Monday, May 21, 2007

Awakening to the Threat of Excessive Material Consumption

There are signs of a new awakening in post-industrial society. Increasing numbers of us are recognizing that the encouragement of over consumption of material goods is a fundamental problem for humanity. The belief that continual growth in consumption is essential for our well-being is now being called into question. Annual spending on marketing in excess $450 billion however continues to fan the flames of consumption-oriented living.

The planet has surpassed the capacity to sustain any growth in material throughput. It is calculated that we consume in one year at least 125% of nature’s yearly output. Our biosphere is collapsing with the pressures of current consumption rates. It is the first time in recorded history that we have been confronted with this reality on a planetary scale.

Such aggressive economic activity is pushing us to a precipice. The strains of the earth reaching and surpassing its ecological limits are presenting themselves everywhere. Whether it is our collapsed cod fishery, pine beetle infestation, disappearing polar ice sheets, rising carbon emissions or reduction in biodiversity, (and the list goes on), the evidence of our impact is overwhelming. Yet, in spite of all this, mainstream thinking and our political leaders urge us to "go shopping" and increase consumption to enhance our "standard of living".

With the conclusion of the twentieth century, it became clear that capitalism had triumphed over communism as the world economic model. The Chinese, despite their one party communist social state, rushed to embrace the capitalist system. They are now manufacturer to the world.

Capitalism brought incredible efficiencies into the marketplace and we benefit from many of them. However, this model is founded on the assumption of our ability to continually expand our economy. Capitalist theory does not have the means to adequately respond to any finite limits on the availability of resources. It always assumes that the market will solve such constraints. World history is littered with the remains of past societies that failed to take resource limitation into account.

Ronald Wright in “A Short History of Progress” documents the collapse of four civilizations from our history – Easter Island, the Sumerians, the Maya, and ancient Rome. He shows how in the past entire civilizations have self destructed through wrong choices. He argues that "each time history repeats itself, the price goes up".

Capitalism, as currently construed, is ill suited to respond to the present day ecological crisis we are facing. Corporations are legally required to act in the best financial interests of their shareholders. They therefore forever look for ways to lower costs and improve their financial bottom line. They seek to avoid any responsibility for the collateral consequences of their decisions. They "externalize" such costs and impose them on society.

Companies are quick to move offshore in search of cheaper labour. The community bears the costs of the job losses while the company improves their profit. The closure of the Hershey chocolate factory in Smiths Falls south of Ottawa is a recent local example. The corporation argues that the benefit to consumers is that their costs, and therefore the price of Hershey chocolate bars, is kept low. The social costs of lost local jobs, and the environmental impact of more diesel fuel being consumed to bring that product to market is not accounted for. Out of sight, out of mind.

Retailers develop a business plan to establish large outlets that are dependent on a massive taxpayer provided automobile transportation network. The corporation takes in the profit while the community not only pays upfront for the roads, but then pays forever with increased urban sprawl, congestion, further dependence on the automobile, and polluted air. As before, the corporation argues that the consumer benefits through economies of scale that result in lower product cost. As communities, we blithely accept this argument; yet simultaneously complain about loss of local convenience, traffic congestion, polluted air and urban sprawl.

What if, however, we could capture such costs and assign them appropriately? Could it have the potential of shaping decisions by corporations and individuals alike to be more environmentally and socially responsible? The concept is "full-cost accounting" or "the triple bottom line." It is accounting that recognizes not only the financial, but also the social and environmental implications of any decisions.

There are signs of this happening in Europe. In Germany, producers are required to pay to put a Green Dot on their products. The fee is for the disposal of their packaging. If producers incorporate more packaging, they pay a higher Green Dot fee. Another European example is known as Extended Producer Responsibility whereby the manufacturer is responsible for the proper disposal of their product at the end of its useful life. With this requirement Mercedes-Benz has reduced the number of plastics in its cars from 16 to 3 and made more of its components interchangeable and re-usable. This lowers its disposal cost, and reduces the imposition of waste on society.

