Change the way we consume and save the environment


This is our contribution to this year’s Blog Action Day theme — climate change.

What we as ordinary people can contribute to the effort to combat climate change lies in some personal behaviours of ours that we have direct control over — our consumption habits. We just need to pause and take the time to think and reflect upon what motivates us to buy and consume the way we do. The opportunities to contribute are right under our noses.

Let us start with the not-often-highlighted dark side of the concept of “prosperity”. The amount of stuff people can ‘afford’ nowadays has grown. Take airfare, for example. In the past, frequent air travel used to be accessible only to relatively wealthy people. Now with budget airlines and all, even lower middle class people in advanced societies are able to take overseas holidays more than once a year, or fly for domestic travel instead of taking the roadtrips that used to be more of the norm in the past. Trouble is, aviation accounts for a disproportionately large amount of greenhouse gases added to the atmosphere annually. It delivers a bigger impact to the environment than land transport on a per passenger-kilometre basis.

In any case, more people are able to afford cars now as well. Households with an almost one-to-one ratio of vehicles per household member are now common in advanced economies. The decline of public transport in many U.S. cities, particularly in California is the result of the lobbying power of the auto industry which practically coerced politicians to channeling funds into road building rather than on public transport infrastructure such as rail. More affordable cars resulted in the public caring less about the decline of public transport services.

I have nothing against rich people being entitled to luxury. But I have an issue with ordinary people being led to believe that they are entitled to own unnecessary stuff and consume excessively. Corporations have all but convinced people that they can have things right here and right now. There is something not right about a society that believes in that philosophy. Self-importance seems to be a human condition that shrewd marketing has so effectively exploited nowadays. There is of course a price to pay for getting things fast and cheap. And we are seeing the effects of our fast and cheap way of life today.

Then there is our ballooning numbers. Was it right for us to multiply to the numbers we see today? The U.S. for example is fed using super-species of corn that is grown using artificial fertilisers that are manufactured from fossil fuels and the runoff of these fertilisers is contributing to the degradation of water supplies. The sheer size and production volume of U.S. farms are made possible by industrialised farming techniques and machinery that burn large amounts of fossil fuel as well.

These farming technologies did contribute reducing hunger in the U.S. but then it also contributed to an increase in population to the point of complete dependence on almost irreversibly petroleum-fuelled agriculture. Softdrinks and other sweetened drinks are cheap because they are sweetened using byproducts of industrial corn production (fructose I think it is).

It’s like the way computerisation promised the advent of the paperless office. But look around today’s offices. People are not only printing and copying documents more, we are also starting to get addicted to colour printing, which consumes far more and produces larger volumes of waste products.

I don’t think there are any hard figures that tell us when consumption is excessive. But there are several principles at work around which the concept of “consumption” may be regarded:

(1) Consumption as driver of economic indicators

Exchanging goods for profit (i.e. trading in the original sense) adds value to the product of an economy (as measured by, say, the GNP or GDP). Every dollar earned in a transaction adds favourably to the Gross National Product (GNP) statistic of an economy. A person who buys a sack of rice for $5 then sells it for $8 adds $3 in “value” to the economy.

So in a sense, when lots of people are buying and selling in large quantities, as when “consumption” is said to be “healthy”, it is good for economic indicators because those activities contribute “value” to the economy. But then, what exactly is the substance behind that “value” I described above. Does the $3 in “added value” to the economy in that sack-of-rice transaction I used in the example above actually represent something tangible actually produced out of that transaction?

Multiply that a thousand fold into the aggregated way we measure “economic performance” and you will see that economies that merely exchange goods and gain profit but add little actual substance to what’s been exchanged can have as much chance to look good statistically as those economies that actually produce tangible stuff.

(2) Consumption in terms of what motivates it

Just because something is cheap or free, doesn’t mean we should wantonly consume it. Chairs and tables were once highly prized because the labour that went into building them was very tangible — you either built them yourself or you bought them from the village furniture maker who you personally know. Today, chairs and tables are manufactured by the millions in highly mechanised factories somewhere in China. They can be bought for just a hundredth of the cost of the furniture that our great grandparents used.

Whereas our great grandparents cherished their furniture and used them for years (even passing them to the next generation), we see ours today as mere fashion statements at worst. They last a few years and even if they are still good enough to use, we don’t think much of disposing of them to buy a the latest trendy set when it suits us. That’s because we can. But the question is, should we?

