Sufficiency in The Time of War Ecology: Individual behaviors and collective dimensions of the transition
21x29,7cm - 91 pages Issue #2, September 2022
War Ecology: A New Paradigm
In an article published on 18 March 18 2022, which has since been widely cited and commented on, Pierre Charbonnier coined the notion of “war ecology”, which “in the context of a military aggression led by an oil state against one of its neighbors for the purpose of imperial consolidation, [consists] in seeing in the turn towards energy sufficiency’a peaceful weapon of resilience and autonomy”. This “war ecology” is presented as a “new strategic and political matrix”, which transforms the reduction of fossil fuel energy consumption — an action that favors the decrease of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) — into an economic weapon to weaken the military potential of the enemy 1 .
In his text, Pierre Charbonnier suggests a continuum between traditional war economics and “war ecology”. The former makes economic sanctions an instrument for coercing and weakening the enemy’s military potential. The latter constructs a new narrative where geostrategic control of resources and climate policies converge towards sufficiency.
It is then possible to imagine that, in rather unexpected ways, the war could lead to what scientific warnings, diplomatic negotiations, and growing public concern about a changing climate have not managed to achieve: to commit European states to an energy transition that fully integrates a sustainable reduction in consumption, meaning, in fine, sufficiency. If economic sanctions aim to undermine the adversary’s “war machine”, in the case of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, they also imply a hasty end to dependence on Russian gas and oil and therefore require Europeans to reorient their energy policies. In the absence of immediate alternatives, this means reducing demand in order to respond to the risks of shortages.
The forced conversion to sufficiency was asked of the French people by encouraging “small gestures” with the goal of “economic and social resilience” in a context of rising energy, fuel, and wheat prices which directly threaten their purchasing power 2 . This has been taken up at the highest level of the state. Consequently, on March 7, 2022, on the morning show of a 24-hour news channel, the Minister of the Economy, Bruno Le Maire, asked the French 3 to reduce their energy consumption. The same day, the former president of the Republic, François Hollande, wrote in the newspaper Le Monde,
“It will be unavoidable to ask the French to reduce their heating next winter. (…) I am convinced that our compatriots, aware of the threat that Russia poses to peace, and anxious to extend a gesture of friendship to the Ukrainian people whose suffering is heartbreaking, would be ready to make this sacrifice 4 .”
These words confirm the shift from the transformation of collective lifestyles to the change of individual behavior. This shift towards the individual, which takes place through rhetoric that employs moral arguments, is neutral neither from the point of view of energy transition policies — and beyond that, climate policies — nor of the equitable distribution of the efforts and costs of transition.
This “war ecology” is certainly not limited to individual action. It nevertheless raises questions about the interaction between the individual and collective dimensions of climate action and the political nature of the moral argument.
Energy transition, the move away from fossil fuels, and sufficiency
Current trajectories to mitigate human-induced climate change are too slow to reach “net zero” by 2050 and contain warming to within 1.5°C or even 2°C. Despite progress, reductions in GHG emissions are on a path that takes us well beyond Paris Agreement targets. Even nationally determined contributions before COP26 will not limit warming to 1.5°C. In order to avoid exceeding 2°C, global emissions would have to decrease immediately and be reduced by a quarter by 2030, whereas they have continued to increase — albeit at a slower pace — over the past decade.
The energy sector accounts for about one third of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, particularly for private electricity and heating needs. In addition to the extraction/production of raw materials and their transformation, all sectors that emit GHGs (agriculture and land use, industry, buildings, transport) consume energy. The energy transition — meaning the transition from high-carbon energy to zero or low-carbon energy — is therefore a major lever for reducing emissions.
This transition cannot be achieved without a substantial reduction in the use of fossil fuels. All scenarios consistent with achieving climate goals involve “phasing out fossil fuels” for climate reasons. For example, the IPCC indicates that emissions from current fossil fuel infrastructure alone would hit the residual carbon budget for 1.5°C, if used throughout their normal lifetimes. This will therefore require a complete halt to coal use as well as reducing oil use by 60% and natural gas use by 70% by 2050 compared to 2019 levels. Electricity will also have to be almost entirely decarbonized.
At the same time, among the possible mitigation measures, the IPCC has examined the “demand” (consumption) of goods and services that emit GHGs. A “low” demand makes it possible to consider emissions reductions of 40% to 70% in 2050 without reducing human well-being or a decent standard of living 5 . This idea is summarized in the definition of “sufficiency” that the IPCC included in the 3rd part of its 6th assessment report and its summary for decision-makers, despite reluctance 6 .
