Off to a Conference on Sustainable Consumption


I am off to attend a conference on sustainable consumption. It is an important event in spite of the oxymoronic sense of the term “sustainable consumption.” It’s the first gathering of academics of all sorts, largely coming from the social sciences, seasoned with some NGO representatives to keep the conversation on point. I’ll be involved until next Monday.

I am quite optimistic that we will dwell more on the consumption half of the phrase, seeking to explore why consumption has become such a central feature of our society. For me that is more important than trying to measure our impact on the Earth and set some sort of numerical target as a sustainable upper bound to the amount we consume. That aspect, is also very important. Bill Rees, one the creators of the ecological footprint way of thinking, will be among the participants. Quantifying our consumption relative to the capacity of the Earth to provide for it should serve to change the economic traffic light from green to red, without even flashing yellow, but we haven’t paid much attention to the signals.

We are and have been in great state of denial for a very long time. And if we are to break out of this state, we have to understand why we consume like addicts. The “why” is critical to understand, so practical and effective programs can be put in place to break the addictive habit. More technology simply continues to feed the habit.

I have been reading an interesting book. When Society Becomes an Addict, by Anne Wilson Schaef. She has a long chapter describing the behavioral patterns of addiction. Her model is that addiction follows from a system with these kinds of behavior I selected from a long list:

  • Self-centeredness
  • The illusion of control
  • Dishonesty
  • Confusion
  • Denial
  • Scarcity thinking

These “addictive personality” traits show up on an individual level when we focus our attention on climate change, poverty, maldistribution and other aspects of unsustainability? The more we are in denial, the longer it will be until the wake-up call that is already out there gets through. These characteristics also apply to our collective institutions—government, business. It is nothing but denial to make believe we can fix up everything with a collection of big and small BandAids. We never have, so why not stop and focus on the real causes that lie deep in our culture? I hope to come home from this conference with a better idea of why we are where we are and, maybe, a better sense of how to put ourselves in a place that works for everything, where all can flourish.