Today’s chairs and tables come cheap because our financial/monetary system tells us they are cheap. Trouble is, the financial system has been found to be incomplete as a scorekeeper of value and cost. It fails to account for the cost to the environment that our ability to manufacture stuff by the millions levies on Mother Nature. Because these millions of tables and chairs are “cheap” we dispose of them in larger quantities after shorter and shorter times of use. Our ability to manufacture in great quantities is enabled by our dependence on fossil fuels and our lack of accounting for the cost of disposing these throw-away products. Compare that to a time when no such manufacturing prowess existed and people had to hand-make stuff only in quantities that meet their needs.

So are we really improving our lot overall? Or are we simply improving the efficiency at which we consume — and waste?

(3) Consumption as an inherent property of our civilisation

No one element in the overall economic system is to blame for our predisposition to consume excessively. Indeed, it is not something we can pinpoint to one entity in our civilisation. Rather, this characteristic is the heart of the very nature of our civilisation itself.

In other words, what we see is the emergent behaviour of the whole system. All the individual properties and characteristics of each individual component come together to contribute to an overall set of behaviours and properties that don’t necessarily link back in a straightforward manner to any particular component.

But then there are basic relationships that we can isolate (but not necessarily use as an oversimplification of the issue):

(1) corporations’ goal is to make a profit and enrich its shareholders;

(2) consumers want nice things and status on top of the basic necessities they need to live; and,

(3) corporations respond to what consumers want and consumers respond to how corporations influence their tastes.

The challenge for us is to see this vicious cycle of consumption for what it is and somehow step out of it to the extent that we do not subsume ourselves into the behaviour of the system excessively.

To some extent, there are already regulations in place to curtail corporate power (e.g. false advertising laws, disclosure requirements, etc.) so that the thin line between influencing and misleading in their marketing campaigns is not crossed. However, there are no such regulatory frameworks to govern consumer behaviour, and corporations are getting more creative at designing their ad/marketing campaigns to work around regulations or exploit loopholes. So the onus is on us as individuals to develop a more ethical regard to the way we consume.

[This is article includes a compilation of comments by ‘benign0’ in the blog post “True Resilience in the Face of Disaster]

About benign0

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10 Responses to Change the way we consume and save the environment

  1. While I see your point, I think it uses the wrong premises to arrive at its conclusion. Any premise must be supported by historical facts. The key to “saving” the environment IS to get richer. Any cursory review of “developed” countries that went on to enact strict environmental standards and clean up their environment reveals one particularly stable pattern–they were heavy polluters when they were poorer. A nice and clean environment is a luxury, sad to say and just like with any luxuries in life, a society must have the material means to pay for it. So whether it is Victorian era England or Bismarck era Germany or today’s China, as societies become wealthier, their environmental policies improve.

    Economic democracy through greater popular access to economic goods made possible by market forces is probably the greatest driving force for uplift the world has seen. It would be a tragedy to see this mangled by well-intentioned theorists who failed to incorporate historical facts and reasonable implications into their analysis.

  2. benign0 says:

    Consider China and its billion plus people Mr. Filipino Culture. As China becomes richer, more of its people will start owning cars and buying appliances that consume electricity (which is generated using fossil fuels for the most part). And as they get more affluent, those appliances’ and cars’ period of use gets shorter and shorter (as the labour cost of repair work gets higher and replacement becomes more economically viable than repair work).

    Think of a world where a billion additional people own cars, washing machines, clothes driers, buy Ikea furniture, order takeout food in styrofoam containers, and travel by air more often.

    I think your assumption that affluence improves “environmental policies” is valid only within a limited range. Affluent societies save their forests yet import timber and its derivative products from Third World basket cases that hack away at their own woodland like there is no tomorrow just to be able to afford the foreign currency to buy their iPods and Diesel jeans. The U.S.’s prosperity is built upon the premise that there will always be a continuous pipeline of oil from a bunch of unstable desert kingdoms (so much so that they are willing to send their boys and their guns over there to secure that supply).

