Promoting sustainability and simple living online and off-line: An Australian case study
First Monday

Promoting sustainability and simple living online and off-line: An Australian case study by Helen Merrick



Abstract
The notion of ‘simple living’ and the documenting of more sustainable lifestyles is an increasingly familiar topic of online writing. This paper presents a case study of two online forums focused on simple living, Aussies Living Simply and the Earth Garden Path. Site members were surveyed to examine the impact of the sites on their practice and understandings of sustainability. The study asks how such online communities might support the development of civic and individual action around sustainability, or “green citizenship”.

Contents

Introduction
Sustainability and simple living
Online communities, activism and civic engagement
Method
Case studies: Aussies Living Simply and Earth Garden Path
Discussion: Survey results
Conclusion

 


 

Introduction

Blogs and other sites about ‘green living’ are an increasingly common genre of online writing. The tone of these sites evoke a sense of having returned to the countercultural roots of early Internet culture: Homesteading, back to the land, alternative living, ‘nana–tech’, and simple lifestyles. However it is framed, a whole new generation of bloggers and readers are talking about their efforts to live more simply and sustainably online. In Australia, there are a wealth of online sites concerned with simple and sustainable living; from the numerous blogs charting individual journeys to ‘greener’ lifestyles, such as The Greening of Gavin (www.greeningofgavin.com/) and Down to Earth (down---to---earth.blogspot.com/), to a multitude of resources about organics, gardening, and permaculture. There are also a number of online forums that foster ‘communities of interest’ focused on the practicalities and challenges of living a more simple, sustainable life. Two of the more popular and persistent are the Aussies Living Simply forum (ALS), founded in 2003, and the Earth Garden Path (EGP), founded in 2006. Together, they have a combined membership of over 10,500 and both have grown steadily since their inception. These sites provide a unique source for examining the culture of simple living in Australia, as well as the impact of the Internet on the kinds of communication, information exchange and behaviour change facilitated by such communities. Using ALS and EGP as case studies, this paper explores how such online communities might support the development of civic and individual action around sustainability, or what we could call “green citizenship” [1].

The last decade has seen increasing public awareness of the need for more sustainable lifestyles, signaled by an accompanying groundswell of online sites, blogs and forums devoted to sustainability in some form or other. While many such sites are informational and intended to document individual efforts at living more sustainable lives, other online examples are more directly designed to advocate for sustainability, and utilize social networking to encourage broader participation. Just as you can now easily support any number of protests against various government bills or corporate misdemeanors through a quick click at an online petition, you can also signal your standing on green issues by profiling the right Facebook groups. Whether or not joining groups or ‘liking’ pages has any impact on people’s level of activism around various issues, this utilizing of SNS affords at least the potential for broader reach and provides a useful communication channel for various activist and community groups. It is, however, a more complex matter to consider how the Internet might play a role in encouraging more sustainable lifestyles, which requires not just networking and information sharing, but also behaviour change. In particular, such changes require increased social and individual responsibility, or a growth in civic engagement in sustainability awareness and action.

 

++++++++++

Sustainability and simple living

In Australia, a number of recent examples of SNS–based campaigns, both formal and informal, have attempted to harness social networking facilities and practices to encourage more sustainable behaviour. These initiatives leverage aspects of social networking that build on the visibility of peer behaviour, values and influence, as well as the pressures for reciprocity that are becoming familiar to us as inveterate SNS users. The intent is to encourage and reinforce more sustainable habits, by making visible people’s concern though the sharing of their goals and sustainable ‘good deeds’ online. A good example is One Person Can, which aggregates results from a survey of people’s climate friendly actions (http://onepersoncan.org/). A more targeted campaign is the 1 Million Women project, which not only measures current actions, but require members to make pledges about future behaviour (http://www.1millionwomen.com.au/). This project aims to encourage change in behaviour not just through networking and pledging, but by providing information to aid change, and also a forum for discussing the issues. An older initiative is Days of Change, A Western Australian project which tries to embed online networking within local communities to encourage project–based behaviour change (daysofchange.org and http://www.doyourbit.org/). These sites adopt aspects of social networking to try and encourage by example, and also display a certain measure of ‘gamification’ through the awarding of points or numerical measures of carbon, water, or energy saved (a rather problematic aspect given the often simplistic and overly optimistic calculations used).

Ironically, what most constrains these projects is a failure to embed the social, or sociality, as core to the sites’ functioning: there is very little communication between users going on here, and consequently, very little sense of community. In contrast, a number of sites built on more established forms of online communication suggests that excitement around social networking and its role in citizen engagement should not overshadow older forms (and notions) of online networks.

The Australian online forums ALS and EGP are communities of interest built around the notions of sustainable and simple living. Whilst not as coherent a ‘movement’ as the U.S. Voluntary Simplicity movement (e.g., Grigsby, 2004) simple living in Australia has roots dating back to the alternative lifestyle groups and ‘back to the land’ movements of the 1970s, as well as the founding of the permaculture movement. In general terms a reaction against the environmental and economic costs of hyper–consumption (or ‘affluenza’), simple living is part of the trend identified by Clive Hamilton as ‘downshifting’, and the increasing body of ‘political’ or ‘ethical consumers’ (Hamilton and Mail, 2003; Lewis and Potter, 2011; Lewis, 2008).

