Review of Earthscan Reader in Sustainable Consumption

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.


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.