Our culture of disposability, and its costs

Van Jones spoke at a TED event in Santa Monica in November, about the economic injustice of plastic, and the culture of disposability that permeates our society.  He brings up a really interesting point when he compares the person who recycles their plastic water bottles and the person who throws them away. Typically, the person who recycles their bottle will feel satisfied that they are doing their part for the environment.  However, the cost of plastic manufacture and recycling are borne by the poor of the world.  The stretch of American known as ‘Cancer Alley,’ along 85 miles of the Mississippi River from Baton Rouge to New Orleans, produces plastic and petrochemicals, and has disproportionately high cancer rates.  Van Jones points out that plastic is often shipped to China for recycling, where more poor people process it.  When we satisfy our thirst conveniently with disposable containers, there are costs borne outside of the direct transaction, what economists call externalities.

However, our culture celebrates convenience and consumption, and many of us don’t understand the true costs of how we live.  Bill Gerlach talks about Mindful Consumption in his blog, The New Pursuit.  He writes about restoring our balance with the natural world, and becoming present to our lives, the world around us, and our place in it.  He offers some helpful strategies for mindful consumption, including buying less plastic, single-tasking, and pausing before making a purchase.  Becoming more mindful  is difficult in today’s world, with the litany of communication media, and our go-go-go lifestyles.   However, we have crucially lost touch with what it is that makes us human.  Thomas Berry, author of The Dream of the Earth, was a Catholic priest and a deep ecologist.  He wrote that our culture is distorted, and is “the origin of the deteriorating influence that we have on the life systems of the Earth.”  We would be smart to rethink our throwaway culture, because honestly, there is no ‘away.’

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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.