Multi-level Frameworks to Enable Responsible Living

Submitted by Arthur Dahl on 20. March 2011 - 23:26
Dahl, Arthur Lyon


Arthur Lyon Dahl
International Environment Forum
Geneva, Switzerland

Paper presented at the
PERL International Conference
Istanbul, Turkey, 14-15 March 2011


Efforts to enable responsible living require a supporting framework of concepts and debate to bridge science and values at all levels from local to global. At the local level, community action is most effective in a village or neighbourhood where people will invest for the common betterment of their families and neighbours. Educational activities in and outside formal education for children, preadolescents, youth and adults should encourage action for responsible living based on the community's own vision of human purpose and well-being. While formal curricular change may need to be led at the national level, there is an important role for the media and for diverse organizations of civil society from businesses to faith-based organizations in discussing various dimensions of responsible living. Regionally and internationally, the debate on the future of sustainability in preparation for Rio+20, the questioning of the economy and the search for a green economy and indicators beyond GDP, and awareness of the need to recognize the oneness of humanity, are all stimulating a reexamination of preconceptions and certitudes about individual and collective purposes. Linking local efforts to these debates will help everyone to think deeply about what is meant by responsible living.


Society operates at many levels, becoming increasingly complex as it has globalized, with multiple levels of organization. Any effort to modify human behaviour must take into account the interrelationships between these levels and identify both opportunities and obstacles at each level if they are to have any impact.

A systems approach requires an analysis of the nested systems that operate at different levels. Each system will have a certain internal coherence and autonomy, while being cross-linked in various ways to systems above and below it in the hierarchy of organization. Each will have certain required enabling conditions to function effectively. There may also be unique features or emergent properties that only appear at higher levels of organization. A typical example is the human body, composed of cells differentiated into organs performing unique roles within functional systems (nervous, digestive, hormonal, reproductive, etc.) composing a body itself dependent on an external environment, with emergent properties like intelligence, and serving as a functional unit in larger social and economic systems. Similarly, human society is structured in hierarchical levels from the family, community or neighbourhood, city, region, country to the planetary level, cross-layered with cultural or tribal, ethnic, religious, linguistic, professional and associative groupings and affiliations.

The individual human being is the fundamental unit for responsible living, driven by biological needs interacting with knowledge and values to produce behaviours which may or may not be responsible in the context of the global sustainability of human society. Knowledge and values are first transmitted in the family, then by social interaction in the community and through the media which increasingly reach into every home. Formal and informal education add their own contributions as the individual forges an independent identity and personal lifestyle while growing through adolescence to adulthood. While lifestyles may become more rigid with age as the individual becomes locked into an occupation and community, and takes on family responsibilities, there can be moments of fluidity and reconsolidation, particularly at moments of transition such as unemployment or career change, a "midlife crisis", religious conversion, retirement, widowhood, etc. While in the past, limited mobility and access to knowledge meant that lifestyle change was rare or culturally determined at stages through life, globalization has exposed everyone to multiple alternative lifestyles and undermined traditional certainties, just as it has increased the choices of more or less sustainable patterns of consumption and forms of behaviour. While this complexity means that what constitutes a responsible lifestyle is very context-specific, it also provides opportunities for larger-scale interventions intended to influence lifestyle choices, and this is the focus of the Partnership for Education and research about Responsible Living (PERL) (

A strategy to enable people to live more responsibly needs to be developed in a supporting framework of concepts at all levels from local to global. When there are a variety of impediments at different levels, only a concerted action to identify and address all of them will allow significant progress. The following sections of this paper will discuss a few examples of relevant actions and processes taking place at some of these levels. More systematic study would certainly identify many other factors that will need to be addressed in various contexts.

One other point will complete this introduction. Experience has shown that scientific information by itself is necessary but rarely sufficient to change behaviour (Dahl, 2004, 2006). Responsibility is also a question of values. Failures of implementation in actions for sustainability at all levels can often be attributed not to a lack of understanding but to a lack of motivation to change damaging behaviours or activities. A values-based motivation will lead to commitment and ultimately to action. Examples of values relevant for responsible living are justice and equity, a sense of solidarity with every human being as a trust of the whole, and respect for nature and the environment. Any systematic strategy for responsible living needs to incorporate this dimension both in individuals and in institutions and collective action at each level.


