Sustainable(?) Consumption

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I'm teaching a course about sustainable consumption at Marlboro this trimester. Our next face-to-face meeting is coming up next weekend, and I have been getting prepared. I don't like this the name of the subject at all. It's not consumption that we want to sustain; it's the possibility of flourishing. Sustainability is not about production or consumption. Sustainability depends critically on the nature of these two halves of the economic identity that says in a perfect (economic) world the two will be equal. But it is not the same, and the sooner businessmen, planners, and policy makers learn the difference, the sooner we will be able to make meaningful changes in our economy and culture.

But, in spite of my unease with the name, the underlying topic is important. In his article in the reader I am using, Tom Princen speaks about consumption (and production) "angles", arguing that economists mostly come at the subject from the production side, but that it's the consumption side that is most closely tied to sustainability. Understanding what drives consumption tells us much more about the roots of unsustainability, and provides clues about what to do about it--a way of "rethinking how humans relate to nature."

It's important to add to this statement a reference to how human relate to themselves. I think that's even more important since the determinants of consumption lie somewhere in the fuzzy area of our needs, wants, desires, cares, or other terms that describe some inner engine that powers our consuming actions. From a scholarly or pedagogical perspective, here's where the fun lies. it's clear to me that understanding what drives us to consume is of more consequence and trickier than probing issues in the making of whatever we do consume. That's also part of Princen's discussion.

But when we start to examine what kind of actions are being taken to cope with the earthly consequences of consumption, almost all take consumption as a given, and focus on making the impacts of existing patterns less damaging. That's what eco-efficiency and greening do. That's not going to be enough, no matter how much "cleantech" and sustainable products show up. One of the reasons is that the basis on which these solutions have been selected is misplaced. The consumer is left out or is considered inviolate. Consumer sovereignty is what the Declaration of Independence created and, as expressed loudly in the current political season, nobody is going to take it away.

Remember the earlier policy plank, the polluter pays principle. Blame for environmental damage was laid on the producers of the goods and services-the producer's angle. It was more convenient and politically safe for policymakers to do this than take on the consumers that bought and used the stuff coming onto the market. But it ignored or denied, just as is now the case of eco-efficiency or cleantech, the more important connection of consumption to the very problems these solutions are expected to ameliorate.

Maybe that's because the economists have been driving the policy engine for a very long time. Economists are supposed to know the right answers, as a Nobel prize in their field attests. But in spite of recent forays into behavioral economics, they haven't developed sufficient tools and knowledge to reveal the roots of human consumption. This job has been left to neuroscientists, sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists, and even philosophers. My bet would be on the latter to come up with the best understanding. All living creatures consume. Without consumption, there can be no life, but humans consume differently. It has something to do with what makes us human and not simply another highly evolved animal. None of the sciences can fully answer the question implied in the last sentence. All divvy up human life into pieces that they study, and leave out what may hold the answer. Philosophers, I think, are better equipped to probe this but today are more or less an academic curiosity. Too bad, but the days of Plato and Aristotle are not likely to return.

ps. Tim Jackson, in a most interesting TED lecture about creating prosperity and flourishing, that is, sustainability, points to the criticality of asking and answering the question, "What is it to be human?" So do I in my book.

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David M. Carter said:

This is a topic near and dear to my heart. I must admit that I am envious that you are teaching a class in "sustainable consumption".

In my manuscript on "The Psychology of Sustainable Consumption" I argue that the shift from extrinsic to intrinsic motivators is a key leverage point for reducing consumption levels. Continuing research is discovering that people who are more intrinsically motivated not only consume less, but also report higher levels of well-being. Extrinsic motivators, such as financial success, social popularity, and physical appearance (the demon social indicators of our society of greed) create behaviors that are environmentally and personally devastating.

Perhaps the best news of all about the ratio of intrinsic to extrinsic motivators is that a shift from extrinsic to intrinsic not only leads to a reduction of unsustainability. It also sets the stage for people to view their place on the Earth in a way that gives real sustainability a much better chance of taking hold as a viable alternative. In one study dealing with the "tragedy of the commons", the researchers found that intrinsically-oriented participants actually benefited to a greater extent over time than did the extrinsically-oriented participants. The researchers presupposed that intrinsically-motivated people may have an evolutionary advantage in times of resource scarcity by being better able to properly manage renewable resources for the long-term benefit of all.