Will the Covid-19 pandemic permanently change our lifestyles?

Post-viral world: Can there be hope for more sustainable lifestyles?


The measures taken to combat the Covid-19 pandemic are disrupting our daily lives. Many see this as an opportunity to initiate more sustainable behaviours, and even hope that this experience of imposed sobriety will be transformed into a real awareness in favour of more environmentally virtuous lifestyles. However, this hope must be put into perspective: our lifestyles are determined by a set of factors, many of which have not been erased by health measures, which explains why certain aspects of these measures are experienced as a constraint. The long-term impact of the health and socio-economic crisis thus depends on how it will change the framework that structures our lifestyles. Public action has a key role to play in this process, which needs to be re-examined. An analysis by Laura Brimont and Mathieu Saujot of IDDRI.

Changing lifestyles means changing the frame of reference.

A lifestyle can be considered a social frame of referenceThis is the case in the United States, where there is latitude of choice for individuals, who deploy a particular lifestyle, according to their habits, values, budget, etc., and where they can choose their own way of life. Lifestyle is therefore the result of a set of determinants that are the responsibility of the individual (his or her tastes or budgetary constraints, for example), but also and above all of his or her economic, social and material environment (social norms, regulations or infrastructures, for example). These collective determinants strongly condition our behaviour. Thus, barrier measures such as not shaking hands or not kissing were difficult to implement at the beginning of the pandemic, as they ran counter to well-established social practices. Similarly, applying social distancing or containment measures was impossible for workers without an adjustment of their working conditions (adaptation of premises, prescription of teleworking, etc.) and/or the implementation of measures to compensate for the loss of income related to the cessation of activity.

Changing lifestyles requires changing the architecture of the determinants of choices, and thus changing the environment in which individuals live. The more unfavourable the environment is for the adoption of a behaviour, the more constraint will be needed to make people adopt that behaviour, at a high political cost. It is indeed by gradually changing the frameworks that the constraint on behaviour will be lessened. In a different register of crisis, the Yellow Vests movement has shown that in a context where there are no real alternatives to the car for getting around in many territories, increasing the price of fuel induces a strong budgetary constraint for households, difficult to justify politically and not very effective. The possibility that the current pandemic will transform our lifestyles in a sustainable way must therefore be considered cautiously and will depend on how it will change the architecture of our lifestyle choices: what will be the impact on our collective representations of the common good and our collective preferences? On our ability to choose where we live? Which economic sectors and therefore which jobs will remain? Will it trigger a frenzy of consumption after confinement, in the direction of the rebound effect announced by some?

What role for the public authorities?

In the name of health protection, the government has taken measures that have a significant impact on our lifestyles (freedom of movement, consumption, work). This broadening of the scope of action of the public authorities is giving rise to a debate on the issue of respect for individual freedom and calls for vigilance. It also asks what is legitimate and acceptable public action: under what conditions can it be legitimate and on what terms? In the name of what values and imperatives? The measures taken in the name of the health crisis are for the moment relatively well tolerated by the population, since they are temporary.

Nevertheless, in the context of climate change and ecological transition, the measures to be taken and transformations to be implementedThese will, of course, be different in nature and scope and will be of a long-term nature. Would it not be better to debate them today in order to choose them democratically rather than have them imposed on us in the urgency of future crises?

This reflection on the role of public authorities must take into account all the actors in social life. Indeed, while public authorities are an important actor in defining the framework of our lifestyles, they are not alone. Lifestyles are in fact driven by a heterogeneous set of actors (companies, media - social or not -, citizen movements, artists, financial actors, etc.), of which the public authority is only one of the protagonists. In the medium term, the main challenge for the public authorities will be to organise the debate between these different actors in order to build the transition towards sustainable lifestyles. And while we generally find it difficult to debate this rapidly conflicting and divisive subject, the crisis may provide us with an opportunity to do so more calmly.

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Democratic debate with citizens is also necessary. On the one hand, because the definition of a sustainable way of life is a political choice, made up of trade-offs between different societal aspirations. Indeed, there is no such thing as a sustainable lifestyle, but sustainable lifestyles, depending on which dimension of sustainability is favoured. Some of these dimensions reveal incompatibilities and require trade-offs in terms of priorities (for example, the nutritional recommendation to increase fish consumption is in contradiction with the environmental objective of preserving fish stocks), as well as trade-offs between different objectives (for example, between that of better rewarding farmers and that of controlling the increase in household food budgets). On the other hand, beyond an average vision, there is in fact a diversity of real lifestyles, depending on individual preferences and specific constraints. The transition towards more sustainable lifestyles can therefore have very different meanings depending on each individual's situation. These reflections cannot be carried out at the individual level alone (changing my consumption, my lifestyle): like us, we have to take into account the different needs of each individual. wrote it in a previous blog post.To reinvent our consumption in the direction of greater sustainability and prosperity requires a new pact, including a change of lifestyle, democratic renewal and reflection on the quality of the jobs created by our economies. This reflection, initiated by thinkers such as Tim Jackson in the midst of the 2009 crisis is more topical than ever, and the work of the Citizens' Climate Convention is an excellent illustration of one way of conducting it.

Laura Brimont, Coordinator Lifestyles in Transition Iddri

and Mathieu Saujot, Senior Researcher Lifestyles in Transition Iddri

To go further :

  • 24/04/2020 from 2:30 to 4:00 p.m. Covid-19 crisis and European Green Pact - In English without translation
    What is the impact of the Covid-19 crisis on the European economy, on the agenda of the European Green Pact and on the continent's climate ambition? What is the role of the EU and the Member States in combining ecological transition policies and recovery of the European economy? How to make the Green Pact a key element in the reconstruction of European economies? With : Matthias BuckDirector, European Energy Policy, Agora Energiewende (Berlin), Lara LazaroSenior Analyst, Real Instituto Elcano (Madrid), and Xavier TimbeauSenior Director, Observatoire français des conjonctures économiques (OFCE, Paris). Moderated by Sebastien TreyerDirector of IDDRI. Register on Zoom
    If you can't access Zoom, this event will also be available in livestream on the event page and on YouTube.
  • 30/04/2020 What post-Covid-19 agenda for climate and biodiversity? An event with a high level panel, co-organized with the Canadian Embassy in France. 

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