“Sufficiency policies are a set of measures and daily practices that avoid demand for energy , materials, land and water while delivering human wellbeing for all within planetary boundaries.”
While efficiency allows for the reduction of emissions through improvements in technology and equipment, sufficiency is about long-term actions driven by non technological solutions, which consume less energy in absolute terms.
From the collective to the individual: politicizing “war ecology”
Whether the “voluntary regulation of industrial and domestic consumption patterns” for the purpose of energy sufficiency is done in the name of mitigation (climatic reason), sovereignty (economic reason) or war (geostrategic reason) is of little importance if we consider that the result outweighs the grounds for justification. The narrative conveyed by “war ecology” is nevertheless remarkable in that it immediately shifts from collective — and beyond that, political and international — action to the individual imperative, or, more precisely, to the individual gesture as an instrument of collective resilience.
The call for sufficiency through “small individual gestures” is certainly not new. In December 1973, in response to the oil crisis, Georges Pompidou was already declaring:
“I and we appeal above all to that virtue, which is said to be a fundamental one in the French people, which is the spirit of thrift. Let us conserve gasoline, let us conserve electricity, let us conserve heating.”
In 2022, sufficiency is based on geostrategic (and not simply economic) reasons. Above all, it is not a question of a temporary or isolated reduction in consumption. This “war ecology” requires a rapid revision of European energy policies in which sufficiency is structural and sustainable and no longer merely situational and reversible. Low demand is all the more necessary as it coincides with a structural increase in fossil fuel prices and the upward revision of the European Union’s climate objectives.
Moreover, the shift from the collective to the individual for the purposes of social (and economic) resilience is not specific to the energy issue either. We have been seeing this shift for nearly three decades in the field of so-called “natural” disaster risk reduction and in development and adaptation to climate change, coinciding with the progressive adoption of the “resilience” paradigm.
Resilience was first introduced in the social sciences to explain the necessity of reinforcing the power (empowerment) of individuals and local communities considered “vulnerable” in order to increase their ability to cope. However, the consensus around the need for empowerment was thrown into disarray when it came to defining its operational levers. M.-H. Bacqué and C. Biewener 7 have identified several socio-political uses of empowerment, which today intersect with the different interpretations (and therefore implementation) of resilience. They can be classified with reference to “ideal types” 8 (« idéaltypes » in French, methodological tool defined by Max Weber), i.e. abstract and inevitably simplifying categories, which are not always perfectly in line with what we observe, but which give a sufficiently satisfactory account of it: the so-called radical, (socio-)liberal and neo-liberal uses, with regard to the political and ideological references mobilized.
The radical approach situates the individual within collective dimensions and situates agency (meaning the ability to act, influence, transform) and empowerment on the side of reducing inequalities. This approach makes power asymmetries the root of stigmatization and exclusion, which deprive the dominated individuals of resources, rights of access and use, power, and voice, and therefore prevent them from exercising their freedom and their capacity for choice and action. This approach connects — to the point of equating them — power, inequality, redistribution, and justice. It situates the root causes of vulnerability and, beyond that, of limited capacity for action, adaptation, and resilience in the inherited and current social, economic, and political structures. Insecurity, poverty, underdevelopment, inequalities of all kinds, which impede freedom of choice and limit the potential for action, can only be reduced through a plan for “radical” transformation of the established order, which can go as far as challenging the capitalist system.
In contrast, the liberal 9 (in the French sense of this word) approach focuses on individual freedoms, considering them to be the means of increasing well-being, development, reducing vulnerability and/or increasing resilience. For socio-liberals, the defense of these freedoms is linked to collective dimensions. Empowerment is therefore positioned at the community (and not individual) level. Contrary to the radical approach, it is not about changing social structures, but about accompanying individuals and groups so that they can negotiate with the dominant powers as well as possible, in order to increase their access to resources. While the role of socio-economic and political conditions of power is not denied, there is no structural questioning of social inequalities. For neo-liberals (in the French sense of this word), on the other hand, empowerment is purely individual. Resilience is rooted in the development of personal skills, through commitment, self-determination (freedom of choice), taking responsibility and self-organization of individuals. Inequalities are only taken into account when they limit access to opportunities. It is not a question of emancipation or justice as such, but of “managing inequalities” to allow everyone to fully exercise their freedom of choice and action.
The balance between individual and collective actions, freedom, and equality consequently reveals ideological substrates. Sufficiency viewed through the lens of the “small gesture” seems here to be yet another incarnation of “liberal environmentalism” which makes the individual responsible for the resilience of the collective and for better social adaptation.