At the local level, community action is most effective in a village or neighbourhood where people will invest for the common betterment of their families and neighbours. In this context, a new challenge to responsibility is emerging. The increasing movement of people around the world, and the expected massive increase in population displacements with climate change and environmental deterioration, are producing communities in which the original culture is eroding and a heterogeneous population of multiple origins must learn to live together. Most indigenous cultures and spiritual traditions have principles of hospitality towards strangers, but these are being lost. A common tendency towards xenophobia and prejudice against immigrants needs to be replaced by the appreciation of diversity and of the new vitality that immigrants bring to a community. This can best be built at the neighbourhood level where personal experience through direct interaction and solidarity can overcome prejudice based on stereotypes. The same process can address local issues of sustainability and encourage lifestyles that reflect responsible living.

Educational activities in and outside formal education for children, preadolescents, youth and adults should encourage action for responsible living based on the community's own vision of human purpose and well-being. An understanding of the global, national and local context for sustainability based on science should be combined with the spiritual and ethical principles and moral values necessary to motivate changes in consumer behaviour relevant to the local situation. For adults, these can be addressed in informal neighbourhood study circles, perhaps reinforced by devotional meetings where people of any spiritual tradition can share some time of prayer, meditation and reflection together. Local children's classes taught by parents or youth can provide a values-based content that is often lacking in formal schooling. For pre-adolescents in the process of forming their identity, action-oriented activities with environmental or responsible consumption themes can build a foundation for life-long commitment to consumer citizenship. An example of this approach is the strategy for climate change education in the Bahá'í community (BIC, 2009). Similar action plans with an ethical/spiritual foundation have been developed for many religious traditions (

These activities should build a neighbourhood or village cooperative spirit which would naturally lead to community consultation on local problems and priority actions to address those that are most pressing. A community thus empowered will be able to advance towards sustainability without depending on outside assistance.


Introducing concepts of sustainability and responsible living into the formal school curriculum usually requires intervention at the national or sometimes state level where curriculum content is determined. There is often resistance to change at this level, and progress can be slow unless there is strong political leadership on the issue. Yet community efforts will be strongly reinforced if students are receiving similar messages at school. School children frequently become educators of their parents in environmentally-responsible behaviour such as recycling. Since much of the effort of PERL is focused at this level, it will not be discussed further here.

Another important set of partners that can be addressed at the national level is the media. Unfortunately, the media are often themselves purveyors of unsustainable lifestyles and cultivators of irresponsible consumer behaviour through advertising and the lifestyles they portray. Their marketing to children is particularly pernicious. It is often not in their interest to encourage responsible consumer behaviour, so their capacity to educate the public is rarely used to its full advantage.

The many and diverse organizations of civil society from businesses to faith-based organizations are spread across the spectrum from those supporting damaging forms and levels of consumption in the name of commercial, political or cultural interests, to those that are staunch defenders of responsible living. Even within the business sector, for example, some companies market products damaging to health and the environment, while others build their reputation with products from socially and environmentally responsible sources. Given the mixed messages with which we are surrounded, consumer education must include the capacity to see behind the superficially-attractive messages of the consumer society. Where advertising plays on animal impulses and selfishness, falsehood becomes public information, and greed, lust, indolence, pride and violence have social and economic value (UHJ, 2005), the antidote must be founded in moral values and ethical principles. Educational programmes should "vaccinate" children against the excesses of the consumer culture conveyed by the media, teaching moderation and being content with little.

There are increasing numbers of public bodies and civil society organizations with the capacity to support national campaigns of public information on responsible consumer behaviour. While many target specific issues relevant to their mandates, there is considerable potential for more integrated campaigns involving a variety of actors, such as the national Preach-In on Global Warming organized in the United States by Interfaith Power and Light in February 2011 (


The choices for living responsibly are often conditioned or constrained by what the economy and society offer. The individual consumer cannot control the larger dimensions of the economic system, but is simply swept along in the current. Individual, local and national efforts for responsibility will not be sufficient without a transformation of the global economy. Fortunately that process has now started. While the future evolution of the economy is unpredictable, the evidence suggests the process will be bumpy, with alternating crises and (usually inadequate) reforms.

