We Need to Update Our Concept of Freedom of Choice

Are freedom of choice and sustainably living incompatible? This was a question which was discussed over a World Economic Forum dinner on Wednesday night at Davos, hosted by the influential architect and thinker William McDonough.

I was sitting at a table with Professor Johan Rockstrom, who has led the incredibly important work to define the nine natural systems critical for humans to live well on this planet - the so-called 'planetary boundaries'.

How can we change our behaviour to come in line with what science tells us is necessary? We will need to change the very nature of the products and services we consume (with concepts such as the Circular Economy). We will also have to make different choices as consumers.

I got some insight recently into the factors which influence behaviour and choice from a great TEDx talk by Al Switzler called 'Using Skillpower over Willpower!' and have been blogging about it since. The greatest chance of success with changing behaviour is to control the sources of influence. Self-motivation and willpower are part of the story- the others sources of influence arise from the wider environment in which we find ourselves. These include peer pressure and access to choices. For example, if we are trying to lose weight, willpower alone usually doesn't succeed when there is our colleagues in the office offer us birthday cake and the supermarket checkouts tempt us with strategically placed chocolates.

To change behaviour, we will need to control the sources of influence on our behaviour.

This will mean that we will have to change our interpretation of freedom of choice. It has changed with regarding to smoking for instance. It will have to change with respect to the availability of sugary, fatty, fibre-depleted foods. It will have to change with respect to choosing carbon intensive products and services. We will need to 'choice-edit' our environment. The application of choice-editing it already with us - from the relatively mundane level such as at home improvement retailer,B&Q, where you can no longer buy gas-fired outdoor heaters (see their One Planet Home strategy) to city planners in London who no longer give planning permission to fast food outlets within 400 metres of a school or park.

Choice-editing is one side of the coin. The other side of the same coin is the infinite number of healthy and green products and services we can provide. Choice-editing can go hand-and-hand with a world of abundance. So perhaps it is better to call this 'choice-managing'. Regardless, the twentieth century interpretation of freedom of choice has outlived its usefulness. Instead, imagine a future, filled with choice, but every one of those choices makes you, me, our society and our planet healthier and happier. It is the recipe too for a truly healthy economy and to improve the state of the world.