Re-evaluations of wellbeing under lockdown: implications for a socially just environmental transition by Paul Bridgen

Paul Bridgen

Photo of woman in mask
Image from Piksit

The UK Covid19 lockdown, introduced as infections began to rise in mid-March, prevented the population from undertaking many of the everyday activities taken for granted in late modern consumer society. Citizens could only leave their homes for essential activities. Shopping centres, bars and restaurants were closed. Exercise moved from gyms into the open air.

Yet, when citizens were asked about their situation a few weeks into lockdown, it was not this newly restricted world many most wanted to escape, but the world they had left behind – only 13 per cent of respondents of a YouGov survey undertaken in the second week of April agreed they ‘would like everything to go back to how it was’; 57 per cent said they desired personal and national change after the emergency was over. This was one indication among many that despite the very many intense difficulties the pandemic caused, many people also found positives; they reflected critically on their pre-lockdown consumer-driven lifestyles and were not content with important aspects.

These developments may prove transitory. The social and work constraints caused by lockdown undoubtedly became more challenging over time, challenges that were experienced differently by class and gender. The Johnson government has already signalled a surge in consumption as the best route to economic recovery.

But it is also plausible lockdown surfaced a latent discontent in many citizens’ conceptions of their wellbeing. Put more positively, it generated a broader acceptance of what Kate Soper has called an ‘alternative hedonism’, a way of living well while consuming far less. For a world approaching an environmental crisis, such re-evaluations are hugely important. Most commentators now agree it is only by encouraging the affluent to escape the iron cage of consumerism that a socially just environmental transition can be engineered.

The pandemic, lockdown and wellbeing

The scale of the impact of Covid19 and the lockdown on UK citizens was clear early on. In the first week of April, death rates rose precipitously such that there were 6,000 above average in England and Wales. Schools were closed after 20th March. Concerns were quickly raised about the more concentrated impact of lockdown on some social groups, for example women at risk of domestic violence. Economically, the furlough scheme offered short-term reassurance, but consumer spending declined overall in April by an unprecedented 36.5 per cent having already fallen by 6 per cent in March.

The scale of this emerging catastrophe made surprising the responses of YouGov survey participants to questions about the future in mid-April. At a time when 61 per cent of the survey respondents suggested they had spent less money, the large majority did not want to return to the status quo ante. The desire for personal and political change in the post-Covid19 world was strong and uniform between genders and age groups.

In detailing their experiences of lockdown, participants of the survey, and other surveys undertaken at the time or since, made clear the changes sought related to basic functionings and capabilities – time, personal relationships, community and environment.

Thus, another YouGov poll in April found 55 per cent of respondents positive about spending more time at home against 11 per cent who were not, and 44 per cent positive about lockdown’s impact on personal relationships against 13 per cent who were negative. A University of Plymouth survey in the same month found parents ‘overwhelmingly positive’ about additional time spent with their children. Meanwhile, 40 per cent of YouGov respondents reported a greater sense of local community after lockdown.

In terms of activities respondents were missing, another April YouGov poll found nine out of the 16 items mentioned by respondents did not involve personal expenditure. Only eight per cent mentioned holidays and only four percent mentioned shopping.

Interest in the natural world surged. A YouGov survey for the National Trust, undertaken as lockdown was being eased, found interest in nature had risen by 33 per cent (40 per cent in the 25-34 year old age group).

Alternative hedonism, reduced consumption and the environmental crisis

Indications such as these of a desire for a slower more basic lifestyle have only been evident in the past from a committed minority. The less committed have been more negative when asked about reducing consumption for environmental reasons. The evidence from lockdown, in contrast, suggests many more than a committed minority were sympathetic, at a time of extremis, to conceptions of the ‘good life’ less encumbered by consumption anxieties and time scarcity.

Certainly, lockdown was experienced differently by different social groups, but many seem to have found attractive the opportunities for an ‘alternative hedonism’, pursuing novelty, self-expression and gratification in less environmentally-damaging ways.

Such developments are of considerable significance for debates about a socially just transition to a more sustainable world. Avoiding dangerous climate change, most experts now agree, will require substantial changes in consumption habits, not just decarbonisation of the economy. A particular focus will be on consumption by affluent citizens given their disproportionate responsibility for global emissions. Some commentators propose a ‘consumption corridor’ which at its top boundary would limit individuals’ use of natural resources to guarantee consumption levels for the poorest consistent with basic needs.

Transitioning to such a world obviously poses huge challenges, requiring much more than ‘bottom-up’ changes in citizens’ perceptions. Structural perspectives emphasise how consumption is ‘locked in’ by corporate power and/or ‘systems of provision’. Significant state intervention appears inevitable, perhaps in the form of luxury taxes, personal carbon allowances and/or reduced working hours.

Yet democratically, legitimation of the necessary structural changes is only likely based on ‘a revised conception among the already affluent communities of their own needs, interests and pleasures’. Policy changes can facilitate this movement meaning it does not have to wait for majority acceptance. For example, the London congestion charge only had minority support when introduced but, as awareness of its lifestyle benefits increased, support grew leading to its extension.

The potential of such a pathway was confirmed by the Covid19 lockdown. Freed temporarily from the constraints of status quo bias, public attitudes proved more fluid than expected. Attention focused on ‘an alternative structure of pleasures and satisfactions’ throwing into sharper relief the ‘hedonistically repressive’ aspects of consumption-based affluence.

Could similar re-evaluations be encouraged in relation to the environmental crisis? The Covid19 lockdown was, after all, a unique event: citizen’s willingness to re-evaluate their personal consumption was likely increased by a strong consensus about the necessity of emergency restrictions to protect personal and public health. A similar consensus about an environmental emergency is less entrenched and, as the economy begins to plunge, growth at any environmental cost may regain its appeal.

Yet, clear manifestations of climate change are becoming more frequent, and perceptions of it as an existential emergency are growing. In the context of this developing emergency, policy interventions designed to contain status-driven consumption seem capable of gaining broader acceptance than previously envisaged, particularly if framed carefully based on the positive attractions of a slower lifestyle.

In short, while the locks to the iron cage of consumption are still in place, they appear post-COVID19 considerably less secure than imagined.

Dr Paul Bridgen is currently working on the social policy implications of the environmental crisis, having previously worked mainly on comparative pensions policy and migration and social policy.

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