Along with Hamilton, Etzioni sees voluntary simplifiers as being the most radical example of downshifters, motivated by “a coherently articulated philosophy” [2]. That is, voluntary simplifiers are not driven solely by personal or economic reasons but typically want to reduce their consumption in order to develop a more environmentally sustainable lifestyle. As Nelson, et al. conclude in their study of a local Freecycle community:

by engaging in alternative forms of consumption while holding antimaterialist and anti–brand–conscious values, by engaging in political consumption, and by participating in civic life, downshifters may ultimately serve as “moral agents” ... who, through their behavior, challenge the hegemonic position of consumer culture from within. [3]

Whilst there is an extensive literature on Voluntary Simplicity particularly in the U.S. (e.g., Gregg, 1936; Elgin, 1981; Pestle, et al., 1982; Johnson, 2004; Sandlin and Walther, 2009; Alexander, 2011b), to date there has been little consideration of voluntary simplifiers online. Mary Grigsby’s book–length study mentions some online simplicity sites as indicative of the growth and spread of the movement, and notes that Internet–based groups and Web sites help construct a sense of “collective identity” for the movement [4]. One study of the homesteading movement by Teresa Housel examines their selective use of certain technologies, including the internet, finding that most participants “generally use the Internet to obtain information about homesteading, communicate with others or counteract isolation from living rurally” including “maintaining or enhancing interpersonal relationships across distances” [5]. Housel concludes that homesteaders selectively use the net to promote various forms of sociability and socialization [6].

 

++++++++++

Online communities, activism and civic engagement

While there may as yet be little research into online manifestations of simple living and political consumption, there is a wealth of material concerning online activism and the ways the net may support political and civic engagement. Since the mid–1990s, researchers have explored the potential of the Internet as a site for extending democracy, allowing counter–cultural expression, and supporting new social movements (see, for example, Tsagarousianou, et al., 1998; Pickerill, 2004; 2000). There is now a significant body of literature concerned with the use of the Internet to support and promote political protest and activism around the environment and sustainability (Neumayer and Raffl, 2008; Pickerill, 2003). So too, numerous studies examine the facility of the Internet in aiding specific local or issues–based campaigns or initiatives (Zhang, et al., 2010; Pasek, et al., 2009; Mesch and Talmud, 2010; Loader and Mercea, 2011; Kann, et al., 2007; Davis, et al., 2002). These studies provide useful examples of the ways online social networks can be used to mobilise and organise offline action and protest.

Investigating the Internet’s role in supporting broader, grassroots engagement and behaviour change, however, is a somewhat different matter; it requires looking to literature on new social movements, community informatics, and online social capital. A number of studies from the area of community informatics consider how the Internet is utilised within communities, albeit usually geographically co–located communities (Schuler, 1996). Many of these studies are concerned with the ways that online social capital may, or may not, translate into off–line social capital and action. Much of the contemporary literature on social capital and online social networks engages with Putnam’s (2000) notions of bridging and bonding capital (see also Norris, 2002). What is most pertinent to this study however, is not so much the classification of network relations or measuring of online social capital, but how these relations and capital flow or manifest off–line, either for individuals or communities. In a survey of literature on ICTs and social movements, for example, Garrett notes that a number of studies confirm that ICTs are ”facilitating the maintenance of geographically dispersed face–to–face networks” and that “even networks affording only weak connections can facilitate collective action” [7].

Most pertinent here is research on the Internet and civic engagement more broadly. Following the growth of SNS, researchers have examined the impact of social network use on general levels of public engagement and participation in various causes and aspects of ‘civic’ life. Opinion remains split between those who discern positive effects from politically orientated social network use, and those who take a more negative view. Some studies argue for the increase of civic engagement or a ‘pro–social’ effect from online actions that promotes off–line engagement (Gil de Zúñiga, et al., 2012; Aaker and Smith, 2010; Shirky, 2008; Bennett, 2008). Others are more cautious, or dismiss socially networked protest as mere ‘slactivism’ or ‘clicktavism’ that may result from weak, ‘bridging’ ties which “can bring a million people to a Facebook page but fail to mobilize a thousand people in the street to actually effect change” [8].

As Gil de Zúñiga, et al. argue, part of the problem is that there “is limited empirical research on the effects of using these services [SNS] on citizens’ political attitudes and civic behaviors” [9]. According to Gil de Zúñiga, et al., a number of studies show that “[p]atterns of media use related to information acquisition (e.g., television news) and community building (e.g., online communities) are positively associated with civic participation, whereas patterns of use related to entertainment and diversion (e.g., reality shows and online movies) have a negative impact on engagement” [10]. Many researchers posit a difference between the Internet’s impact on civic, as opposed to political participation, often concluding that social networks might enhance civic participation, but that this does not develop into, or encourage, political action (Davis, et al., 2002; Gil de Zúñiga, et al., 2012). For example, Zhang, et al. conclude in their study of SNS that “reliance on social networking sites such as YouTube, Facebook, and MySpace was positively related to civic participation but not to political participation or confidence in government” [11].

