even if we strip it of its Puritan connotations – more than to precise obligations. […]

My opinion is that it is better not to confine sobriety to a precise or regulated definition, but to leave it open to the meaning of a reinvention of our ways of living, individual and collective, based on new hierarchies in our values. , on the establishment of new freedoms as much and more than new constraints.

Above all, it is necessary to understand that sobriety is not primarily a question of behavior, but of the collective organization of our societies.

“Good gestures”, or a quarter of the way

The first level of sobriety is that of our individual choices. Everyone now more or less knows the famous eco-responsible “good gestures”: eat less animal protein, fly only if it's really necessary, buy fewer clothes and wear them more or offer them to others, etc. There is often a moralizing side, in these breviaries of ecological virtue, which arouses the rejection of some; and it should not be forgotten that, for others, these behaviors are simply constrained by meager incomes.

Consumption behavior matters, unquestionably. What is their impact? The most detailed study I found, coordinated by the University of Trondheim, in Norway, estimated the effect of 91 (!) of these good gestures on our carbon footprint, by going back the corresponding value chains. The result gives an order of magnitude: if everyone is perfectly virtuous, we do about a quarter of the way needed.

Shopping differently reduces the amount of waste sent to landfill.

As expected, the areas of mobility, housing and food are those that allow the most substantial gains. A quarter is a lot. But it is far from enough.

What is the probability of a wide enough adoption, and especially fast enough, of these new sober behaviors? Various studies have pointed out the contradictions and inconsistencies of our choices, including in circles qualified as “bobos” the most prolific in fiery speeches on the subject.

Surveys also show that people do not clearly prioritize “good gestures”. Some put the replacement of old light bulbs with LEDs ahead of moderation in the meat diet, while the actual impacts are very different. We can hope that a new aesthetic of life will gradually impose itself, especially among the wealthiest, responsible for a large part of the emissions.

It is not impossible. Let's look at how our furniture has evolved, becoming lighter, more discreet, less durable too. Our cars, in the opposite direction, have become more baroque, heavier.

Failovers can occur. Basically, we are waiting for a revolution in less is more, according to the formula used by Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe when architecture long ago abandoned baroque or neoclassical overburden.

A question of collective choices

The second level is that of systemic sobriety. It is the most important. It is difficult to ask for individual sobriety in a society organized around abundance and waste. It is not just a question of dissonance of values. The basic observation is that our behaviors are formatted by the physical, organizational and regulatory frameworks that society imposes on us.

Many implicit or sedimented societal choices impose themselves on our own choices. To cycle, you need cycle paths, and for cycling to become a major means of transport, the spatial distribution of employment, housing and services must not be too fragmented.


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To telecommute, it is preferable to have suitable premises. The development of our territories, our cities, our mobility, the organization of time, in companies, schools, shops, deeply shape our consumption. They force us to vast wastes against our will. And they are a potential source of largely unexplored resource savings.

The pandemic has made the importance of these constraints apparent, while revealing the astonishing flexibility of our societies with regard to standards that were thought to be much more rigid. It is therefore the right time to rethink these standards, from the point of view of everyone's comfort, but also from the angle of collective effects.

Systemic sobriety calls for investments, and even significant investments. It also asks to leave reasoning in silos, sector by sector. It deserves its name because it cannot be satisfied with the usual divisions: housing, commercial town planning, mobility, employment, etc. It engages all of our social, temporal and spatial organizations. There is no point in preaching the abandonment of the car to the household that lives (by choice or by necessity, it doesn't matter) in a house far from any public transport.

In this case, non-sobriety is the result of decades of politics (or rather non-politics) that have led to the urban sprawl that we know.

Move away from guilt talk

Let's take another example. In the field of housing, should we really reduce the available surfaces, continue to crowd people into tiny homes, to use less materials, heating?

This is the unexciting answer given by those who limit their gaze to this area alone. Wouldn't it be more sober, ultimately, to offer more spacious accommodation (following the general demand revealed by absolutely all the surveys), allowing truly comfortable and incentive teleworking, also facilitating various pooling of activities in the buildings? or neighborhoods?

These are practical, concrete questions, which the great guilt-inducing speeches (haro on individual houses, on peripheral housing estates) or mechanistic ones (reducing the size of housing to use less cement) prevent us from approaching intelligently.

Systemic sobriety thus opens up a very wide field of reflection and action, which often overlaps with those of efficiency, except that a gain in systemic sobriety, for example better land use planning, does not lead to rebound effect!

I would add that we could also extend this concept to “immaterial” forms such as regulations and forms of accounting, public and private, invisible technologies which have a considerable impact on our organisations. Much thought is being given to the “ecological accounting”, especially at the local level. They deserve to be better shared and included in national agendas.

There remains a third level of sobriety, that of sobriety that I call “structural”.

The difference with systemic sobriety is that the latter takes as given the composition of the economy, its sectoral priorities, the list of goods and services that dominate production, consumption, and public budgets.

Structural sobriety, in my definition, is that which, on the contrary, results from this composition of the economy and the nature of the activities it favors (what place is given to industries that are very intensive in energy and materials? military? Health and education spending? Leisure?). My idea is that the trend towards the development of the human-centered economy […] opens here a very interesting perspective, for sobriety inscribed in the deep priorities of the economy and society. […]

Different sobriety according to income

Not all forms of sobriety are equally accessible. They are not at the same cost. And their impact can be very variable. We can reduce our purchases of clothes or shoes, declutter our closets of myriad useless objects, eat less red meat, reduce highway speeds. This can be done quickly, without excessive trauma, and with a strong climatic impact!

On the other hand, it is difficult to be sober in car mobility when you have no other choice, given where you live. In this case, priority should be given, at least temporarily, to efficiency policies, such as the electric car.

Public policies and expert recommendations that ignore this will only succeed in stoking resentment and rejection. Conversely, in areas where decarbonization through supply seems particularly difficult, such as air transport, there is probably no other solution than a form of consumption moderation, without going as far as abstinence.


Published in October 2022 by Éditions de l'aube

In this regard, it should be remembered that sobriety does not have the same meaning depending on income levels. The wealthiest among us, nationally and internationally, are responsible for a disproportionate share of emissions. In terms of mobility, households in the first income decile (the 10% with the lowest incomes) travel five times fewer kilometers for leisure trips over 80 kilometers than those in the last decile.

It would be tragic if sobriety policies more or less imposed by various incentives or regulations accentuate these inequalities. Preaching sobriety to sections of the population who are struggling to make ends meet and to poor countries would be rightly shocking.

Peter Veltz, Emeritus Professor, specialist in business organization and territorial dynamics, ParisTech School of Bridges (ENPC)

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.


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