From collective constraint to individual moral obligation
This ideological substrate is masked in part by the register of legitimization used. Assimilating individual acts of sufficiency with civic acts, solidarity, and patriotism represents, in a more or less conscious way, a moral injunction. By placing the suffering and sacrifice of the Ukrainian people on the same level as lowering the heating “just one degree”, the political discourse, adopted by the media, creates an implicitly guilt-inducing narrative which shifts the focus from constraint (I am doing this because I have no choice) to obligation (I am acting freely and by conviction). This shift is a response to the need to increase “acceptability”.
Indeed, the end of fossil fuels entails significant transition costs. Energy savings will have systemic impacts on the energy economy, and beyond that on all stakeholders, with vulnerability proportional to dependence on these raw materials. The possible regressive consequences will be all the more pronounced as households, socio-economic actors, productive sectors, and territories are already weakened by past and current crises, regardless of the transition’s many benefits in terms of health, quality of life, pollution reduction, biodiversity, etc. The question then arises of the fair distribution of efforts and support.
If collective constraint gives rise to resistance, moral obligation compels individuals to internalize this constraint so that they voluntarily adhere to it and accept its costs. The problem is that this injunction masks the unequal distribution of emissions, the current and inherited responsibilities of climate inaction, and the structural levers of transition, which go well beyond individual action. In particular, it makes invisible situations of energy insecurity, i.e., situations of forced sufficiency.
According to the French Environment and Energy Management Agency (ADEME), “a person is in a situation of energy insecurity when he or she has particular difficulties in obtaining the energy supply necessary to satisfy his or her basic needs due to the inadequacy of his or her resources or housing conditions”. 20% of French households say they suffered from cold for at least 24 hours during the winter of 2020-2021 and 10.5% of French people, or three million households, spent more than 8% of their income on their home’s energy bill, even though they are among the most modest incomes 10 . Added to this are other indicators (summertime discomfort, mobility expenses, health, etc.) which confirm that energy precariousness is likely to increase as energy costs rise.
At the same time, the inequality of emissions within a country is very high. According to the IPCC, in 2019, consumption by the 50% of households with the lowest incomes accounted for only 13-15% of global GHG emissions, while the 40% with middle incomes accounted for 40-53%, and the top 10% for 34-45%. Nearly half of all emissions are due to 1/10th of the world’s population, and only 1/100th of the population (77 million people) are responsible for 50% more emissions than the bottom half of the population (3.8 billion people). In France, the poorest 50% would have to reduce their carbon footprint by 4% compared to 81% for the richest 10% 11 12 .
In other words, those with the highest incomes have, on average, the highest levels of emissions — and therefore the greatest potential for reduction, as investors, consumers, influencers or professionals. At the same time, economic constraint (higher cost of heating and electricity for households) has little impact on their purchasing power, and thus, little effect on curbing their demand.
It is important to remember that above all, it is the energy planning choices of the last thirty years in France and Europe that have created dependence on Russian hydrocarbons. The cumulative delays in phasing out fossil fuels have sustained a non-decarbonized mix, which today poses a major risk to energy supply and thus to meeting demand. The IPCC points out that currently, worldwide, subsidies for fossil fuels are about twice as high as subsidies for renewable energies. Valérie Masson-Delmotte, co-chair of Working Group 1 of the IPCC, points out the “lack of responsibility for emissions from international maritime and air transport, with a lack of targets and implementation mechanisms”.
Consequently, the injunction towards sufficiency, which redefines the desirable in the name of morality in order to make sufficiency acceptable, is nothing more than a transfer of the costs of climate inaction and past socio-technical choices to individuals, without taking into account the equitable distribution of efforts, and thus the fairness of the transition. To paraphrase R. Felli 13 , in the name of collective resilience, embodied in the ideals of the nation, of Europe, of the democratic camp, individuals are called upon to accept the effort to be made and to “re-internalize the responsibility for their own situation”, rather than placing it on “the world around them and the social relationships in which they are caught”, in other words, on the structural causes of climate inaction and of the accumulated delay in energy transition policies.
Overcoming collective opposition vs. individual: a reading through the lens of capabilities
If individual behavioral changes are an essential lever for mitigation, they must be agreed to by individuals and each individual must have the resources (internal and external), means, and opportunities to go from the desire to change to real change. This link between individual action and collective structures to make change possible and effective was developed, in particular by A. Sen 14 and M. Nussbaum 15 , and is known as the “capability” approach.
The term “capability” is used in the social sciences to describe the conditions and mechanisms that allow an individual to choose, to be, and to accomplish what he or she considers desirable. In engineering science, the term refers to the ability of a machine or process to produce a desired performance; it describes the gap between desired and actual performance. Likewise, the capability of an individual allows us to understand the difference between what the individual wishes to be or to accomplish, and his actual possibilities of being or acting. An individual’s capability is not just his capacity to act, but his capacity to convert his skills, his resources, what he is endowed with, into the freedom to choose and to do. To put it simply, it is his capacity to be capable.