    • I’m not sure the facts support your contention that as China’s living standards increase their environment will surely degenerate further. Indeed, it was after the US and the UK had developed a mass consumer base that environmental laws and environmental remediation programs developed (50s to 70s). Who’s to say that won’t happen in China as well? As for “exporting” pollution, that might stem more from globalization (sourcing products where its cheapest) in the interim. In the long term, its not a viable option and many developed countries are realizing that (hence the rise in the “green” movement from materials, to energy sources, to the localization movement). The latter might be moot anyway as more “developed economies” turn to more sustainable and greener technologies and material bases. How many baleen whale clothing items is the US importing now? Exactly 🙂

    • benign0 says:

      Mr. Filipino Culture:

      As China’s living standards increase, there will be a corresponding snowballing effect in the amount of “greenhouse gases” it contributes to the atmosphere. There is evidence that these gases contribute to “global warming” but the debate rages on.

      I do agree that richer countries will have a greater political will and the means to develop (a) cleaner energy sources, (b) more environmentally sound input materials into their manufactured goods, and (c) more efficient and cleaner disposal processes and technologies than poor countries. Perhaps initiatives around those three fields (plus that other thing you mentioned — increased localisation, which I am a big fan of) will result in a per capita reduction in emmissions and waste production. But that won’t change the absolute increase in consumption and commercial activity that prosperity will bring.

      Even the most optimistic estimates put reduction of emmissions per capita in developed countries (and that is assuming that initiatives being pushed are 100% successful) at only 25%. Elevation of living standards of Third World people often result in a 100% increase in energy use, and waste production.

      So even if we realise a 25% decrease in energy use and waste production and a successful implementation of this in a rapidly developing Third World country, like say China, a parallel improvement in living standards will still raise the environmental impact of that community by 40% in absolute terms (even if population size remains the same).

  3. Chino F says:

    That consumption is needed for human life is a given. Humans can’t live without consumption. It’s the level of consumption that is the issue. There are many things driving people to over-consume, such as overproduction and deceptive marketing schemes of some companies. While government has its role in keeping the economy stable, the people have their role in preventing over consumption, such as the need for their to build up their resistance to these deceptive advertising and marketing schemes.

    • benign0 says:

      Exactly, Mr. Chino F. When a new process or technology is discovered to reduce the cost of manufacturing something, people at first think “Wow, this is gonna save everyone a lot of money”. What is often not foreseen is how the reduction in the cost of an item results in more of it being consumed.

      So it’s like a positive feedback loop. Lower production costs (on a per unit basis) result in increased consumption, and increased consumption results in bigger economies of scale that induce further reductions in production costs which, again, further spurs consumption, and so on and so forth…

  4. Lani says:

    The rich countries were polluters when they were poor because they didn’t know better. Must we follow their path? Now that we have their experience from which we can draw our lessons, we must avoid copying their consumption-driven lifestyle that created the environmental problems we are saddled with right now, so we won’t need so much money to pay for a cleaner, healthier world. Because even if we could afford higher consumption levels with increased incomes, and even if we have technology that can mitigate the environmental impact of heavy consumption, we don’t have an infinite supply of natural resources. Sooner or later, something will have to give. If we can have our cake but we shouldn’t eat it because it costs the earth so much, why bake the cake in the first place?

  5. imp_of_lannister says:

    population is the major driver of consumption. want to save the earth? stop procreating.

    every generation uses more energy than the ones before. these so-called cleaner technologies (like hybrid vehicles) are stop gaps and poor ones at that. if you really want to save the world stop making cars until you can manufacture truly significant clean vehicles. the savings in gas consumption these hybrids probably do save probably dont even offset the amount of degradation caused by their own manufacture.

  6. ScrappyHappyDappyPinay says:

    I don’t get what your real stand here is. You say that it is consumer behaviour that’s causing the damage to our environment and yet you also tell your readers that we are victims of our environment and disposition. It is more like saying the baby is to be blame for consuming processed powdered milk and yet it can’t help itself because its hungry. I don’t exactly what this is trying to achieve. If you believe that we are victims of determinism then we are rendered powerless to act upon it so there is no point for a call to action. Do you want people to adopt the mentality of waste-not-want-not so basically we consume sparingly to the detriment of our economy or we become conscientious consumer that we buy only products that are sustainable i.e. purchasing local goods which reduces carbon emissions and also help our cottage industries. It is a bit wishy washy to me and if only there is a bit more substance to this.

  7. Pingback: Philippine-China conflict: How did we come to be so dependent on Chinese imports? | Get Real Post

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