Exploring concepts of intergenerational justice, consumption and sustainability around the world

Research Grant (Standard) project title:
Intergenerational Justice, Consumption and Sustainability in Comparative Perspective
PI: Gill Valentine

We live in a word with finite resources that cannot sustain consumption at current levels. But should we make sacrifices now in order to ensure more of these resources are left for future generations?

It’s a big question – and in order to help find some answers this Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)-funded project has focused on exploring the context in which the discussion is taking pace.

Specifically, it asked how people feel about the idea that they should go without for the sake of society’s children and grandchildren.

To do this, Gill Valentine, Professor of Geography at the University of Sheffield, asked people in three very different locations for their views on intergenerational justice, consumption and sustainability.

The UK, China and Uganda were chosen to reflect three different levels of development, patterns of consumption, environmental assets and problems, generational demographics, material cultures and cultural values.

In all, researchers surveyed over 750 people in each country and interviewed 100 people in each, across three generations.

Interestingly, it was the group with the lowest standard of living and the least to give up who were most prepared to make sacrifices.

Over two-thirds (69%) of Ugandan people participating in the research were prepared to make personal sacrifices for the benefit of future generations, compared to 29% of Chinese participants and 16% of UK participants.

“The UK is the country with the highest standard of living, but we are the least prepared to make sacrifices,” says Prof Valentine, who is one of several people involved in the three year project, which explored attitudes and themes in engaging, interactive ways, including community theatre workshops in each of the three countries.

For example, the theatre work in Walukuba, Jinja Municipality, Uganda, was so popular it developed into a community-led social enterprise called ‘We Are Walukuba’ that resulted in local activism and advocacy.

According to Professor Valentine it empowered the local community and has already had a discernible impact and a greater local awareness of sustainability and behaviour change.

“It has been so successful that it has led to some significant changes in the local area and is being rolled out among other districts in Uganda,” she says. “It has been very empowering for this group. It’s local advocacy bringing about local change.”

One of the Ugandan participants in the project told researchers that: "It is a group formed to raise the voice of the voiceless. Last week we acted at the town hall in the presence of the Mayor. In Precious Women we tackled many issues affecting people here. And the other thing, we are intergenerational. Usually you hear of groups of youth, elderly, women, but this combines the young and old, and all genders. We don't discriminate."

Another said this: "We are sharing the knowledge, skills and acquiring confidence to address inadequacies that underpin development, addressing problems like gender violence, working conditions in factories and environmental degradation and we are keeping the young and old together."

The theatre group looked at local social and environmental issues such as waste management, sanitation, domestic violence and domestic use of charcoal. They created skits and plays about switching away from charcoal to briquettes that actually led to people switching to briquettes for domestic purposes.

This research led to the development of a bio-fuel energy co-operative within that fabricates briquettes out of local organic waste, thereby cutting reliance on charcoal and reducing deforestation. It also generated an income that funded We are Walukuba’s advocacy activities.

“These people are experiencing the realities of climate change and they are much more willing and ready to engage with making changes and sacrifices and take personal responsibility,” says Professor Valentine.

“In the UK, people felt quite powerless and felt it was the responsibility of government. China was somewhere between the two.”

The project feeds into an ongoing debate about intergenerational justice and solidarity. “This solidarity is threatened by environmentally unsustainable models of consumption that raise fundamental questions about justice between generations in the Global North, rising powers and the developing world,” says Prof Valentine.

The project also redressed the Western bias within the body of existing research into intergenerational justice by looking at what participants from the three different countries thought about sustainability, responsibility and accountability; and what the different generations thought about sustainability, responsibility and accountability in relation to each other.

The project team were interested if people were prepared to make sacrifices to their lifestyle in order to protect future generations, if younger generations blamed the older generation for current environmental problems and if people in Uganda and China thought the UK should pay reparation for its past and the effect industrialisation is having on current generations. What were the conclusions?

“There was a common sense that we cannot blame past generations because they didn’t know what would happen,” says Professor Valentine. “However, younger generations have aspirations for their standards of living and older generations are concerned about them.”

Valentine said the older generation thinks younger generations should be held accountable for their actions and choices and potentially will blame younger generations for further future environmental damage because they should know better.

Intended outcomes and impact

  • The project raised awareness of sustainability and brought about behaviour change, most notably so in Uganda where it has generated new models for arts-led community and stakeholder engagement work, e.g. the creation of a community-led social enterprise called ‘We Are Walukuba’ was created
  • The project worked over 20 months with 60+ volunteer members of a working class community in Walukuba, Jinja, in eastern Uganda building intergenerational, inter-ethnic, inter-religious, cross-gender community group of widely divergent educational attainment; supporting community cohesion, confidence, advocacy and activism.  The worked extensively with the wider Walukuba community  of 17,000 people through a series of performances, public debates, film showings and community waste collection actions, gaining the wide support of local councillors and community leaders.
  • See the film 'We Are Walukuba' https://vimeo.com/171216540/e04de5b695.
  • A new AHRC-funded GCRF project has developed from this work scaling up the project in Uganda and Malawi. Buiklding on this project it will partner  with an analogous working class community (Mtogolo village) in Zomba, Malawi in collaboration with the Department of Performing Arts, University of Malawi, and a local arts-based NGO, YONECOPI: Dominic Kniveton