The financial crisis of 2007-2009 launched a fundamental questioning of the economy and an exploration of alternatives that would be more responsible (see for instance Stiglitz et al. 2009) looking for indicators beyond GDP. The growth paradigm itself is being called into question. Unfortunately the financial sector has gone back to business as usual, with speculation-driven instability and a bubble of derivatives and other financial products that could easily burst again. Meanwhile the high level of government borrowing and increasing risks of default mean that economic intervention of the scale of the last few years is no longer possible, and a loss of confidence in governments' abilities to repay their debts would bring down the world economy. When the economy does not grow fast enough to pay back principle and interest, default and/or inflation are inevitable. This becomes an additional incentive for responsible living that is community-centred, locally-sourced, and moderate in its requirements.

Regionally and internationally, the debate on the future of sustainability is now focusing on preparations for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio2012) in 2012. The conference theme of the Green Economy is particularly relevant to responsible living, and UNEP has just released a report on this topic (UNEP, 2011). The required changes in energy sources and resource supplies mean transforming many industries and fundamentally altering consumption patterns. These top-down drivers will complement and reinforce educational activities at the local level, and the international events around the conference in 2012 will themselves provide a good opportunity for public education on environment and sustainability.

The second theme on institutional arrangement for sustainable development and international environmental governance should also lead to institutional innovations that will encourage and facilitate greater responsibility and national and local levels. Civil society input has highlighted the ethical importance of recognizing the primacy of the oneness of humanity as the foundation for a more sustainable society. Since humanity is one, each person is born into the world as a trust of the whole, and each bears a responsibility for the welfare of all humanity. This collective trusteeship constitutes the moral foundation of human rights and of responsible living. International and national measures should ultimately empower each individual and each community to contribute to the general welfare. Human diversity is a source of collective capacity, creativity, productivity, resilience and adaptation, and is vital to our social and economic development, prosperity and well-being (Advisory Group, 2011).

The discussions at the United Nations on Sustainable Consumption and Production (SCP) are also highly relevant. A 10-Year Framework of Programmes on SCP is being considered by the UN Commission on Sustainable Development in May 2011 ( Many national and regional programmes being proposed within this framework will encourage economic transformation and support local initiatives for responsible living. The process has also stimulated deeper reflections on visions of development, the roots of the crisis in the present economic system, and the need for cultural transformation, as illustrated by the statement on "Rethinking Prosperity: Forging Alternatives to a Culture of Consumerism" (BIC, 2010) contributed to CSD 18.


While lifestyles are ultimately the responsibility of each individual and family on this planet, responsible living is not something that can be achieved in isolation. The major focus for empowerment and support should be at the neighbourhood and community levels where social processes operate most directly and powerfully. However, accelerating processes of disintegration of old economic frameworks and certainties, and innovations in new approaches, are rapidly transforming the context to which individual lifestyles must respond. Education for responsible living must therefore be dynamic and adaptive.

The growing awareness of the need to recognize the oneness of humanity as the broadest framework for responsibility is stimulating a reexamination of preconceptions and certitudes about individual and collective purposes. Linking the scientific arguments for sustainability and ethical perspectives on responsibility, and relating local efforts to the international debates on these issues, will help everyone to think deeply about what is meant by responsible living.


(links accessed 28 February 2011)

Advisory Group. 2011. Civil Society and International Environmental Governance. Information document from the UNEP Major Groups and Stakeholders Advisory Group on International Environmental Governance to the UNEP Governing Council, February 2011. UNEP/GC.26/INF/19.

Bahá'í International Community. 2009. Bahá'í International Community's Seven Year Plan of Action on Climate Change, presented at the Windsor Celebration of religious action plans on climate change, 3 November 2009.

Bahá'í International Community. 2010. Rethinking Prosperity: Forging Alternatives to a Culture of Consumerism. Bahá'í International Community's Contribution to the 18th Session of the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development, New York, 3 May 2010.

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Dahl, Arthur Lyon. 2006. Scientific Foundations for Commitment and Consistency, p. 220-224. In Dag Tangen and Victoria W. Thoresen (eds.), Catalyzing Change. Proceedings of the Third International Conference of The Consumer Citizenship Network, Hamar (Norway) 2006. Hogskolen i Hedmark, Oppdragsrapport nr. 4 - 2007.

Stiglitz, Joseph E., Amartya Sen and Jean-Paul Fitoussi. 2009. Report by the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress.

United Nations Environment Programme. 2011. Towards a Green Economy: Pathways to Sustainable Development and Poverty Eradication.

Universal House of Justice. 2005. One Common Faith. Wilmette, Bahá'í Publishing Trust.

Last updated 20 March 2011