guest post: “responsible consumption” within an unsustainable way of life

(editor’s note: This is the first [and hopefully not last] guest post. It was written by my friend Nicholas Kramer, who has commented extensively elsewhere on this site. It is a response to my post on “responsible consumption”.)

The core principle driving my worldview is that our current way of life is grossly unsustainable (meaning that, by definition, it simply cannot continue forever). Our model of civilization is good at essentially one thing: resource extraction and production according to an exponential growth model (in other words, making stuff, and making more and more of it every year).  “Responsible consumption” is the idea that we can maintain our basic way of life if only we modify our purchasing habits to buy the “right” products in the “right” quantities.  Unfortunately, incremental improvements such as “responsible consumption” or recycling do nothing to address the unsustainable nature of our way of life.

I found an interesting article on this very topic (focusing on the value of recycling as an incremental improvement) which is worth quoting at length:

…Could recycling play a major role in this decoupling between economic development and the need for material resources? Intuitively, the answer seems to be “yes”: if we recycle massively, we will be reducing the consumption of virgin raw materials just as massively. For example, recycling 80% of a raw material means that the need for natural resource is divided by five. This impressive figure suggests that if a resource is recycled efficiently, it would take five times longer to exhaust this resource. A lifespan of 100 years would become 500 years thanks to recycling…

Unfortunately, this rationale is faulty. Or rather, it would only be correct in a situation where consumption is either in linear progression, stable or in regression. If there is sustained or exponential economic expansion, even very moderately so, the analysis must be dynamic instead of static and the conclusions are radically different:

no, mankind will not be heading much more slowly towards total resource depletion if we recycle, we will just get there a bit later. The only effect of recycling is that the curve is delayed. After some time, the values revert to exactly what they would have been without recycling. [emphasis added]

In other words, no matter how much we recycle, without a fundamental shift in our way of life, we will still be operating under an unsustainable model and outstripping the Earth’s biocapacity. This holds true for other incremental improvements, such as many of those that have been the focus of the American “green” consumer movement in recent years (for example, driving hybrid cars, switching to high-efficiency light bulbs, eating organic, etc.). It has been a while since I’ve read the excellent book, The Consumer’s Guide to Effective Environmental Choices: Practical Advice from the Union of Concerned Scientists, but one central theme I remember from it was that the biggest single negative environment impact most of us are responsible for is the purchase of a car. If you ever contribute to the purchase of a new car (and yes, this includes if you purchase a used car that was once new), it drastically cancels out pretty much any other “green” activity you could perform in your lifetime. The mining and production of the various metals in any automobile, the extraction of oil and production of the necessary plastics, and all the other costs of production are so extreme that they generally far outweigh the environmental damage done by the actual driving of the car. This is equally true for conventional autos and hybrid/electric vehicles. The only answer is to not own a car – which for most of us in modern society has become next to impossible.

While it is beneficial to the environment and laudable for individual consumers to forgo car ownership, the economic reality of our way of life is that every year we are producing and purchasing more and more cars world-wide over the long term because our economic model is based on (and fueled by) growth.  So long as our world-wide culture is based on consumption according to an exponential growth model, no incremental improvement will change our destination – only the time it takes to get there.

That being the case, the question becomes: what is the goal of incremental improvements? If the goal is merely to extend the life of our insane society a few more years – then let’s admit that and stop pretending that we’re trying to “save the world”. If, on the other hand, the goal is to incrementally move our society away from its insanity and toward a truly sustainable model – then the question becomes purely one of strategy. In short, which course of action is more likely to lead us toward a different way of life: recycling or not recycling (or whatever other metric of “incremental improvements” we want to use).

We’ve all heard the warning against “winning the battle, but losing the war”.  I do not fundamentally disagree with the notion that it is marginally less harmful for any given individual to recycle, consume “responsibly,” eat organically, etc.  But consider for a moment the likely motivations driving this behavior in consumers who perform it.  Apart from those states or localities where recycling is financially incentivized, these actions tend to be more expensive than the alternatives, either in terms of additional time and effort required or extra financial expense.  As such, consumers who perform these actions are driven be internal factors (such as concern for the environment) rather than external economic motivators.  Therefore, these consumers are likely to agree in principle with the goal of moving toward a truly sustainable society. Since time and effort are finite resources, every individual must prioritize the allocation of these resources according to their personal needs,  preferences, and values.  Is it more helpful to have those members of our society who have the interest and financial ability to support a shift toward sustainability instead investing their finite resources in incremental improvements?  If our goal is to move our society toward a sustainable model, the answer must be “No”.  Not only is this non-optimal allocation of finite resources to incremental improvements not beneficial to the long-term strategic goal of sustainability, it actually undermines any progress toward that goal.

