System Change and/or Behaviour Change?
7 Nov, 2019

On Oct. 29th 2019, our second Stay Grounded Webinar took place. We discussed with experts the role of behaviour change approaches regarding the much needed systemic change of our society and new social theories reframing the role of the individual in instigating systemic change (see also our blog article on the topic).

There was a great interest in the webinar and its topic, presumably since this discussion informs the strategies and approaches of campaigns within the movement against the growth of aviation. It did not have the goal to determine the single “right” strategy to contribute to systemic change. It was also not possible to cover the many different models and theories that exist in this field. We focused on two main approaches, one that is coming from environmental psychology, one from sociology.

The webinar started with inputs by two experts representing these approaches:

  • Vivian Frick, an environmental psychologist at the Technische Universität Berlin and the Institute for Ecological Economy Research. She gave her input on behalf of the “Initiative Psychology of Environmental Protection” and Wandelwerk.
  • Lars Kjerulf Petersen, an environmental sociologist and senior researcher at the Department of Environmental Science at Aarhus University in Denmark. He deals with sustainable development and transition, behaviour change and works with the theory of social practices.

Michaela Leitner, a campaigner for the “Let’s Stay Grounded!” campaign and sociologist, continued with a concrete example, an outline of the strategy of the new “Let’s Stay Grounded!” campaign that relates to different approaches. The inputs were followed by a discussion of the participants of the webinar.

See the video of the webinar here:


How environmental psychology explains and fosters behaviour change

Vivian Frick gave us a short insight into theories of environmental psychology. Environmental psychology can identify motivational, situational, structural, social and societal barriers of „staying grounded“ and provide knowledge on behaviour change.

Vivian talked about discrepancies between attitudes and behaviour: Even though there is a high general awareness of the climate impact of flying, many people continue to fly, especially the environmentally concerned (McDonald et al. 2015, Moser et al. 2017). In order to reduce cognitive dissonance resulting from this discrepancy, individuals choose different forms of reactions: from actually stopping or reducing flying or changing other environmentally harmful behaviours to compensate for flying to offering diverse justifications to fly (e.g. denial, “whataboutism” or distraction from the problem).

The strongest significant indicator for flying is not environmental attitudes, but income. More income means more resource consumption (this is also true for energy use and the CO2 footprint in general).

54% of respondents of a study (Richetin et al 2012) said that their main reason for not reducing resource consumption is the wish to maintain their current lifestyle and have an easy life. That a life without flying is considered to be “not easy” may be related to the different obstacles many people face that make it hard to give up flying. Among those are, according to Vivian’s analysis:

  • the easy availability of airtravel tickets and their low price (in contrast to the often higher price and harder-to-find train tickets),
  • the political and economic context (growth paradigm),
  • the lack of problem awareness and sense of urgency (often a result of psychological distance to the negative consequences of consumption behaviour on the environment and producers),
  • conflicting personal goals,
  • material aspirations and
  • existing social norms of travelling.

Flying has become important for many peoples’ identity (e.g. flying on holidays as means of self expression), for their need of social acceptance and for relatedness (flying signals sophistication, cultural open-mindedness and success). Norms are heavily influenced by dominant narratives about positive effects of travel (experience, warmth, holidays, relaxation,…) and can also be an obstacle to change.

Challenging norms means reframing them: What is considered as normal, as fair, as luxury or self-indulgement, as hip and as adventurous? What accounts for a Good Life, apart from material consumption? All these questions can be answered within a narrative of “staying grounded”, opposing dominant unsustainable narratives.

Environmental psychology regards individuals not just in their role as consumers, but also in their different roles as citizens, family members, friends, as employees in organizations or in political administration and so on. By doing so, not only a change in consumption practices, but also the commitment for structural and political changes (e.g. by grassroot movements) can be pushed for.

Vivian also mentioned various “toolboxes” based on psychological insights for campaigns (e.g. Klöckner & Blöbaum 2010; Hamann et al. 2016). As examples, she mentioned pledge campaigns of individuals not to fly/to fly less that create public commitment, collective efficacy and use the influence of social norms (e.g. Goldstein, Cialdini & Griskevicius 2008). Psychological knowledge can also help by empowering individuals to act through psychologically designed action planning to overcome unsustainable habits or applying boosting and nudging tools (Hertwig& Grüne-Yanoff 2017).

