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.
On Thursday, Tony Hayward will appear before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, and offer testimony about BP’s failures on the Deepwater Horizon Rig. These documents, released by the Committee in advance of the hearing, make it clear that BP cut corners. This e-mail, between BP engineers a week before the blowout, discusses BP’s choice of a faster, less expensive, and less protective casing for the well:
From: Morel, Brian P
Sent: Wednesday, April 14, 2010 1:31 PM
To: Miller, Richard A
Cc: Hafle, Mark E
Subject: Macondo APB
There is a chance we could run a production liner on Macondo instead of the planned long string. As this does not change much for APB based on the original design assumptions of a trapped annular, I don’t see any major effects, but wanted to confirm I am not missing something. Attached is the proposed schematic, please let me know if you have any questions. We could be running it in 2-3 days, so need a relative quick response. Sorry for the late notice, this has been nightmare well which has everyone all over the place.
Of course, among the documents are also approval e-mails from the Minerals Management Service. There are also e-mails from Halliburton, showing that BP went against the Halliburton recommendation for the number of centralizers, devices to keep the casing centered on the well while the cement was poured and set. Halliburton recommended 21, but BP went with only six, because the well was behind schedule.
BP and the British Government, are fighting American efforts to force BP to set up an escrow account to ensure claims settlement, and to cease payment of dividends. Of course, in Britain, BP dividends account for a large portion of retirement income:
‘BP’s position at the top of the London Stock Exchange and its previous reliability have made it a bedrock of almost every pension fund in the country, meaning its value is crucial to millions of workers. The firm’s dividend payments, which amount to more than £7 billion a year, account for £1 in every £6 paid out in dividends to British pension pots. BP is so concerned about Mr Obama’s power to affect share value that it has urged David Cameron to appeal to the White House on its behalf. Downing Street, however, has refused to get involved. “We need to ensure that BP is not unfairly treated – it is not some bloodless corporation,” said one of Britain’s top fund managers. “Hit BP and a lot of people get hit. UK pension money becomes a donation to the US government and the lawyers at the expense of Mrs Jones and other pension funds.”’
Now, did BP have British pensioners in mind when it opted for cheaper casing, and fewer centralizers? No, it opted for risky cost-cutting instead of safe, secure profit that pensioners would expect. Will blaming the President help the pensioners? Not quite. The pensioners are simply learning the same lesson that stockholders of Enron and Worldcom learned, that many corporations incentivize short term earnings without an eye to the long term.