To illustrate this principle by way of example, consider the relatively strong American anti-war movement under the most recent Bush administration.  For the most part, anti-war activists mobilized on behalf of the 2008 Obama campaign because in a near-term tactical sense, it appeared that – of the two main-party candidates – an Obama presidency would be marginally less pro-war than an McCain presidency.  Rather than allocating resources to a third-party candidate who actually supported the larger anti-war strategic goal, anti-war activists largely believed that an Obama presidency would represent an incremental improvement – and compared to the other main-party alternative, this likely has been an accurate assessment.  However, consider the current state of affairs: the United States still maintains 50,000 soldiers in Iraq, the War in Afghanistan has escalated dramatically, the covert war in Pakistan has escalated dramatically, the prospect of a war with Iran appears more and more likely every day, and there is no hope whatsoever of any reduction in the worldwide US military presence.  And yet, the anti-war movement has almost completely collapsed due in large part to the election of the marginally less pro-war president Barack Obama.  Imagine instead that John McCain had won the 2008 election (a likely result if more anti-war activists had abandoned the incremental improvement tactic by supporting a third-party anti-war candidate).  In the near term, the likely results of a McCain presidency would have been apparently contrary to the values of anti-war activists.  However, a McCain presidency would likely have maintained and even strengthened the anti-war movement precisely because a McCain administration would have more obviously pro-war.  A stronger anti-war movement would then have been more likely to build support for a drastic and permanent shift toward the strategic goal of more anti-war US policies.

To achieve real change, things often have to get worse before they get better.  In foreign policy, perhaps it would be better to have more and more wars in the near term in order to achieve real anti-war goals in the long-term.  Regarding the environment and our very future, perhaps it would be better to accelerate the destruction of the environment and the depletion of our resources in order to increase the chances of a revolutionary shift in our way of life before it is too late.

In summary, incremental improvements such as “responsible consumerism” do not and cannot solve the fundamental unsustainable nature of our current way of life.  Moreover, allocating finite resources to such incremental improvements decreases the amount of resources that can be allocated to true sustainability. This misallocation of resources detracts from the strategic goal of sustainability in favor of tactical victories at the individual level, thereby contributing to our current unsustainable way of life.  Even worse, the supposed success of incremental improvements reduces and delays the societal motivation to make drastic changes.

Please visit my blog at http://mytalion.wordpress.com/

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6 Responses to guest post: “responsible consumption” within an unsustainable way of life

  1. Jack Bowhan says:

    A little surprised by the suggestion to increase consumption and war as a way of finding a path to sustainability and the end of war. Any examples of this approach working in real life?

  2. Nicholas Kramer says:

    Thanks for the response Jack. It is definitely an unconventional approach, but the problems we face demand unconventional action. I would clearly prefer it if, for instance, the vibrant anti-war movement under the Bush administration became even stronger under the Obama presidency and successfully pressured the current administration to drastically change our foreign policies and end the wars. But the reality is that this hasn’t happened (and won’t). You should also note that I didn’t suggest that anti-war activists vote for McCain – merely that they should vote for candidates who actually support their positions (which would likely have the effect of helping McCain, which in the long run might make a less war-like foreign policy possible).

    As for examples of this kind of strategy working, consider any time that weak actors have beaten apparently stronger opposition forces. For instance, the American civil rights movement, the Vietnamese guerrillas in the US – Vietnam war, the Afghan guerrillas in the Afghan-Soviet war (and, while I’m at it, the Afghan guerrillas in the current Afghan-US war)… what are the images that represent these movements in the public eye? In the civil rights movement, it was African Americans being sprayed with fire hoses, attacked by dogs, beaten by police – in Vietnam, it was Buddhist monks immolating themselves and any number of bloody massacres of civilians – the same horrors apply in Afghanistan during both conflicts (bombings of wedding parties, torture, and so on). Civil rights activists didn’t “want” African Americans to be brutalized – but they also knew that things had to get worse in order for them to ultimately get better because these horrible incidents would build support for the movement among the larger population. Vietnamese and Afghan guerrillas didn’t and don’t “want” innocent civilians to be slaughtered by Soviet and then American troops – but these deaths are crucial to build and maintain support for insurgencies. Just the same, I don’t “want” us to increase consumption and war, but I believe we are in the same kind of asymmetrical conflict against a much more powerful opponent (our society’s exponential growth and drive toward unending consumption).

    For more on my views on war and other issues, see my blog at http://mytalion.wordpress.com – I take my responsibility for my government’s actions very personally and do not make these arguments lightly.

  3. Nicholas Kramer says:

    I would also note that no civilization based on exponential growth has ever reduced its consumption as a whole until it was forced to do so by external constraints (for examples, read Jared Diamond’s excellent book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed) – eventually, this will happen to us as well, it’s just a question of when and how.