Also complicating the picture is the inconsistent and rather vague way in which various researchers refer to ‘civic participation’. A more useful term for my purposes is that of “civic engagement”, which can be defined as a process involving “moving an individual away from disinterest, distraction, ignorance, and apathy and towards education, understanding, motivation, and action” [12]. Consideration of how to produce more sustainably responsible citizens, however, calls for a particular type of civic engagement, one that may also extend to political participation when necessary. For as Kann, et al. (2007) argue: “Online activism — indeed, digital democracy — amounts to very little without manifestations of political activism in street demonstrations, polling places, political commissions, and the halls of government.”

 

++++++++++

Method

The case studies consisted of a combination of participant observation, discourse analysis, and qualitative survey. I have been a member of both the EGP and ALS communities since 2006 and have been a regular user of both sites. I am also a long–term reader of Earth Garden, Grass Roots and other similar publications. I was thus already familiar with the organisation, principles, and communicative practices of each of these communities. My ongoing participation in these sites underpins my observations and conclusions drawn from analysis and the survey data.

The survey

An online survey was conducted with members of the two sites. The survey aimed to gauge the impact of online community engagement on individual and civic understanding with regards to sustainable living. It consisted of 40 questions, beginning with demographic information, followed by sections that established participants’ current practices with regards to sustainability, asked about their use of the sites and other sources of information. The final sections asked about the impact of the online communities on individual’s actions regarding sustainability. Most of the questions asked participants to choose the applicable options from a range of choices and also provided opportunity for open–ended comment and additional information. As the survey was designed specifically to examine the use of two particular sites, it was only advertised online to members of the sites. On EGP the survey was listed as a news item, followed up by posts to the forum. On ALS the survey was posted in the forums, as well as on the site admin banner.

The survey sample was 200 in total (11 responses were eliminated as they did not complete the survey) of which 143 were collected from the ALS link and 57 from the EGP link (there is however significant crossover in membership of the two sites — see discussion below). Whilst an acceptable number of respondents this appears a negligible sample size if we consider the registered member base of the two sites. However, the number of active members of the sites is much lower. Administrator Dan Stoll estimates that ALS has 40–50 daily users with another 100 or so participating fortnightly or more (personal correspondance). There were 71 participants who reported visiting ALS daily, with another 53 visiting weekly or more and 32 occasionally or monthly. In terms of posting, 14 were daily posters to ALS, with 47 posting weekly or more, 13 monthly and 49 occasionally. Thus the survey would appear to provide a fair representation of frequent and monthly users and a lesser proportion of occasional users.

 

++++++++++

Case studies: Aussies Living Simply and Earth Garden Path

Aussies Living Simply

ALS is loosely linked to Warm Earth, an organic gardening magazine, but is a free, volunteer–run forum which anyone can join. ALS is the larger and more popular site, partly due to the fact it was established earlier, in 2003. It is also more overtly focussed on ‘simple living’ and frugality rather than sustainability per se. ALS was started by Dan Stoll, an IT consultant. What started out as a reference site and a way of trying to reach others interested in a simpler life became a thriving online community. As Stoll remembers, “being in the IT industry I started a Web site to try and gather information for my own selfish needs. It very quickly grew, as there was no other site like it” [13]. In addition to Stoll’s (unpaid) work, ALS is run with the help of four more voluntary administrators.

ALS has continued to be a popular and growing site, with membership increasing from 6,980 to 8,120 in just over a year (from November 2010 to February 2012). Of course, these numbers are not an accurate indicator of active participants. However, it is certainly an active site, receiving around 4,000 hits per day. Stoll estimates that of regular active members, 40–50 visit on a daily basis, with another few hundred that drop in weekly/fortnightly and perhaps a thousand or so every few months [14].

Earth Garden Path

Earth Garden Path was started as a companion site and online forum for readers of the long–running print magazine, Earth Garden, which has been published since 1972. EGP reflects the magazine’s focus on sustainable living: “It’s about putting a roof over your head, growing your own food organically, aiming for appropriate, renewable home energy systems and surviving — and thriving — in the city or the bush, with the inner changes which follow when you’re in harmony with Nature” [15]. The forum remains very closely tied to the magazine, and is not as large or fast–growing as ALS. Membership stands at over 2,500 (which has grown from 2,306 since the end of 2010). EGP is primarily administered by the Earth Garden editorial manager Fiona Tunnicliff and advertising manager Doug Falconer, thus using paid staff of the magazine, rather than volunteer administrators.

Analysis of the forums

Both ALS and EGP draw on ideas from sustainability, permaculture, self–sufficiency, organic food growing and alternative energy sources to present a holistic approach to living simpler, more sustainable lives. The heart of both sites is the discussion forum, which includes topics on gardening, growing and preserving food, keeping chickens, ideas about solar power, grey water systems, low energy building, low emission vehicles, and so on. Both sites also feature more ‘political’ topics on peak oil, climate change and community activism. EGP has more editorial content, reflecting its role as pat of the Earth Garden publishing family, with news articles on the front page posted by Tunnicliff and also the EG editor, Alan Gray. Generally these news items concern various government initiatives and policies relevant to alternative energies and climate change. In contrast, ALS doesn’t feature ‘official’ news as such apart from topical news items that might be posted on the forums, but does feature links to member’s blogs, as well as news of events from various member groups.

