02 December 2019

LiU researchers, together with an international research group, have studied how ordinary people around the world view environmental problems, and whether they face any in their day-to-day lives. The interviews gave the researchers hope – and some clever solutions.

Solar cells on the houses in a village in Fiji.
When villages were rebuilt in Fiji after the cyclon, houses were fitted with solar panels. Photo: Victoria Wibeck.

“It’s not sustainable to keep living the way we do. So we wanted to find out what environmental challenges people around the world face in their lives, and what they dream about for the future”, says Victoria Wibeck, professor at Linköping University. Photo credit David Einar

To do this, Victoria joined colleagues including Therese Asplund and Anna Bohman, and interviewed people all over the world. They spoke to ordinary people in Boulder in the United States, in Guangzhou China, in Östergötland Sweden and on the islands of Fiji and Cape Verde. They asked questions such as what environmental problems do you face in your day-to-day life, how do you want these problems to be dealt with and how do you see the future.

“When people in Guangzhou dream about the future, it’s about clean air and clean water”, says Anna Bohman, who conducted the interviews in Guangzhou, a heavily polluted Chinese city of five million.

“When Swedes think about the future and a sustainable society, it’s about lifestyle changes and more eco-friendly technology”, says Therese Asplund, the interviewer for Sweden.

People all over the world have extremely interesting ideas about how various problems can be solved.
Professor Victoria Wibeck

City skylineGuangzhou is heavily polluted. Photo credit Monica Westman SvenseliusBut it’s the politicians who make the decisions on how society must adapt, and become more sustainable. So does it matter what ordinary people think?

“Yes, stories from the street are often dismissed with the argument that the people aren’t sufficiently knowledgeable about environmental policy. But this isn’t true. People all over the world have extremely interesting ideas about how various problems can be solved”, says Victoria Wibeck.

She exemplifies with the major cyclone that hit Fiji in 2016. When villages were rebuilt the houses were fitted with solar panels, which enabled the removal of diesel generators that were noisy and had negative environmental impacts.

“With solar panels, everyone got lighting after dark, which meant the children could study. These are local changes that we rarely hear about, and aren’t what we Swedes normally mean when we talk about technical solutions. But they make a huge difference to people”, says Victoria Wibeck.

Previous research on shifts to a more sustainable society shows that profound change isn’t just about practical developments such as suitable technology or political structures. It’s also about a personal level, that relates to norms and values.

“For such a shift in society to occur there must be change on all these levels”, says Therese Asplund.

As a person you’re affected when you hear all these stories from different parts of the world. It does something to you. 
Prof. Victoria Wibeck

The results of the study show that in all the investigated countries there was a desire for change toward a more sustainable way of life. New technology was seen as important for the transition of society, but so were increased awareness and education. The participants also felt that as citizens they were important if this transition was to actually occur.

One thing that surprised the researchers was that the participants in all the countries said that a sustainable society is also about community and belonging.Therese AsplundTherese Asplund Photo credit David Einar

“In the stories about urbanisation and technical connectivity, questions about community also emerged – existential questions we weren’t expecting. When investigating people’s dreams about the future, we saw a profound and common sentiment: no one wants to be alone”, says Anna Bohman.

The study has not only taught the researchers about how people worldwide see social change. To a degree it has also changed them.

Anna BohmanAnna Bohman Photo credit David EinarDavid Einar“As a person you’re affected when you hear all these stories from different parts of the world. It does something to you. Writing this report has been an unusual experience”, says Victoria Wibeck.

“Yes, it’s fantastic to hear people’s stories from their daily lives. I’ve been fascinated by how similarly we think, all over the world”, says Anna Bohman.


The scientific article:

Stories of Transformation: A Cross-Country Focus Group Study on Sustainable Development and Societal Change. Victoria Wibeck, Björn-Ola Linnér, Melisa Alves, Therese Asplund, Anna Bohman, Maxwell T. Boykoff, Pamela M. Feetham, Yi Huang, Januario Nascimento, Jessica Rich, Charles Yvon Rocha, Franco Vaccarino, Shi Xian. Sustainability 2019, 11, 2427. https://doi.org/10.3390/su11082427


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