    On the other side of the argument, let’s imagine a situation taking the “responsible consumption” model to the extreme in which a large segment of the American population moves back to a lifestyle reminiscent of Native American tribes before Europeans arrived here. History would repeat itself – in its never-ending quest for more resources and markets, members of the consumer society would out-compete the new American tribes and wipe them off the face of the planet.

    • I found myself following this line of thinking in the wake of the BP oil spill. While ecosystems and human livelihoods were being devastated, part of me was secretly hoping the “top hat, junk shot, and top kill” would fail, finally driving home the true costs of our fossil fuel dependence.

      My wish was granted and oil continued gushing into the Gulf for months. The Obama administration imposed a moratorium on most off-shore drilling, yet the region most affected by the spill protested this move. A second spill from a shallow-water well in the region barely registered in the media and with the public.

      This episode did not inspire me with your confidence that a near-cataclysm will necessarily change behavior/consumption.

      Your larger critique of ‘responsible consumerism’ resonates, but let’s look again at the issue of recycling. To me, recycling represents a marketing failure of the environmental movement. Remember the initial campaign: Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. The first two R’s have been largely ignored, and that these actions are listed in order of priority has been missed by most of the public. The ‘recycling movement’ was chiefly about reducing consumption (specifically: waste), but I contend the message was highjacked and the least important behavioral change (and not coincidentally: the easiest) was embraced. Recycling a plastic water bottle is not a green badge of honor, rather a failure to not buy the water bottle in the first place and a failure to not reuse the bottle after purchasing.

      That said, recycling has been widely embraced. Marketing the first two R’s will be difficult, but not impossible.

      There have been unequivocal successes in the environmental movement. The recognition of the dangers of DDT and the eventual ban. The passage of the Endangered Species Act – the most powerful environmental legislation of all time – under a Republican (Nixon) administration. These are both top-down, legislative victories, but they would not have been possible without an organized constituency advocating for them.

      The incremental gains you decry are critical to the maintenance and morale of the citizen groups advocating for change. Taking your anti-war example – while we have seen the consequences of “settling” for a moderate Obama presidency, recall the disillusionment after Bush was reelected to a second term. A McCain presidency could well have broken the back of the anti-war movement – repeated, short-term, crushing defeats does not necessarily inspire a movement to rally.

      (Sorry for the poorly organized comments lacking a coherent theme.. just my unfiltered reactions. Thanks for your thoughts, Nicholas.)

      • Nicholas Kramer says:

        Peter –

        Brilliant analysis! I agree with pretty much everything you wrote – frankly, you caught me in a lie. I don’t actually agree with some of the things I wrote (or at least implied) in my original post. By saying that recycling and incremental improvements are not “the answer,” I implied that I think there actually is a realistic answer to the problems I outlined – and I don’t really believe that is the case.

        Although recycling or other incremental improvements are not “the answer,” neither is anything else. As you point out in your reference to the residents of the gulf coast refusing to support even a short-term moratorium on drilling, we are so locked into this economic and cultural way of life that we will continue to fight for it without question even as it kills us. We “need” jobs, and we need them now, regardless of the long-term consequences to our future economy and health. The only way it will ever change is when there is no other choice – we’re seeing a bit of that now as people consume less because we have less money.

        Regarding the three R’s of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle – again, you’re dead on. Only the most useless of these initiatives has been widely embraced because it is possible to fit it into our economic and cultural models, whereas the others are not – and nothing will change this until the models fail completely (and this will not be a pretty picture). I would compare this to the market-based approach the US government used to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions that cause “acid rain” (see http://www.edf.org/page.cfm?tagID=1085). The success of this program has led many people to believe the same strategy can be used to combat carbon dioxide emissions in the fight against climate change. However, whereas sulfur dioxide was a relatively minor pollutant that had feasible substitutes in the production process, the emission of carbon dioxide is integral to almost everything we do in our economy. Sulfur dioxide could be reduced because it didn’t challenge growth overall – the same cannot be said of carbon dioxide, because to reduce carbon dioxide would be to reduce growth and that is not something we will voluntarily accept.

        You describe recycling basically as a morale booster for activists – again, you’re dead on. Realistically, these kinds of little victories are necessary just to keep people sane even if they don’t really change anything. The reality of our world is far too overwhelmingly horrible for most people to completely accept, so most of us who actually care just have to do what we can to get through the day. For me, however, it has long been my goal in life to accept responsibility for the harm I cause (see my blog at mytalion.wordpress.com for more) – and I can tell you that it is not a particularly pleasant way of living. In the end, the most we can honestly hope for is for people to keep fighting the small fights to at least delay our decline or reduce the harm we cause to ourselves, even if it doesn’t ultimately matter.

  4. Pingback: Guest post at argumentum ad cerebrum: “responsible consumption” within an unsustainable way of life | my talion

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