Other similarities and differences between the sites can be gauged by examining the most popular threads and topics in the two forums. It is difficult to perform direct comparisons as the two boards are structured rather differently: ALS has five sections with 30 forums in total, while EGP is much less aggregated, with 70 separate forums organised into 11 sections. Nevertheless there are common themes. Apart from the introduction forums, which are obviously popular in both, the top forums in ALS are: Seed exchange and traders market (17,700 posts); the garden log (members gardens) (10,220); Homemade (preserving, storage, brewing, etc.) (11,150); In the garden (35,990); and This simple life (13,970). The top forums in EGP are: Earth People Write (6,390); Need help with this (10,390); Gardening (11,975); Chooks (4,729); Jokes (3,866); and plant advice (3,740).

There are many static sites online that present similar kinds of information about sustainability, gardening, etc. What makes these sites attractive is the discussion, connection with other members and timeliness of advice offered. Also key is the multi–purpose nature of the sites; it is their particular combination of topics (on gardening, building, energy, livestock, cooking, crafts, shopping, etc.) that make them so attractive to those interested in simple living. Overall these communities serve a number of functions for their members. Most obvious is the sharing of resources, from information to physical items such as seeds and plants which members will send to each other. Education is another key part of the sites, as people ask for help and others talk about their experiences and how they solved specific problems. Not as obvious is the potential role played as a locus of identity formation; that is the sites help construct a notion of what a good ‘simple liver’ or a good gardener looks like, as well as sharing stories of downshifting that helps normalise these lifestyles as something that is both attainable and valued. Finally, the sites serve as an important conduit for communication and community both online and off. Many of the members socialise, share in–jokes and chat on the sites, and also organise face–to–face get togethers in various areas.

 

++++++++++

Discussion: Survey results

The following provides an outline of the survey results most pertinent to the question of online communities and their potential role in encouraging sustainable behaviour change.

Demographics

Respondents to the survey were overwhelmingly female, with only 19 percent of respondents being male. Neither site has the ability to provide clear data on the gender breakdown of members (most members use pseudonymous user names and non–mimetic user icons). Although observation suggests that active female members outnumber male members on the site, it is unlikely to be in such numbers. Presumably the gender and age balance of respondents is more reflective of self–selection bias than representative of the member demographics.

The majority of respondents were over 35, with a significant number aged over 50, which is unusual for a Internet–based survey: most were in the 36–50 year–old and 51–65 year–old brackets (37 percent each); 5.5 percent were 66+, and only 3.5 percent under 25. Confirming earlier studies into the alternative living movement in Australia (Metcalf, 1984; Metcalf and Vanclay, 1985; Vanclay and Metcalf, 1985), as well as more recent studies of voluntary simplicity (Alexander and Ussher, 2012), there was a fairly equal spread of urban and rural respondents.

Sustainable living

The second part of the survey provided a picture of the actions taken by respondents to live more sustainably. As might be expected for mostly active members of sites on simple living, most respondents already put into practice a range of methods to reduce waste, energy use, water use, and to reduce their carbon footprint (see Table 1).

 

Table 1: Sustainable practices.
ActivityPercent
Use energy efficient light bulbs94.0
Installed insulation64.5
Installed solar power39.5
Installed water tanks65.8
Re–use grey water61.3
Harvest rainwater for garden73.4
Compost waste86.6
Use worm farm55.2
Keep poultry75.4
Grow at least some fruit and vegetables97.0
Make own bread63.6
Preserve harvest77.5

 

People identifying with the simple living movement have often been considered to be ‘non–political’; more concerned with individual actions and benefits than working to achieve change on a broader level (Grigsby, 2004; Alexander, 2011a). Thus, the survey asked what actions respondents took outside their own household to try and encourage a more sustainable society. A surprising number of respondents reported significant activity in their community, through organisations like permaculture and other gardening groups, and more generally as volunteers or members of community organisations. Responses indicated not just civic engagement but more active political engagement as well, including belonging to groups such as Greenpeace, lobbying politicians and participating in political actions such as protests. Significantly, given this profile of considerably engaged ‘green citizens’, almost half donated or responded to online activist groups such as Getup (http://www.getup.org.au/; see Table 2).

 

Table 2: Activity in community.
ActivityPercent
Do volunteer work55.6
Belong to local community group45.1
Member of permaculture/seed–saving group40.1
Member of local co–op12.0
Vote/Donate to online groups, such as Getup41.5
Member of Greenpeace, Wilderness Society, etc.35.9
Participate in protest or rallies21.1
Lobby local council26.1
Lobby state/local MPs26.1

 

Similarly, when asked what their main motivation was in trying to live more sustainably, the top response was environmental concern (90.5 percent), closely followed by living a simpler life, being self–reliant and living a healthier life.