“Capability” is at times descriptive (for example, according to Éric Monnet 16 “poverty is a deprivation of basic capabilities”), and at times normative, when, according to A. Sen, the equality of basic capabilities becomes the “new foundation for principles of equality and justice”. In any case, it allows individual action to be reintegrated into its collective dimensions, without denying the individual’s freedom of self-determination and commitment.
The capability approach begins with an empirical observation. Individuals do not have the same degree of freedom when it comes to determining the life they want to lead and actually fulfilling who they want to be and what they want to do. The same act, the same behavior, the same decision, can be chosen or imposed, because individuals do not have equal freedom to decide, to act and to realize their wishes. The true possibilities for action — and a fortiori for choice — result from the singular combination of resources that can be mobilized, both internal (qualities, skills) and external (means, capital), and the favorable conditions (social, legal, economic, political) for achieving them.
The freedom and capacity to convert what we want into real action depends on who we are (individual characteristics, such as age, gender, health status), the resources we have at our disposal (e.g., economic, social, family and cultural capital) and the socio-political contexts in which we develop. While it has been established that the inequalities that arise from who we are restrict the range of possibilities (options and opportunities), equality of means is not enough for everyone to be free to be and to act according to his or her desires. Two people may have equal access to similar resources (economic, familial, socio-cultural) that will allow them to compensate for the disparities linked to their individual characteristics. But even so, they will not have the same capabilities depending on the society in which they live. For example, their aspirations will be shaped by social interactions that will influence their values, i.e. what they consider desirable and feasible. Social organizations will guarantee (or not) their right to access and use certain resources which may (or may not) give them the opportunity to do so. The absence of economic opportunities, the shortcomings of the authorities or of public services in health, education and transport, discrimination and corruption are all collective dimensions that reduce the capabilities of people.
Applied to wartime ecology, the capability approach brings to light the conditions of implementation, of acceptability, as well as of obstacles to sufficiency. The difference between precariousness, forced reduction of consumption and freely consented “low demand” corresponds to unequal capabilities. In the first two cases, sufficiency is imposed, in the third, it is chosen and effectively implemented.
To avoid the French”yellow vest” effect, it is necessary to identify the factors that will make sufficiency not only “desirable” but convert it into action. In the case of the “yellow vests”, the uniform application of the carbon tax did not take into account the unequal capabilities of households. Beyond individual dimensions (values, level of trust in institutions, sense of economic decline), place of residence played a fundamental role. Increased travel speed has allowed for the disconnect between places of residence and work which has created dependency on the private car. This dependency has been compounded by the absence of policies to expand public transport and to invest in railways and low-carbon alternatives to gasoline and diesel. The cost of property in the cities, combined with the ideal of the single-family home, has fueled urban and suburban sprawl which further increases dependence on private cars because of the distances involved in accessing jobs and services, even as access to public services, shops, and leisure and social spaces has been reduced in some areas. With no alternatives to the private car, households in suburban and rural areas had no choice but to bear the increase in fuel prices caused by the carbon tax.
The shift away from fossil fuels and the control of energy demand can only be accepted if all dimensions, both individual and collective, which allow the need to reduce consumption to be converted into desirable and effective sufficiency, and therefore to increase capabilities, are taken into account. Sufficiency must be chosen and not imposed, or even simply “accepted”, otherwise there is a risk of a massive rebound effect if constraints are relaxed. In order to achieve this we must propose a new narrative that makes sufficiency desirable (action on values), by moving away from the moral injunction and no longer associating it with a “punitive ecology”. The decrease in individual consumption must be supported by structural changes in all emitting sectors, with simultaneous actions to increase efficiency and the availability of low or zero-carbon alternatives. Equitable socio-economic assistance to stakeholders, particularly in terms of support for purchasing power, employment and displaced workers, is essential. As the IPCC reminds us, “all low demand scenarios combine socio-cultural, infrastructural and technological changes”. Sufficiency is always combined with other emission reduction levers (rapid deployment of renewables, capture, electrification, reuse and recycling, etc.), which will increase individual capabilities, and thus the shift from willingness to change to real change.
