There is much debate about what exactly it would mean for humans to “consume” sustainably. Tim Jackson confronts that question in the excellent new Earthscan Reader in Sustainable Consumption, which he edited. The essays are divided into four parts: Framing Sustainable Consumption, Resisting Consumerism, Resisting Simplicity, and Reframing Sustainable Consumption. That last part is key to solving the big problem facing policymakers and activists: finding consensus about what exactly sustainable consumption would be in a world of inequality, and how to best achieve the behavior change necessary to limit resource throughput, lower energy consumption, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions globally. There are plenty of good intentions, but little progress. In fact, the efforts to date may provide a false sense of accomplishment.
Take energy efficiency, for example. Elizabeth Shove examines consumption in the United Kingdom in her essay “Efficiency and Consumption: Technology and Practice.” She finds that despite a national program to encourage energy efficiency, consumers actually increased their consumption by raising their thermometer, and increasing the use of appliances like dishwashers, freezers, and washing machines, even after new efficient models are installed. In fact, she identified consumers that consciously increased their consumption as an intentional use of the gained energy efficiency. This conundrum is pertinent because the public case for sustainably is primarily framed around efficiency: the consumer can still have it all, but lose that guilty conscience! However, efficiency will not take us to the top of Mt. Sustainability, to borrow a metaphor from Interface Inc.’s Ray Anderson.
One big problem may come from the frame ‘consumer.’ In a country whose former President responded to an unimaginable terrorist strike by encouraging Americans to go shopping, we are taught that the consumer has sovereignty, that we can each buy whatever we need, and the free market will meet those needs. In sustainability circles, the same frame is adopted: we ‘vote with our wallets,’ we support the businesses that make the more sustainable product. That type of effort certainly helps; companies like Seventh Generation have penetrated markets dominated by the conglomerates, and have reduced the toxic chemicals in our homes. However, the ‘consumer’ cannot consume his or her way out of the problems we face in the world. How can we start? We might want to stop calling ourselves consumers. Instead of defining humans as consumers, what about stewards? Stewardship is central to the behavior we need to encourage.
Merriam Webster defines stewardship as “the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one’s care.” Boy Scouts are taught to leave the campground cleaner when they leave than when they arrive; one problem is that people don’t necessarily appreciate their impact on Earth, and don’t feel a responsibility to leave it in a better condition for future generations. The Iroquois Nation had a Law that encouraged its people to think about their actions and the impact they would have on the Seventh Generation. Today we lack that kind of mentality, and think only about immediate gratification. The gratification becomes more immediate through advances in technology, but also seems to pass quicker as a result. To successfully frame sustainable consumption, and thereby change behavior, a frame like the Iroquois’ seventh generation is a start. On top of that, finding a way for stewards to become aware of what they consume, and the impact that consumption has on resources, is paramount. Most people don’t know how many gallons of water and fossil fuels go into a Big Mac; most people don’t even realize that potable water is a scarce resource. Making that resource intensity transparent for stewards is a good place to start. In the end, Mt. Sustainability is a steep climb, and the fall from its icy slopes is perilous. Finding a more effective way of inspiring people to take the long view is the challenge of the moment.