Sources of information

The survey asked a number of questions about where respondents sourced their information about sustainable living, both online and off. Participants reported using a wide range of sources about sustainability, simple living and gardening, from both traditional print media and online sources. Responses suggest that even those who are regular users of online information and community still also look to other print publications for their information on sustainable living. Almost 67 percent read or subscribed to the magazine Earth Garden, and respondents reported reading a range of other sustainable or gardening magazines, including other ‘alternative’ publications such as Grass Roots, Warm Earth, and Renew as well as more mainstream publications like Gardening Australia and Sanctuary.

In terms of online sources, for most respondents EGP and ALS appeared to be the primary online source or forum utilised. As noted earlier, a number of respondents are members of both sites; in total 82 are members of EGP and 159 are members of ALS. However membership is not required to read the sites, and clearly many people may visit and read these sites without being members, or posting frequently. In total 91 respondents report visiting EGP (of whom 80 have also posted to the site), while 167 report visiting ALS (151 of whom have posted to the site). Of these, 59 visit EGP weekly or more and 124 visit ALS weekly or more. For both sites, while the majority of respondents are frequent, even daily visitors, the majority of respondents are only occasional posters to these sites.

Participants were also asked it they regularly visited any other Australian online forums about sustainability. Only 25 percent answered in the affirmative, suggesting that for a majority of the respondents, their use of traditional print media and visits to either EGP or ALS provided sufficient information or connection for their needs. Of the 48 responses to open–ended comments for this question, 19 mentioned some kind of permaculture group, mostly the Permaculture Institute (PRI) Web page and yahoo group. Ten participants mentioned the Down to Earth Forum, a discussion forum associated with the very popular blog, Down to Earth by Rhonda Hetzel (who was previously an ALS member). Other online sources mentioned included various Facebook pages, such as the group pages of the magazines Earth Garden and the U.S. Mother Earth News. Another important category of sites mentioned were some of the newer initiatives that use national sites to coordinate geographically localised sharing such as Food Connect (similar to community–supported agriculture programs: http://www.foodconnect.com.au/) and Swap Shuffle Share (http://swapshuffleshare.com/).

Online sites: Use and motivations

The final section of the survey considered what respondents found most enjoyable and useful about the sites, as well as asking about their motivations in visiting the sites (see Table 3). Respondents most valued the discussions of practical matters, such as gardening, frugality, food and livestock.

 

Table 3: Aspects of sites most useful/enjoyed.
ActivityMost usefulMost enjoyable
Discussion forums about gardening/permaculture93.385.9
Discussion forums about simple/frugal living89.675.9
Discussion forums about food81.972.3
Discussion forums about livestock/poultry75.167.0
Members stories60.655.0
Discussion forums about craft/making56.050.3
Articles by members52.842.4

 

The importance of the resource sharing and educational functions of the sites was confirmed with a question that directly asked about the reasons people visited the sites. Most cited educational and informational aspects as their main reasons for visiting, such as learning from others (89.3 percent), seeking information (87.8 percent), and seeking solutions (65.5 percent). As respondents highlighted in the comments section, “Ask any how to question and it shall be answered.” Also important was the personalised and experiential presentation of information: “I like the social aspect — sharing thoughts and ideas with other like–minded people”; “I love hearing other people’s stories.” Despite the emphasis on the personal and social as key motivations in using the sites, only 64.5 percent chose ‘feeling part of a community’ as one of the main reasons they visited the sites.

Although community did not rate as highly as some other reasons, later questions and text responses indicate that a sense of community and connection with other people was a key factor in people’s motivation for visiting the sites.

  • It’s an online version of the real–life ‘village’ I guess — with the exception being that you can’t do things together ‘hands on’. Not really. By picture, by video, but not 100 percent ‘together’.
  • The connection to like minded people is quite empowering.
  • Just to know that I am not the only person who thinks this way. So I don’t feel so alone.

In addition, when asked what the main benefits of using the sites were, educational and motivational reasons were almost as valued as information, with 81.6 percent citing ‘encouragement through support of members’, indicating that it is not solely provision of information alone that attracts participants (see Table 4).

 

Table 4: Main benefits of the sites.
ActivityPercent
Provide practical ‘how to’ advice91.3
Provide encouragement through examples of sustainable living90.3
Provide information about alternatives88.3
Provide encouragement through support of other members81.6
Bring new information to my attention76.0
Educate me about sustainability issues62.8
Help me realise individual actions matter50.0

 

Respondents also commented on the feeling of community and how wonderful it was to “be in contact with like minded souls”. A number of responses talked about how the sites countered their sense of isolation

as I rarely go out, and have no media at all (no tv, radio or newspapers), and because I live alone ... these sites become my social life ... it’s an instant way of connecting with people with shared interests, with instant feedback if I have a problem to solve

Online sites: Influence

The final part of the survey attempted to gauge the impact of these sites on member’s practices and behaviour with regard to sustainable living. Participants were asked to rate their agreement with three related statements about the impact of these sites: whether or not the sites had influenced their lifestyle; encouraged them to make changes to their lifestyle, and helped maintain their commitment to a sustainable lifestyle. In all three cases the responses were overwhelmingly positive, with 83.5 percent agreeing that the sites had influenced their decision to live more sustainably, 79.8 percent agreeing that the sites had encouraged them to make changes to their lifestyle; and, 89.5 percent agreeing that the sites had helped maintain their commitment to living more sustainably. Indeed 36 percent of participants strongly agreed that the sites helped maintain their commitment to sustainability. (In total, only one respondent strongly disagreed with each of these statements, commenting that they had always lived this lifestyle: “I was born in the country & have always lived simply ... This is my permanent lifestyle.”)

