Reframing consumption choices: a paradigm shift

As the last two years of the Obama Administration have made clear, crafting effective policy is complicated, difficult, and divisive; the proverbial comparison of the process of crafting laws with that of making sausage still rings true.   However, the challenges which our President confronted in the first two years of his Administration, health care reform chief among them, pale in comparison to ‘Mount Sustainability,’ as Interface, Inc. CEO Ray Anderson likes to call the change required to make our consumption patterns, and more broadly, our lifestyles, sustainable.  Sustainability is not an academic exercise; as the throughput of resources in our economies continues to grow, as those resources become more scarce,  and as the ability of the Earth’s ecosystems to provide services like fresh water and carbon sinks diminishes, we are confronted with a huge challenge: in a world of inequality, how do we craft policy that will help to move us onto a path of sustainability?

In the United States today, environmentally friendly choices are framed as the “Green” thing to do.  However, Americans like to frame these decisions around choice; each individual is free to make their own choice, to live their own lives as they see it.  As a result, sustainably-minded businessmen and policymakers provide information to consumers, and empower them to make their own decisions.  Companies like Seventh Generation make the case that their products are the better choice because they use less toxic chemicals, or use recycled materials.  The growth of these types of products, and the efforts of multi-national companies to begin to “Green” their products is undoubtedly a good start.  However, when it comes to toxic chemicals and the harm that they have on human lives, there is much disagreement.  It becomes difficult for the consumer to know what the responsible decision is, for their family’s health, for their community’s watershed, for their planet.  We don’t fully understand the impact of certain carcinogens, or products like cellular phones, on long-term human health.  As Barry Schwartz writes, too much choice can confuse consumers, and make them feel unsatisfied:

“So whereas a life without any freedom of choice would not be worth living, and whereas giving people choices enhances their freedom and their welfare to some degree, it appears not to be the case that more choice means more freedom and more welfare. Indeed, a point may be reached at which choice tyrannizes people rather than liberating them. And we may be at that point. The significant implication of this news, both for individuals andfor policy makers, is that even if wealth is a proxy for freedom of choice, it does not follow that wealth is a proxy for well-being.If well-being is what we ultimately care about in setting social policy, we will have to look elsewhere. And if we can’t assume that we can make people better off just by giving them more to choose from, we can no longer avoid addressing difficult questions about what enhances human welfare by throwing options at people and letting them find their own answers.”

Schwartz argues for a kind of “libertarian paternalism,” whereby consumers would face simple choices, with information about the impact and benefit of each decision.  Clear and common-sized information about the impacts of our economy and our consumption on resources is certainly needed.  For example, water and fossil fuel use could be provided for each product sold on the marketplace, in a standardized, visible format.  Communities should mandate home energy inspections which provide consumers with a clear indication of the costs of their resource use, where resources are being wasted, and how investments in insulation and more efficient systems could help consumers save money over time.  States and cities should publicly finance installation of renewable energy systems, so that the long term cost and benefit of those systems can be passed onto a new homeowner when a house is sold.

Efficiency is not enough, though.  As resources become more scarce, there will be economic pressure on consumers to reduce their consumption.  People will eventually have to live closer to their workplace, and to live more simply.  Today, when many Americans still believe that exponential growth is a guaranteed right, it is difficult to get them to make decisions and investments for the long term.  The challenge to policy makers is to change that paradigm.  It is not enough to simply be more efficient, we need to maximize the benefit we get from the resources we have.   Consumers need to realize that the choices they make today will impact the way we live in the coming decades, and the world that their grandchildren will inherit.

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