Reframing the question: Changing practices instead of individuals

Lars Kjerulf Petersen has introduced us to the theory of social practices (see his presentation here). He started with a critique of certain approaches to behaviour change: The ABC approaches claim social change depends upon values and attitudes (A) that drive the behaviour (B) that individuals choose (C) and rational choice theories claim that individuals choose specific behaviour to optimize their own benefit and to reduce costs (Shove 2010).

According to practice theory, not the individual and its choices, but practices are the central unit of analysis. People’s actions are not a matter of individual choice, but are routinized, constrained and conditioned by materiality, socially and ethically conditioned (not just cost/benefit assessments) and shaped through the embodiment of competences. Practices consist of different elements: meanings, competences, materials and regulations.

Meanings or orientations entail conceptions of the good life, ethics and behavioural norms and “what is done” (or not yet done) by others. In our society meanings like “seeing and experiencing the world”, cultural openness, and the bucket lists of “the places one must see” are an integral part of the practice of flying.

Materialities are also an important part of practices of flying and of alternative forms of being mobile, e.g. infrastructures (railways, roads, bike lanes, footpaths, airports, stations), machinery (bikes, cars, airplanes, trains) and ICT software (for ticket purchase and travel planning, for communicating online over large distances,…).

Competences are embodied and part of the routines individuals perform every day. New routines have to be established if new practices evolve. Competences relevant to flying are e.g. even considering alternatives to planes, knowing how to book cross border rail journeys or how to make an online conference.

Regulations regarding the practice of flying are manifold and important for sustaining it: for example regarding taxation (e.g. of airplane fuels), prohibitions, standards and limits (e.g. regarding noise emissions) and organisational rules (e.g. work travel policies of institutions).

Therefore, in campaigns and programmes, not just the element of meaning, but also the other elements of the practice of flying have to be addressed. One example Lars gave is the promotion of recycling household waste that entailed, besides appealing to behavioural norms, changing infrastructures and equipment of recycling, teaching new competences and formulating and enforcing new rules from EU level to housing associations.

“Let’s Stay Grounded!” Campaign

Michaela Leitner gave an overview of the new “Let’s Stay Grounded!” campaign and how it relates to different approaches of social change (see the presentation here). Even though the campaign is inspired by practice theory and shares the critique of purely individualistic approaches, it also values the contribution of psychological theories, especially when dealing with the change of norms of mobility – that are of course also an element of the practice of flying – and when encouraging people to get politically active (e.g. in petitions and actions). See here for more info on the conception of the campaign.

She also explained how the four pillars of the campaign – existing initiatives collecting pledges of institutions and people not to fly/to fly less, organising actions against airport expansion and political campaigns –  challenge the different elements of the practice of flying (meanings, materials, regulations and competences) simultaneously. The LSG campaign aims to make these different initiatives visible on an European level and to connect them with each other. It wants, for example, to encourage people that are signing petitions or participate in actions to also sign pledges not to fly and to change their own institutions’ travel policies – and the other way around.

In the closing discussion with the participants we talked about the political discourse around addressing individuals in campaigns, the extent of and possibilities to reduce business travel (see numbers and literature below), the urgency and timeline of necessary action against the growth of aviation, the question of taxes as an adequate policy instrument (acknowledging the correlation of income and flying frequency), the activities and campaigns of the aviation industry and the role of alternative transport infrastructure in creating a new political and discursive space.


Resources regarding environmental psychology

Hamann, K.; Baumann, A.; Löschinger, D. (2016): “Psychology of Environmental Protection. Handbook for Encouraging Sustainable Actions.” Oekom. Download.

Hertwig, R., & Grüne-Yanoff, T. (2017). Nudging and boosting: Steering or empowering good decisions. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 12(6), 973-986. Download.