To contextualise the reported impact of the online sites on respondents’ behaviour, the final questions asked respondents more broadly about who and what had been influential in their choice of a sustainable lifestyle. First, respondents were asked what sources other than ALS and EGP had been influential. The most popular choices were clearly informational sources about sustainability, from books and news (64.5 percent) to magazines (62.4) and other online sites (42.5). These sources were ranked significantly above social networks such as family and local community, and also other more formal forms of learning such as courses and programs. A similar picture was confirmed by the final question asking which sources/groups had most influenced respondents’ choices (see Table 5).

 

Table 5: Most influenced decision to live sustainably.
ActivityPercent
Sustainability Web sites such as EGP or ALS48.5
Magazines such as Earth Garden45.6
Books/news about environment45.0
Family29.6
Friends23.1
Local community14.8
Independent sustainable living programs13.6
Education courses12.4
Local council programs5.3
Government initiatives1.2

 

Almost 50 percent of respondents indicated that online sites such as ALS and EGP were among the most significant influences in their sustainable lifestyle choice, along with magazines, books and news. What is of note here is that self–directed learning and information seeking, both online and off, is the preferred method for investigating sustainable lifestyle choices.

 

++++++++++

Conclusion

It is important to note that while the survey data suggests that these sites play a significant role in contributing to people’s motivations or commitment to sustainable living, it is less easy to make a case for them as catalyst or primary influence. A large proportion of the comments to the final two questions (75 in all) were at pains to point out that their decision to live more sustainably was independent of these sites and other external sources. What respondents do make clear is that ALS and EGP are key to the ongoing process of situated learning that is vital to maintaining a sustainable lifestyle:

Whilst the ‘initial’ decision was a personal lifestyle choice, ALS and Earth Garden assist in keeping the momentum going particularly since I am the only one in my family and group of friends making efforts to reduce my impact on the Earth

As a number of respondents observed in the open comments, these sites are also of particular importance to those who for various reasons cannot access support in their local community: “Forums and magazines offer a wealth of ideas and experiences, especially to those of us who are ‘time poor’ and find it difficult to attend courses or participate physically in community based groups.” This comment usefully highlights the fact that it may not be a lack of local community opportunity that encourages use of online communities of interest, but an inability to commit to what might be seen as time–consuming educational programs, or commitment to local groups that meet face to face.

The preponderance of respondents who see these online communities as their most significant influence would appear self–evident, as they are a self–selected population of users of the site. However, it is worth noting that this holds even though many of the respondents are not active posters to the sites. Contrary to expectations about the importance of engagement in communities of interest, these sites were seen to have an impact on respondents’ behaviour even when they had middling to low rates of participation. Understandably, the more active a participant was, the more likely they were to agree or strongly agree that the sites had impacted their behaviour. Nevertheless, a strong level of agreement was also found from ‘lurkers’ — those who visited the site regularly but only rarely or occasionally posted — and a fair level of agreement was also found from only occasional visitors.. Among those who only posted to ALS monthly or occasionally, all except one agreed or strongly agreed that the sites had had an impact on their commitment to living more sustainably (see Figure 1).

 

Influence on commitment
 
Figure 1: Influence on commitment (categorised by regularity of posting).

 

And of those who only visited the sites monthly or occasionally still around 75 percent were in agreement that the sites had impacted their commitment (see Figure 2).

 

Influence on commitment
 
Figure 2: Influence on commitment (categorised by regularity of visits).

 

In conclusion, while these sites tend not to take advantage of the functionality, reach and popularity of social media and social networking, they continue to serve an important function in online discussion and documentation of sustainable living movements. Indeed, the comparatively dated–looking ‘community of interest’ forums seem better equipped for fostering and supporting change not only at the individual level, but in terms of broader civic action at national and community levels. Obviously, further research is needed to investigate longer–term impacts on people’s behaviour, and the extent to which some of the new social networking sustainability sites might also encourage green citizenship. In the interim, what seems clear is that these Australian simple living sites are successfully engaging and educating a diverse population of green citizens. Most importantly, the survey suggests that this engagement and learning does not just stop at the individual’s home or garden, but is moving more broadly into local streets and communities, becoming a true civic engagement enhanced — and even enabled — by online connection. End of article

 

About the author

Helen Merrick is Senior Lecturer in Internet Studies in the School of Media, Culture and Creative Arts at Curtin University, Western Australia. Her research interests include sustainability, online communities, and science fiction. She is the author of The secret feminist cabal: A cultural history of sf feminisms (Seattle, Wash.: Aqueduct Press, 2009) and co–author (with Margret Grebowicz) of Beyond the cyborg: Adventures with Donna Haraway (forthcoming in 2013 from Columbia University Press).
E–mail: h [dot] merrick [at] curtin [dot] edu [dot] au

 