It is scientifically established that the further we go from +1.5°C of warming, the further ecosystems will be pushed to the limit of their adaptive capacities, with retroactive negative effects on human beings. It is also scientifically established that the level of warming is a “hard limit” to the adaptation of human societies with societal tipping points, at least at local levels. Putting the 1.5° threshold on the climate agenda is “to acknowledge the fact that the collective objective is not only to avoid an ungovernable climate, but to avoid impacts on the most vulnerable ecosystems and populations” 17 , or, to put it another way, to refuse to allow certain territories to become uninhabitable and their populations to be, at best, displaced, at worst, sacrificed. Morality and ethics are thus inseparable from geopolitical and scientific considerations. It is not, however, in this perspective that the moral register is invoked by “wartime ecology”.
The last point is not just an opportunistic narrative of energy sufficiency, which makes climate action dependent on the war effort to make it more acceptable. Moderation of demand is a reactive adjustment to rising prices as well as the risks of shortages and their ensuing consequences — i.e., in fine, to the probable increase in fuel poverty among households. It is also a reactive adjustment to the major disruptions for economic sectors (agriculture, industry, construction) already weakened by the Covid crisis with, once again, multiple, retroactive adverse effects. If there is a moral responsibility, it must be looked for not so much in the refusal of the “ecological gesture of solidarity” as in the incapacity of Europeans to engage in a truly transformational adaptation to the phasing out of fossil fuels. Forced sufficiency is first and foremost the result of collective political choices which, despite scientific — but also economic and geopolitical — warnings, have had as a consequence the weakening of the geopolitical, energetic, and economic sovereignty of European democracies by locking in GHG emissions on a long-term basis.
By untangling the complexities of the individual, social, and macro-structural dimensions of the climate transition, the filter of capability allows us to move beyond sterile opposition between the individual and the collective. Whether for geostrategic or climatic reasons, the end of dependence on fossil fuels requires international, European, and national policies as well as corporate strategies that go well beyond everyday behavior.
The climate transition and the inevitable transition away from fossil fuels would therefore benefit from being based on extending capabilities which would make sufficiency a choice, and therefore acceptable, regardless of the individual effort that inaction necessarily increases. The latest report by France Stratégie stresses the fact that “basing a narrative of sustainability on the idea that ‘there is no possible alternative’ would be detrimental”, because it would feed “the feeling of disenchantment, of democratic impotence” and “citizen disengagement”. Without anticipation and preparation, our governments are doomed to be in constant retreat from crises, which only highlight existing vulnerabilities, while at the same time aggravating them. Climate inaction structurally and sustainably reduces capabilities. The impacts of a changing climate and the delay in implementing mitigation — and now adaptation — policies are continually reducing collective room for maneuver and with it, the room for individual freedom, and therefore their capabilities, at the risk of permanently undermining our democracies and the fulfillment of climate objectives.
- Pierre Charbonnier, La naissance de l’écologie de guerre, le Grand Continent, March 2022.
- See the speech by the Prime Minister, Jean Castex, on 16 May 2022.
- “We will all have to make an effort to build our total energy independence and be much less dependent on fossil fuels”.
- François Hollande, “Pour arrêter Vladimir Poutine, arrêtons de lui acheter du gaz”, le Monde, March 2022.
- IPCC, Climate Change 2022: Mitigation of Climate Change, 4 April 2022.
- Cyril Smit, Interview with Yamina Saheb (GIEC) : “Il y a eu quelques réticences pour mettre le terme de sobriété dans le dernier rapport”., Agir pour le climat, May 2022.
- Bacqué, M. & Biewener, C. (2013). L’empowerment, un nouveau vocabulaire pourparler de participation ?. Idées économiques et sociales, 173, 25-32.
- “Idéaltypes” in French, methodological tool defined by Max Weber.
- In the French sense of this word.
- Energy Poverty monitored by ONPE within ADEME, 29 March 2022.
- See Lucas Chancel, Qui pollue vraiment ? 10 points sur les inégalités et la politique climatique, le Grand Continent, 8 June 2022.
- Sustainabilities! Coordinate and plan public action, France Stratégie, June 2022 p. 53.
- Felli, R. (2014). Adaptation et résilience: critique de la nouvelle éthique de lapolitique environnementale internationale. Éthique publique. Revue internationale d’éthique sociétale et gouvernementale, 16(1).
- Development as Freedom, Amartya Sen, 1999.
- Creating Capabilities The Human Development Approach, Martha C. Nussbaum.
- Éric Monnet, “La théorie des « capabilités » d’Amartya Sen face au problème du relativisme”, Tracés. Revue de Sciences humaines, 2007.
- Christophe Buffet, “1,5 °C, un objectif irréaliste ?”, The Conversation, december 2015.
Magali Reghezza-Zitt, Sufficiency in The Time of War Ecology: Individual behaviors and collective dimensions of the transition, Sep 2022, 65-70.
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