Goldstein, N. J., Cialdini, R. B., & Griskevicius, V. (2008). A room with a viewpoint: Using social norms to motivate environmental conservation in hotels. Journal of consumer Research, 35(3), 472-482. Download.

Klöckner, C. A., & Blöbaum, A. (2010). A comprehensive action determination model: Toward a broader understanding of ecological behaviour using the example of travel mode choice. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 30(4), 574-586. Download.

McDonald, S., Oates, C. J., Thyne, M., Timmis, A. J., & Carlile, C. (2015). Flying in the face of environmental concern: why green consumers continue to fly. Journal of Marketing Management, 31(13-14), 1503-1528. Download.

Moser, S., & Kleinhückelkotten, S. (2018). Good intents, but low impacts: diverging importance of motivational and socioeconomic determinants explaining pro-environmental behavior, energy use, and carbon footprint. Environment and Behavior, 50(6), 626-656. Download.

Richetin, J., Perugini, M., Conner, M., Adjali, I., Hurling, R., Sengupta, A., & Greetham, D. (2012). To reduce and not to reduce resource consumption? That is two questions. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 32(2), 112-122.

Resources regarding practice theory

Evans, D., McMeekin, A. and Southerton, D. (2012): Sustainable Consumption, Behaviour Change Policies and Theories of Practice, Studies across Disciplines in the Humanities and Social Sciences, 12th ed. Download.

Hampton, S.; Adams, R. (2018): “Behavioural economics vs social practice theory: Perspectives from inside the United Kingdom government.” In: Energy research & social science 46 (2018): 214-224. Download.

Reckwitz, A. (2002): Toward a theory of social practices: A development in culturalist theorizing. European journal of social theory, 5(2), 243-263. Download.

Southerton, D., McMeekin, A. and Evans, D. (2011): International Review of Behaviour Change Initiatives, Edinburgh. Download.

Shove, E. (2010): “Beyond the ABC. Climate Change Policy and Theories of Social Change”, Environment and Planning A, Vol. 42 No. 6, pp. 1273–1285. Download.

Spurling, N.; McMeekin, A.; Shove, E.; Southerton, D. and Welch, D. (2013): “Interventions in practice: re-framing policy approaches to consumer behaviour”. Sustainable Practices Research Group Report. Download.

Walker, G. (2015): “Beyond individual responsibility: social practice, capabilities and the right to environmentally sustainable ways of living.” In: Strengers, Y. and Maller, C. (Eds.) (2014): “Social practices, intervention and sustainability: Beyond behaviour change”. Routledge studies in sustainability. Routledge. London, New York, NY. 45-60.

Vihalemm, T., Keller, M., Kiisel, M. (2015): “From intervention to social change: A guide to reshaping everyday practices.” University of Tartu, Estonia. VT.

Resources regarding business travel

Find the slides about the share of business travel in overall air travel that Eric Lombard kindly shared with us here.

DeDecker, Kris (2017): Why do Business People Travel? The Demand Center. Download.

FAQ and Sources List of  the #flyingless campaign for academics that pledge to fly less. Download.

Glover A., Strengers Y., and T. Lewis (2017): The unsustainability of academic aeromobility in Australian universities, Sustainability: Science, Practice and Policy, 13:1, 1-12. Download.

Lassen, C. (2010): Environmentalist in Business Class: An Analysis of Air Travel and Environmental Attitude. Transp. Rev. 30, 733–751.

Strengers, Y. (2015): Meeting in the Global Workplace:Air Travel, Telepresence and the Body.”Mobilities10 (4): 592–608. Download.

Storme, T., Faulconbridge, J.R., Beaverstock, J.V., Derudder, B., Witlox, F. (2017): Mobility and Professional Networks in Academia: An Exploration of the Obligations of Presence. Mobilities 12, 405–424. Download.

Wynes, S., Donner, S.D., Tannason, S., Nabors, N. (2019): Academic air travel has a limited influence on professional success. J. Clean. Prod. 226, 959–967.

Wynes, S., Donner, S.D. (2018): Addressing Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Business-Related Air Travel at Public Institutions: A Case Study of the University of British Columbia. Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions, University of Victoria. Download.