All levels of government need to incorporate such considerations into their budget and planning decisions. We need policy that will apply this concept to the business world. It should not be good enough for urban development to be approved or business plans executed simply because it is financially feasible. The full environmental and social costs of such plans must also be appropriately assigned.

We should require a full accounting of any environmental and social deterioration that may result. The cost of mitigation must be assigned. Every city is filled with examples of short-term quick profit motivated bad planning that has produced serious environmental and social degradation.

Interestingly, and in contrast to current collective short term thinking, our society expects individual adults to engage in personal long term planning. As we reach physical maturity, most of us begin to behave in a more responsible manner. Many of us take on 25-year mortgages; envision living with a life partner and raising children. We plan for our retirement. We accept the responsibility of planning long term. In our later years some of us begin to think of the legacy we will leave for future generations.

As individuals, then, we know how to engage in personal long term planning. Why, then, do we find it so difficult to do it collectively? What prevents us from appreciating the collective long-term consequences of our actions? Why do we fail to recognize that we are headed for the ultimate "Tragedy of the Commons"?

For part of the answer we need to look at the refinement of mass marketing and advertising in the twentieth century. It is now intimately involved in spurring us thoughtlessly on. Branding is everywhere. From the name on your computer monitor, to the insignia on your cell phone, there it is. Automobile advertising constantly implores us to be carefree and "Zoom, Zoom!" through life. This is not about providing important information to a public that is looking to make an informed choice. It is all about tickling our desires to transform them into "needs".

The marketing industry has a single-minded focus on enhancing the financial bottom line of themselves and their clients. Nothing else matters to them. Their job is to create desire and encourage customers to shop. There is not an alternate view with billions of advertising dollars trying to entice us to do otherwise.

When people begin to act collectively, they often choose to consume less, while appreciating life more. Such activity, however, cuts into the profits of industry. Therefore they do what they can to encourage individual compulsive consumption. Long-term responsible thinking is bad for business in the eyes of the short term thinking marketing guru. He wants your money, and he wants it now.

A primary goal of mass marketing is to minimize our sense of collective social responsibility and encourage "me first" consumption. You will not see the marketing tagline "Consume Less, Enjoy Life More!" emblazoned across billboards anytime soon. Mike Nickerson, in his recently published book Life, Money & Illusion asks "If the voices of marketing fell silent, what would people want?" Good question!

Society must begin to push away from these adolescent like impulses and recognize that it has reached adulthood. Collectively, at a grassroots level and through our institutions, we need to accept that it is no longer necessary for us as a society to physically grow. In fact, we need to acknowledge the extent to which such activity is leading to our own demise. As Ronald Wright points out, “We must live on the interest, not the capital of nature.” It is unconscionable that we continue to exploit resources at the rate we have become accustomed to.

There is a clear disconnect, however, between the recognition of the destruction created by this thoughtless consumption and the continued belief by a majority of the electorate and established institutions that continued growth in consumption is not only inevitable, but essential.

This is what makes it so difficult, then, for politicians (particularly those who are elected), to voice this truth, whenever they begin to recognize it. They know that to tell someone that they must consume less is not what most voters want to hear. Consumers don't take kindly to the suggestion that they may be the central cause of the problem. And, they often don't vote for those people who tell them this embarrassing truth.

When gasoline prices were rising in recent years consumers clamoured for governments to “do something”. No doubt, oil companies are making enormous profits, but in our market driven economy, the price is escalated as supply tightened in the face of increasing demand. Like it or not, this is a fundamental premise of capitalism. Curiously, politicians who understand this rarely suggest that consumers and their increasing demand may be responsible for this situation. They prefer to “demur” from even speaking of it. Who would vote for them if they did?

As tempting as it is for a political party to denounce the high profits of oil companies, such action works against the need for the citizenry to come to terms with the consequences of their highly consumptive lifestyle. The political party that does the best job of understanding this issue will be well positioned in the long term.

