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The low carbon commute: Rethinking the habits that connect home and work in Auckland and London through John Dewey’s pragmatism

DOODY, BRENDAN,JAMES (2015) The low carbon commute: Rethinking the habits that connect home and work in Auckland and London through John Dewey’s pragmatism. Doctoral thesis, Durham University.

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Neoliberalism has fundamentally altered how diverse sectors such as energy, health, and transport have come to be understood and governed. In exercising their ‘freedom of choice’ individual consumers are now held responsible for the social or environmental consequences of their decisions and actions. States have accordingly sought to intervene, influence and change the choices of citizens in a variety of spheres of everyday life. This thesis, by exploring how they understand action, demonstrates why these interventions are severely limited. It examines different approaches which have or could inform such interventions and how they theorise, research, and propose to, govern citizen’s actions. Of those considered, it argues John Dewey’s pragmatist writings, especially on habit and experience, by providing a dynamic understanding of how action continually emerges out of an individual’s interactions with their social and physical environments are particularly pertinent.

The relevance of this approach for contemporary sustainability and climate change debates is demonstrated through a focus on commuting, which has become a central concern of various behaviour change agendas. The thesis draws on a range of empirical materials generated and collected through interviews, go-alongs and ethnography during fieldwork with local and migrant workers in Auckland, New Zealand and London, United Kingdom. The methodology aimed to produce a range of data on the stable and dynamic aspects of the internal and external environments, and phases, of action. These empirical materials are employed to demonstrate both the limitations of the dominant psychological and economic behavioural models and the potential of a Deweyan-inspired approach for understanding action.

The thesis is structured around three associated interventions. First, the soft or libertarian paternalist concept of ‘choice architecture’ is explored. This approach it is suggested is limited in that it fails to problematize and politicise the notion of choice or account for the emergence of purposive and meaningful action. The notion of ‘habit infrastructures’ is introduced as a way of recognising how subjectivities and preferences are always conditioned but not determined by the histories and politics of physical environments and established social norms, values and ideologies, as individuals always retain the capacity to act upon the world.

Second, the notion that various ‘barriers’ prevent individuals from making more sustainable choices is critiqued. The concept is too static, fixed, ahistorical and individualistic to account for the complexities of action and social change. It is demonstrated that such a framing offers little insight into why the number of year round cyclists is increasing in Auckland and London, and how regular commuter cyclists anticipate, experience, and negotiate changing weather conditions alongside a range of other everyday routines and practices. Dewey’s theory of situations is instead shown to provide a way of understanding the continuous and contingent contexts in which these experiences unfold and associated habits emerge.

Third, dominant behavioural models typically conceptualise habit and thought as polar opposites. Following Dewey the thesis argues they are better understood as phases within human experience. This argument is developed by exploring how people’s commuting practices emerge out of repeated encounters with particular environments. The transition from the unfamiliar to familiar is marked by a development of new habits which alter people’s sense and experience of these environments and allow them to negotiate and adjust to changes in these contexts often with little or no thought. Dewey thus can provide a useful starting point for rethinking the relationship between habit and thought in future interventions.

Given the social, economic and political uncertainties it is unlikely that existing urban infrastructures and systems will be radically reconfigured in the near future. Even if they were, history reminds us technology without accompanying social change will not be sufficient to address crises such as climate change. Behaviour change interventions, therefore, will likely remain a primary policy response to the challenges posed by increasing carbon emissions, resource consumption and demand. This thesis contends such interventions need to move beyond existing dominant behavioural models if they are to facilitate change. John Dewey, with his tenacious insistence on the situated, relational, more-than-individual and emergent character of action, provides an alternative approach which helps to reveal both the challenges and possible openings for developing a less carbon and resource intensive world.

Item Type:Thesis (Doctoral)
Award:Doctor of Philosophy
Keywords:action, Auckland, behaviour change, climate change, commuting, experience, John Dewey, habits, London, mobility studies, nudge theory, pragmatism, theories of practice, transport geography
Faculty and Department:Faculty of Social Sciences and Health > Geography, Department of
Thesis Date:2015
Copyright:Copyright of this thesis is held by the author
Deposited On:26 May 2016 11:24

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