Cultural Shifts - An Evening with Erik Assadourian 

On 1st February 2017, Erik Assadourian spoke to members of Singapore’s environmental community at the Yale-NUS Tan Chin Tuan lecture theatre on Cultivating a Sustainable Culture.

A senior fellow and project director at the Worldwatch Institute, Erik specializes in research on cultural change, consumerism, sustainability education, economic degrowth, ecological ethics, corporate responsibility, and sustainable communities for over 15 years. He has also co-directed several publications of State of the World, in 2010, 2012 and 2013. Erik is also a faculty member of Goucher College, where he teaches in the Masters of Environmental Studies Program. As part of his vocation as a cultural engineer, Erik has developed a board game and reality show concept to transform culture in innovative ways.

Erik opened his talk with an overview on the less than ideal state of sustainability across societies today. In response to such a sobering revelation, Erik proposed that cultural shifts could really empower comprehensive transition to more sustainable lifestyles.

 
 

In tackling the roots of unsustainable lifestyles at present, Erik points out several cultural "devils" that exist today. One example was the multi-million dollar pet industry, which, in creating an idealized symbol of pets as "Men's best friend", has diverted scarce resources such as healthcare from destitute human populations to frivolous veterinary care.  Another example included the existence of AstroTurf organizations that masquerade as community grassroots organizations, but are funded by private companies to lobby against environmental policies. A third example looked at the various life rituals (e.g. birthdays, weddings and funerals) and how their lavish customs perpetuated over time beguile populations into unsustainable consumption patterns. For example, people are guilt-tripped into purchasing the best caskets for their loved ones as a way of honoring their memory.  In raising these example of cultural “devils”, Erik highlights that these institutions, life patterns and rituals are arbitrary, created and sustained by humans over time. As such, there exists the possibility of editing or even creating a new culture steeped in sustainability. How can we edit choices or create a culture for a flourishing world?

To edit or create such a new sustainable culture, Erik identified  six key institutions that should be targeted for  cultural transformation: government, businesses, education, media and marketing, traditions and social movements. Imagine if the 600 million dollars a year spent on commercial advertising were promoting social mores instead. Or if exorbitant funeral fees were transformed into simple burial processes involving nothing more than ashes and soil? If there were more B-corporations (a new type of company that uses the power of business to solve social and environmental problems) and social enterprises? Or If we were all part of the sharing economy not only through Uber and Airbnb, but also through tool libraries?

At the heart of Erik’s argument is culture. Culture is the key to achieving the comprehensive change required to reverse climate change. While it may be slow and not as straightforward as implementing neat policy fixes, if successfully introduced, it could propel entire societies into new sustainable norms - exactly the scale of societal transformation required to stop global warming beyond critical levels.

At the end of the presentation, questions were raised on how culture shifts might begin in developing nations, among other concerns on how financial institutions could be part of the sustainability transition.

Erik concluded his discussion by encouraging members of the audiences to consider themselves as leaders of the organizations they were part of, and begin enacting changes in those institutions. For those of us in Singapore, we start by creating toy or tool libraries in the neighborhood, or by pushing the sustainability agenda forward to our MPs, or our bosses!