Notes

1. Lewis, 2012, p. 316.

2. Etzioni, 1998, p. 626.

3. Nelson, et al., 2007, p. 154.

4. Grigsby, 2004, pp. 9, 205.

5. Housel, 2006, p. 195.

6. Housel, 2006, p. 196.

7. Garrett, 2006, p. 206.

8. Obar, et al., 2012, p. 2.

9. Gil de Zúñiga, et al., 2012, p. 319; see also Pasek, et al., 2009; Mandarano, et al., 2010; Rotman, et al., 2011.

10. Gil de Zúñiga, et al., 2012, p. 322; see also Wellman, et al., 2001; Shah, et al., 2005; Shah, et al., 2008.

11. Zhang, et al., 2010, pp. 86–87.

12. Obar, et al., 2012, p. 2.

13. Personal e–mail message, 9 September 2011.

14. Personal e–mail message, 9 February 2012.

15. http://www.earthgarden.com.au/contact.html.

 

References

Jennifer Aaker and Andy Smith, 2010. The dragonfly effect: Quick, effective, and powerful ways to use social media to drive social change. San Fransisco: Jossey–Bass.

Samuel Alexander, 2011a. “Property beyond growth: Toward a politics of voluntary simplicity,” Faculty of Law, University of Melbourne, Melbourne; see http://simplicitycollective.com/property-beyond-growth-toward-a-politics-of-voluntary-simplicity, accessed 1 December 2012.

Samuel Alexander, 2011b. “The voluntary simplicity movement: Reimagining the good life beyond consumer culture,” International Journal Of Environmental, Cultural, Economic And Social Sustainability, volume 7, number 3, pp. 133–150.

Samuel Alexander and Simon Ussher, 2012. “The voluntary simplicity movement: A multi–national survey analysis in theoretical context,” Journal of Consumer Culture, volume 12, number 1, pp. 66–86.http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1469540512444019

W. Lance Bennett (editor), 2008. Civic life online: Learning how digital media can engage youth. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Steve Davis, Larry Elin, and Grant Reeher, 2002. Click on democracy: The Internet’s power to change political apathy into civic action. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press.

Duane Elgin, 1981. Voluntary simplicity: Toward a life that is outwardly simple, inwardly rich. New York: William Morrow.

Amitai Etzioni, 1998. “Voluntary simplicity: Characterization, select psychological implications, and societal consequences,” Journal of Economic Psychology, volume 19, number 5, pp. 619–643.

R. Kelly Garrett, 2006. “Protest in an information society: A review of literature on social movements and new ICTs,” Information, Comunication and Society, volume 9, number 2, pp. 202–224.http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13691180600630773

Homero Gil de Zúñiga, Nakwon Jung, and Sebastián Valenzuela, 2012. “Social media use for news and individuals’ social capital, civic engagement and political participation,” Journal of Computer–Mediated Communication, volume 17, number 3, pp. 319–336.http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1083-6101.2012.01574.x

Richard Gregg, 1936. The value of voluntary simplicity. Wallingford, Pa.: Pendle Hill.

Mary Grigsby, 2004. Buying time and getting by: The voluntary simplicity movement. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Clive Hamilton and Elizabeth Mail. 2003. Downshifting in Australia: A sea–change in the pursuit of happiness. Canberra: Australia Institute.

Teresa Heinz Housel, 2006. “Solar panels, shovels and the ’net: Selective uses of technology in the homesteading movement,” Information, Communication and Society, volume 9, number 2, pp. 182–201.http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13691180600630765

Brett Johnson, 2004. “Review essay: Simply identity work? The voluntary simplicity movement,” Qualitative Sociology, volume 27, number 4, pp. 527–530.http://dx.doi.org/10.1023/B:QUAS.0000049267.29699.d9

Mark E. Kann, Jeff Berry, Connor Grant, and Phil Zager, 2007. “The Internet and youth political participation,” First Monday, volume 12, number 8, at http://firstmonday.org/article/view/1977/1852, accessed 1 December 2012.

Tania Lewis, 2012. “‘There grows the neighbourhood’: Green citizenship, creativity and life politics on eco–TV,” International Journal of Cultural Studies, volume 15, number 3, pp. 315–326.http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1367877911433753

Tania Lewis, 2008. “Transforming citizens: Green politics and ethical consumption on lifestyle television,” Continuum, volume 22, number 2, pp. 227–240.http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10304310701864394

Tania Lewis and Emily Potter (editors), 2011. Ethical consumption: A critical introduction. London: Routledge.

Brian D. Loader and Dan Mercea, 2011. “Networking democracy?” Information, Communication and Society, volume 14, number 6, pp. 757–769.http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/1369118X.2011.592648

Lynn Mandarano, Mahbubur Meenar, and Christopher Steins, 2010. “Building social capital in the digital age of civic engagement,” Journal of Planning Literature, volume 25, number 2, pp. 123–135.http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0885412210394102

Gustavo S. Mesch and Ilan Talmud, 2010. “Internet connectivity, community participation, and place attachment: A longitudinal study,” American Behavioral Scientist, volume 53, number 8, pp. 1,095–1,110.

