Opinion, arguments & analyses from the editors of Scientific American

Environmental ills? It's consumerism, stupid


plastic-painting-chris-jordanTwo typical German shepherds kept as pets in Europe or the U.S. consume more in a year than the average person living in Bangladesh, according to research by sustainability experts Brenda and Robert Vale of Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand. So are the world's environmental ills really a result of the burgeoning number of humans on the planet—predicted to reach at least nine billion people by 2050? Or is it more due to the fact that although the human population has doubled in the past 50 years, we have increased our use of resources fourfold?

After all, the roughly 40,000 attendees of the recent climate conference in Copenhagen produced more greenhouse gas emissions in just two weeks than 600,000 Ethiopians produce in a year. In fact, the world's richest 500 million people produce 50 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions compared to the 6 percent produced by the world's poorest 3 billion—Americans alone use up 88 kilograms of stuff (such as food and water but also plastics, metals and other things) per day, or roughly one me, day in and day out.

As simply put by the United Nations Millennium Ecosystem Assessment in 2005: "Human activity is putting such strain on the natural functions of Earth that the ability of the planet's ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted."

chris-jordan-plastic-painting-closeupAnd consumerism isn't even delivering on its own promise—a better life. "Not only is consumer culture causing unprecedented environmental havoc, it is in many cases not delivering the well-being for human beings it is supposed to," argued Christopher Flavin, president of the Worldwatch Institute during a press conference last week to release its new State of the World report, "Transforming Cultures: From Consumerism to Sustainability." "The kinds of changes in policy discussed at Copenhagen are also critical and, in fact, will go hand in hand with a cultural shift [from consumerism to sustainability.]"

What does he mean by a cultural shift? Well, for example, a change from current Western burial methods—injecting corpses with toxic chemicals, sealing them in expensive, non-degradable boxes that are then planted in cemeteries that maintain eternal greenness with fertilizers and pesticides—to burying loved ones in ways designed to heal families as well as the local environment (and ultimately turning these sites into natural reserves). "Two centuries of intentional cultivation of consumerism has led us to see it as perfectly natural to see ourselves primarily by what and how we consume," argued Erik Assadourian, lead author of the report for Worldwatch, whether that be McDonald's hamburgers or Hummer vehicles.

The Worldwatch researchers identify six key institutions that must be changed to promote sustainability: education, business, media, government, social movements and cultural traditions. "It's not a project out of whole new cloth," argued report co-author and political scientist Michael Maniates of Allegheny College in Pennsylvania. "There are strong cultural elements that treasure things like frugality or thrift. We need to re-center conditions in culture that call out that within us that has been suppressed."

Nor is this cultural ethic of consumerism confined to the developed world; developing countries are adopting it as an economic model. "Consumerism is now spreading around the world," Assadourian added, noting that China, among other things, has surpassed the U.S. as the largest market for new cars as well as the largest emitter of greenhouse gases. "Is this going to keep spreading? Or are countries going to start recognizing that this is not a good path?"

At the same time, a cultural shift may already be under way, represented by efforts such as those in Ecuador to enshrine rights for "Mother Earth" in the country's constitution or those at U.S.-based carpet manufacturer Interface to create a product that requires using nothing from the natural world that the natural world cannot replace.

Generally speaking, however, such efforts have been swamped throughout the world in a rising tide of consumerism, especially surrounding the latest electronic gadgets. But perhaps lust for the latest iteration of Apple merchandise can be replaced with what serial inventor Saul Griffiths calls the "heirloom culture," products that last for a lifetime or beyond. "In essence, the disposable life will be replaced by a sustainable one," Assadourian said, "a world where machismo is not connected to the size of a car but the fact that you don't have one at all."

In other words, it's our consumer-driven economy, stupid. Oh, and the advertisers. "We are not stupid, we're not ignorant, we don't even necessarily have bad values with respect to the environment," Maniates added. "We're trying to do our best within cultural systems that elevate unsustainable choices."

Of course, at the same time, Worldwatch would like you to spend $19.95 for a paperback version of its report, or $9.95 for a PDF or electronic document for your (yet another gadget) Kindle. Switching away from a capitalist ethic of consumerism continues to be easier said than done.

Images: Courtesy of Worldwatch Institute. Several million pounds of plastic enter the world’s oceans every hour, portrayed here by the 2.4 million bits of plastic that make up Gyre, Chris Jordan’s 8- by 11-foot reincarnation of the famous 1820s woodblock print, The Great Wave Off Kanagawa, by the Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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