What we as ordinary people can contribute to the effort to combat climate change lies in some personal behaviours of ours that we have direct control over — our consumption habits. We just need to pause and take the time to think and reflect upon what motivates us to buy and consume the way we do. The opportunities to contribute are right under our noses.
Let us start with the not-often-highlighted dark side of the concept of “prosperity”. The amount of stuff people can ‘afford’ nowadays has grown. Take airfare, for example. In the past, frequent air travel used to be accessible only to relatively wealthy people. Now with budget airlines and all, even lower middle class people in advanced societies are able to take overseas holidays more than once a year, or fly for domestic travel instead of taking the roadtrips that used to be more of the norm in the past. Trouble is, aviation accounts for a disproportionately large amount of greenhouse gases added to the atmosphere annually. It delivers a bigger impact to the environment than land transport on a per passenger-kilometre basis.
In any case, more people are able to afford cars now as well. Households with an almost one-to-one ratio of vehicles per household member are now common in advanced economies. The decline of public transport in many U.S. cities, particularly in California is the result of the lobbying power of the auto industry which practically coerced politicians to channeling funds into road building rather than on public transport infrastructure such as rail. More affordable cars resulted in the public caring less about the decline of public transport services.
I have nothing against rich people being entitled to luxury. But I have an issue with ordinary people being led to believe that they are entitled to own unnecessary stuff and consume excessively. Corporations have all but convinced people that they can have things right here and right now. There is something not right about a society that believes in that philosophy. Self-importance seems to be a human condition that shrewd marketing has so effectively exploited nowadays. There is of course a price to pay for getting things fast and cheap. And we are seeing the effects of our fast and cheap way of life today.
Then there is our ballooning numbers. Was it right for us to multiply to the numbers we see today? The U.S. for example is fed using super-species of corn that is grown using artificial fertilisers that are manufactured from fossil fuels and the runoff of these fertilisers is contributing to the degradation of water supplies. The sheer size and production volume of U.S. farms are made possible by industrialised farming techniques and machinery that burn large amounts of fossil fuel as well.
These farming technologies did contribute reducing hunger in the U.S. but then it also contributed to an increase in population to the point of complete dependence on almost irreversibly petroleum-fuelled agriculture. Softdrinks and other sweetened drinks are cheap because they are sweetened using byproducts of industrial corn production (fructose I think it is).
It’s like the way computerisation promised the advent of the paperless office. But look around today’s offices. People are not only printing and copying documents more, we are also starting to get addicted to colour printing, which consumes far more and produces larger volumes of waste products.
I don’t think there are any hard figures that tell us when consumption is excessive. But there are several principles at work around which the concept of “consumption” may be regarded:
(1) Consumption as driver of economic indicators
Exchanging goods for profit (i.e. trading in the original sense) adds value to the product of an economy (as measured by, say, the GNP or GDP). Every dollar earned in a transaction adds favourably to the Gross National Product (GNP) statistic of an economy. A person who buys a sack of rice for $5 then sells it for $8 adds $3 in “value” to the economy.
So in a sense, when lots of people are buying and selling in large quantities, as when “consumption” is said to be “healthy”, it is good for economic indicators because those activities contribute “value” to the economy. But then, what exactly is the substance behind that “value” I described above. Does the $3 in “added value” to the economy in that sack-of-rice transaction I used in the example above actually represent something tangible actually produced out of that transaction?
Multiply that a thousand fold into the aggregated way we measure “economic performance” and you will see that economies that merely exchange goods and gain profit but add little actual substance to what’s been exchanged can have as much chance to look good statistically as those economies that actually produce tangible stuff.
(2) Consumption in terms of what motivates it
Just because something is cheap or free, doesn’t mean we should wantonly consume it. Chairs and tables were once highly prized because the labour that went into building them was very tangible — you either built them yourself or you bought them from the village furniture maker who you personally know. Today, chairs and tables are manufactured by the millions in highly mechanised factories somewhere in China. They can be bought for just a hundredth of the cost of the furniture that our great grandparents used.
Whereas our great grandparents cherished their furniture and used them for years (even passing them to the next generation), we see ours today as mere fashion statements at worst. They last a few years and even if they are still good enough to use, we don’t think much of disposing of them to buy a the latest trendy set when it suits us. That’s because we can. But the question is, should we?
Today’s chairs and tables come cheap because our financial/monetary system tells us they are cheap. Trouble is, the financial system has been found to be incomplete as a scorekeeper of value and cost. It fails to account for the cost to the environment that our ability to manufacture stuff by the millions levies on Mother Nature. Because these millions of tables and chairs are “cheap” we dispose of them in larger quantities after shorter and shorter times of use. Our ability to manufacture in great quantities is enabled by our dependence on fossil fuels and our lack of accounting for the cost of disposing these throw-away products. Compare that to a time when no such manufacturing prowess existed and people had to hand-make stuff only in quantities that meet their needs.
So are we really improving our lot overall? Or are we simply improving the efficiency at which we consume — and waste?
(3) Consumption as an inherent property of our civilisation
No one element in the overall economic system is to blame for our predisposition to consume excessively. Indeed, it is not something we can pinpoint to one entity in our civilisation. Rather, this characteristic is the heart of the very nature of our civilisation itself.
In other words, what we see is the emergent behaviour of the whole system. All the individual properties and characteristics of each individual component come together to contribute to an overall set of behaviours and properties that don’t necessarily link back in a straightforward manner to any particular component.
But then there are basic relationships that we can isolate (but not necessarily use as an oversimplification of the issue):
(1) corporations’ goal is to make a profit and enrich its shareholders;
(2) consumers want nice things and status on top of the basic necessities they need to live; and,
(3) corporations respond to what consumers want and consumers respond to how corporations influence their tastes.
The challenge for us is to see this vicious cycle of consumption for what it is and somehow step out of it to the extent that we do not subsume ourselves into the behaviour of the system excessively.
To some extent, there are already regulations in place to curtail corporate power (e.g. false advertising laws, disclosure requirements, etc.) so that the thin line between influencing and misleading in their marketing campaigns is not crossed. However, there are no such regulatory frameworks to govern consumer behaviour, and corporations are getting more creative at designing their ad/marketing campaigns to work around regulations or exploit loopholes. So the onus is on us as individuals to develop a more ethical regard to the way we consume.
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