William J. Metcalf, 1984. “A classification of alternative lifestyle groups,” Journal of Sociology, volume 20, number 1, pp. 66–80.http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/144078338402000105

William J. Metcalf and Frank M. Vanclay, 1985. The social characteristics of alternative lifestyle participants in Australia: Report to the Office of Youth Affairs, Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. Nathan, Queensland, Australia: Institute of Apllied Environmental Research, Griffith University.

Michelle R. Nelson, Mark A. Rademacher, and Hye–Jin Paek, 2007. “Downshifting consumer = upshifting citizen? An examination of a local freecycle community,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, volume 611, number 1, pp. 141–156.http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0002716206298727

Christina Neumayer and Celina Raffl, 2008. “Facebook for global protest: The potential and limits of social software for grassroots activism,” Proceedings of the 5th Prato Community Informatics & Development Informatics Conference 2008: ICTs for Social Inclusion: What is the Reality?

Pippa Norris, 2002. “The bridging and bonding role of online communities,” International Journal of Press/Politics, volume 7, number 3, pp. 3–13.

Jonathan A. Obar, Paul Zube, and Cliff Lampe, 2012. “Advocacy 2.0: An analysis of how advocacy groups in the united states perceive and use social media as tools for facilitating civic engagement and collective action,” Journal of Information Policy, volume 2, number, pp. 1–25, and at http://jip.vmhost.psu.edu/ojs/index.php/jip/article/viewArticle/80, accessed 1 December 2012.

Josh Pasek, eian more, and Daniel Romer, 2009. “Realizing the social Internet? Online social networking meets offline civic engagement,” Journal of information Technology & Politics, volume 6, numbers 3–4, pp. 197–215.

Ruth E. Pestle, Thomas A. Cornille, and Karol Solomon, 1982. “Lifestyle alternatives: Development and evaluation of an attitude scale,” Family & Consumer Sciences Research Journal, volume 11, number 2, pp. 175–182.

Jenny Pickerill, 2004. “Rethinking political participation: Experiments in Internet activism in Australia and Britain,” In: Rachel K. Gibson, Andrea Roèmmele, and Stephen J. Ward (editors). Electronic democracy: Mobilisation, organisation, and participation via new ICTs. London: Routledge, pp. 170–193.

Jenny Pickerill, 2003. Cyberprotest: Environmental activism online. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Jenny Pickerill, 2000. “Pressure groups, new social movements and new ICTs: Greens and the net,” In: Stephen Ward and Rachel K. Gibson (editors). Reinvigorating democracy? British politics and the Internet. Aldershot: Ashgate, pp. 129–150.

Robert Putnam, 2000. Bowling alone: The collapse and revival of American community. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Dana Rotman, Sarah Vieweg, Sarita Yardi, Ed H. Chi, Jenny Preece, Ben Shneiderman, Peter Pirolli, and Tom Glaisyer, 2011. “From slacktivism to activism: Participatory culture in the age of social media,” CHI EA ’11: CHI ’11 Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems, pp. 819–822.

Jennifer A. Sandlin and Carol S. Walther, 2009. “Complicated simplicity: Moral identity formation and social movement learning in the voluntary simplicity movement,” Adult Education Quarterly, volume 59, number 4, pp. 298–317.http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0741713609334137

Douglas Schuler, 1996. New community networks: Wired for change. Reading, Mass.: Addison–Wesley.

Dhavan V. Shah, Hernando Rojas, and Jaeho Cho, 2008. “Media and civic participation: On understanding and misunderstanding communication effects,” In: Jennings Bryant and Mary Beth Oliver (editors). Media effects: Advances in theory and research. New York: Routledge, pp. 207–227.

Dhavan V. Shah, Jaeho Cho, William P. Eveland, and Nojin Kwak, 2005. “Information and expression in a digital age: Modeling Internet effects on civic participation,” Communication Research, volume 32, number 5, pp. 531–565.http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0093650205279209

Clay Shirky, 2008. Here comes everybody: The power of organizing without organizations. New York: Penguin Press.

Roza Tsagarousianou, Damian Tambini, and Cathy Bryan (editors), 1998. Cyberdemocracy: Technology, cities, and civic networks. London: Routledge.

Frank M. Vanclay and William J. Metcalf, 1985. “Alternative lifestyle magazines: An analysis of readers,” Media Information Australia, number 36, pp. 49–55.

Barry Wellman, Anabel Quan Haase, James Witte, and Keith Hampton, 2001. “Does the Internet increase, decrease, or supplement social capital? Social networks, participation and community commitment,” American Behavioural Scientist, volume 45, number 3, pp. 436–455.http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/00027640121957286

Weiwu Zhang, Thomas J. Johnson, Trent Seltzer, and Shannon L. Bichard, 2010. “The revolution will be networked: The influence of social networking sites on political attitudes and behavior,” Social Science Computer Review, volume 28, number 1, pp. 75–92.http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0894439309335162

 


Editorial history

Received 5 September 2012; accepted 15 November 2012.


Copyright © 2012, First Monday.
Copyright © 2012, Helen Merrick.

Promoting sustainability and simple living online and off–line: An Australian case study
by Helen Merrick
First Monday, Volume 17, Number 12 - 3 December 2012
http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/4234/3378
doi:10.5210/fm.v17i12.4234





A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.

© First Monday, 1995-2017. ISSN 1396-0466.