(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.
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