It is essential that we find appropriate ways to hold this mirror up to society. Citizens must be encouraged to consider the extent to which their behaviour contributes to the environmental mess our planet is in. An example occurred at a November 2006 open house given by Canada Lands for the Rockcliffe Base Development project in Ottawa. During the open mike session the writer pointed out the incongruity of hundreds of people driving to a community meeting to complain about the impact of traffic congestion. He also thought it curious that he was the lone occupant of the bus that brought him to the event. Embarrassed applause followed.

There is a growing minority of the electorate acknowledging how our over-consumptive ways are destroying our planet. They are beginning to move beyond blaming industry, and recognizing that it only produces what we consume. They understand that we vote every day with the dollars we spend. When we don't buy it, they stop producing it.

It is becoming increasingly clear to more of us that continual growth in our material consumption is a physical impossibility. There will, at some future time, be a transformation in the world. The growth in material consumption will stop as the physical limits are imposed upon us. The question is; “How shall we adapt?” Will we have truly begun to "Consume Less, and Enjoy Life More", embracing a sustainable lifestyle? Or, will we have chosen a darker path of continued encouragement of personal greed and over-consumption until the last dollar of profit is squeezed out of the earth?

The path we ultimately take will be strongly influenced by the speed with which we come to recognize that there is, in fact, a problem. The longer we stretch out our societal denial, the more difficult our choices in the future will be.

It is not easy to hear that our consumptive habits may be part of the problem. Reflection, though, is needed on this perspective. If you find yourself in agreement, then consider how you can be a part of holding up the mirror in your community.

The groundswell of world wide public concern for the condition of our planet is everywhere. For many of us, though, this concern is also accompanied by confusion as to what we can do. Our entire way of living is being called into question. To hear that one's lifestyle choices may be having a serious negative impact on the earth can be very demoralizing and difficult to accept.

We need to become more conscious of the global consequences of our choices and give consideration to alternatives. We need to start asking questions about the non-renewable energy that is consumed that encourages us to have whatever we want, whenever we want it.

Carbon based energy resources are finite. It took more than a million years to create the supply that is available to humankind. We have burned through roughly half of it in less than two hundred of those years. Whether we are transporting strawberries across a continent, or clay flowerpots around the world, future generations, our great grandchildren, will shake their heads in disbelief at the shameful squandering of such a precious resource just to satisfy our impetuous desires.

We need to question the morality of an economic system that tells us that if we have the money, we have the right to consume the product. Imagine yourself one hundred years in the future trying to explain that rationale to future generations who are confronted with serious resource shortages.

We need to question the extent to which marketing influences how we spend our money. Do we need that product on the store shelf? Do we always need to be enticed by Expedia's most recent offering, or could that local vacation retreat be equally satisfying? Do we need snow peas from China, or could local produce perhaps be tastier, and more nutritious?

We do not need to stop leading active and involved lives. In fact, we are surrounded by boundless opportunities for a satisfying personal life that does not involve consuming more of our precious resources. Humankind is rich in culture and immensely diverse. Education happens when two or more people gather and communicate. All are enriched, and no resources are consumed. We need more often to simply walk out our front door, look around and appreciate.

We cannot change the facts. We have direct control, however, over our response to the facts. Civilization still has a window of opportunity to change. The sooner we begin to take concrete action, the better it will be. It is, in the words of local visionary Mike Nickerson, "A Question of Direction".

He points in the direction of a paradigm shift of our purpose. He urges us to consider a civilization that will no longer promote a goal that insists we “expand production and consumption." He asks us to replace this with a dream of true stewardship where "Our purpose is to enjoy living while managing the planet for generations to come."

As society begins the movement toward a lower consumptive lifestyle it will have economic consequences. There will be difficult times as communities adjust to a new reality. Relocalisation of our economies will be challenging. However, it will be exceedingly more so if we delay facing up to the ultimate reality that we cannot continue to increase material consumption. That is clearly a physical impossibility. The sooner we accept this fact, the easier the transformation will be.

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