How well do we understand households in environmental policy? Households make sense both to the people who live in them, and to government policy makers, as foundational social units, and as sites through which it is logical to understand the consumption of energy, water and materials that have implications for sustainability issues such as climate change. In affluent urban societies households are an increasing focus of government policy in relation to sustainability issues, and an expanding research literature considers the household as a crucial scale of social organisation for pro-environmental behaviour.
In Australia we have seen activity at all levels of government, including support for solar panels, home insulation, water tanks, light globes and shower timers. Local councils have established programs such as Sustainable Illawarra’s Super Challenge, in which householders were encouraged to become more environmentally sustainable by engaging in activities such as refusing plastic bags, composting, establishing vegetable gardens and catching public transport. The marketing materials used phrases like, ‘take the challenge to see just how easy it is to take control of your ecological footprint. You’ll be surprised at how little time it takes to make a difference … and how good it makes you feel!’ (Sustainable Illawarra 2008).
It’s not so easy being green
Despite the enthusiasm of many Australian households to contribute to sustainability goals, such policies do not always have the intended outcomes. Smart meters do not challenge practices that householders consider non-negotiable. Water tanks do not save as much water as predicted. Education programs emphasising that ‘it’s easy being green’ understate the amount of domestic labour involved, and sidestep the question of who does the work. Residential energy consumption continues to rise, due to a combination of bigger homes containing more appliances and IT equipment, a growing population and a declining number of people per household.
We must stop seeing households as black boxes
It is a truism that sustainability challenges are complex, but we contend that the conceptualisation of the household in environmental policy has not been complex enough. Many policy approaches treat households as black boxes – freestanding social units operating only at the local, domestic scale. The difficulty of tracking the contribution of Western households to their nations’ greenhouse gas emissions provides an illustration of this complexity. In Australia, calculations vary depending on the assumptions made about where responsibility is to be attributed: 13 per cent if only direct energy use within the household is considered, and 56 per cent if the emissions embedded in externally produced goods and services consumed in the household context are included (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2003). As the growing literature on carbon and other ecological footprints makes clear, this variation is partly an issue of data measurement and scale. But we argue here that it also stems from a broader conceptual challenge: how should we think about configurations of people and material things whose social and ecological relations are diverse, shifting and complex?
The connected household
In this project we have developed an alternative framing to the household as a black box. Instead we think of connected households, in that households are part of, and a product of, a network of connections. The black box is revealed to contain its own complex politics and practices; households are social assemblages with variable gender, age, class, ethnic and familial structures. The family with children, the student shared household, the extended family or the retired couple will all experience and respond to climate change and sustainability concerns differently, as will home-owners, private and public renters, and unit and house dwellers. Households are homes in which social relations are the core human concern. The black box is also porous. Home spaces and the people who live in them are inextricably linked into the social, technological and regulatory networks that make up suburbs, cities, regions and nations.
Zones of friction and traction
We use friction and traction to illustrate different pathways of connection. In many ways friction and traction are two sides of the same coin, but we use them here to trace less and more sustainable pathways respectively. So zones of friction may involve pathways of resistance to more sustainable outcomes, or contradictory practices which entrench less sustainable outcomes. We use zones of traction to refer to pathways towards more sustainable outcomes. Traction can result from the deroutinisation of previous practices. The term traction also helps identify useful points of intervention: policies, key players, levers, intermediaries or translators, both human and not. Examples of each are provided throughout the report. We suggest that friction and traction will help decision-makers think through the possibilities and constraints of working at the household scale – why some policy approaches do not work and others do.
This post is the introduction of AUSCCER’s new report The Connected Household: Understanding the role of Australian households in sustainability and climate change. You can read the full report here.
Sustainable Illawarra (2008), ‘History’, available at http://www.sustainableillawarra.com.au/ (accessed 14 September 2010).
ABS (2003), Yearbook Australia, 2003, Catalogue no. 1301.0, Canberra: Australian Bureau of Statistics.