Rising Individualism Among the Young: A Great Challenge for Environmental Policy

Rising Individualism Among the Young: A Great Challenge for Environmental Policy

Rising Individualism Among the Young: A Great Challenge for Environmental Policy

by Per Arild Garnåsjordet and Iulie Aslaksen

Per Arild Garnåsjordet (Norwegian, born 1945) is a geographer and senior researcher at Statistics Norway. From 1995–2006 he was managing director for Asplan Viak, a major consulting fim in urban and regional planning.

Iulie Aslaksen is senior researcher in the research department of Statistics Norway and works with sustainability indicators, the Nature Index, and policy for sustainable development.

The large environmental problems of climate change and loss of nature – and their roots in overconsumption of natural resources – call for revitalization of collective political action. Yet individualism seems to be rising in the rich world, especially among the young. Although many young people support good causes, there is lack of engagement in collective political action. Conservative winds sweep across society and undermine the understanding of collective approaches to environmental policy.

Climate change and other systemic environmental problems are too large for individual solutions alone; they require collective approaches. It is difficult for the individual in our short life span to grasp the future consequences of the emerging trends of climate change and loss of nature. Overconsumption of resources threatens sustainability and calls for a change in public and private values to support a new ecological mindset. Yet the younger generation seems to be becoming more individualistic and less inclined to engage in collective political decisions. The issue is not lack of ethics or moral values. Many young people support good causes, do-good initiatives, and actively take part in political demonstrations.

However, they are caught up in the new dominant liberal and conservative notions of promoting individual rights and self-interest – disconnected from a notion of society and community as the basis for individual freedom. Life is a profoundly individualistic project. However, in terms of Maslow´s hierarchy of needs, freedom through self-actualization is always rooted in the fulfilment of basic needs and a sense of belonging within a community. Hence, society has to create and share freedom that supports self-actualization. By contrast, neo-liberal politics promotes an individual freedom disconnected from its roots in community – a kind of ‘blue freedom’. This is not a useful compass for collective solutions to our looming environmental crises. What we need is social-democratic politics, which promotes an individual freedom grounded in community and solidarity with present and future generations – what we might call a ‘red freedom’.

For decades, blue and the red approaches to freedom have enhanced and balanced each other. But now the scales may be tipping. Neo-liberal trends bring the ruthlessness of the competitive economy into education, health and the workplace. Environmental policies yield to private profit. Liberal parties have managed to brand freedom as their trademark – grasping the power of definition and equating freedom with liberalism. But the liberal freedom – selfishness disguised in blue velvet – as expressed by Norwegian public health professor Per Fugelli – can be a short-sighted version of self-interest which undermines the common good and a sustainable future.

Rising individualism makes it more difficult to find collective solutions to the climate crisis. Public benefits and support of the common good have been sacrificed for private goods. In the financial crisis, banks are saved while unemployment is rising. Natural resources, from fish stocks to hydropower, are privatized. Globalization threatens small-scale agriculture, with a loss of cultural landscape and identity. While private wealth and consumption increase, it has been followed by widespread denial of the environmental crisis. Public funds have been directed to support private wealth rather than to ambitious environmental policies. New institutions, beyond the attempts to find market solutions, quota systems and payment schemes, are called for to protect natural resources from overexploitation.

The social-democratic values from the labour movement and trade unions have been the great liberating forces of the 20th century. Freedom is the lost diamond of social-democracy – it is there and will always be there – but the everyday demands of government management have not allowed the diamond to shine in debate and rhetoric. The neoliberal political winds change the notion of freedom from individuals-in-community to individuals-in-selfishness. Is this what we want as a role model for the younger generation? The consequence of rising individualism is that only a limited group of young people is aiming to develop a complete political opinion, defining policy in term of collective political change.

The social democratic parties have paved the way to liberate people from poverty, lack of education and restrictive gender roles, creating freedom for individuals in society. These rights are not won once and for all; they need to be won by every new generation. We need to convey to the young generation that the political, social and economic rights we take for granted today are a result of long political struggle. Now the time has come to extend the power of collective action to a new approach to our environmental problems. The core issue is how we can encourage the young generation to organize and search for collective action in order to solve the environmental crisis. A promising attempt is the group monitoring parliament members in Norway to see if they keep their election promises.

We recommend encouraging young people to take part in political action, supporting environmental youth organizations, such as Young Friends of the Earth, and promoting climate change activism as a new path to collective political action, such as through 350.org and iMatter: Kids vs. Global Warming.

This Idea is included in Disrupting the Future – Great ideas for Creating a Much Better Future. This book is a remarkable collection of ideas and proposals by a diverse set of thought-leaders, each of which has responded in their own creative way to Jorgen Randers’ concluding challenge in 2052: ‘Please help me make my forecast wrong. Together we could create a much better world.’

You can find more information on this book and a possibility to order here