"Normal" Sustainable Consumption Is a Fantasy


The sustainable consumption list server I follow has a exceptionally long series of commentaries about consumerism and the role of public relations and other forms of cultural pressure. One of the early entrants asked, "What is 'normal' [sustainable ] consumption?" This question comes in turn from the notion that there is some level of consumption that is both consistent with sustainability and with accepted societal norms. I think this is the wrong question to ask. We know that consumption must be much less than it today. Sooner or later we going to have to return to a footprint that is less than the one Earth we inhabit.

But short of that, we really do not have a clue as to what the norm should be. It's the wrong question to ask anyway. Consumption will always adjust to the need to subsist and to some pressures arising from the voice of culture. Those voices can be damped down, but will not disappear. If we continue to advertise the wonders of this or that product (as I am certain we will for a long time), it will be normal to respond by purchases in the supermarket. If our dominant values are extrinsic, focused on how we show up in the world, we will always be trying to catch up with the celebrities of the moment. The thought that normal can be defined otherwise fails to see the interrelationship of societal norms to other aspects of cultural structure.

The more important question is what kind of human beings will we be? The same conversation on the sustainable consumption network that raised this question moved to an extensive set of arguments about human rationality and the possibility of convincing people that changing their habits to reflect the limits of the Planet is in their best interests. If that were to happen, it would then be possible to erect all sorts of new institutional organization and rules. I do not think this gets at the real issue.

What kind of human beings do we want to be? The question is an ontological one. We have come to exist in the Having mode as Erich Fromm wrote. This view of ourselves is reinforced by the cultural structure that has evolved for at least 3-400 years, which structure is further embedded by our present consumptive patterns and the power. Some of the comments in the thread I refer to note that this structure is so strongly situated that it will change only through collapse and catastrophe. Perhaps, but this kind of forced change would throw us into a new world that might be even farther away from sustainability as I talk about it.

Having is not a fundamental characteristic of human nature. Being is the most primal characteristic that distinguishes humans from all other species. Being is the basic way we exist in the world and is enacted by the way we exhibit care. Care arises from consciousness of our interconnections to the world (the web of life) and the historic recognition that well-being depends on acting to keep all these relationships in a healthy state. I use flourishing as a general characteristic for these states.

Let me get back now to to the start of this post. Trying to define a level and pattern of normal consumption, sustainable or not, is fruitless. It's not the norms that are fixed today; it is the unconscious belief that Having is the way humans really are. Now after some years of struggling to convince people that this change from Having to Being is a necessary condition for sustainability to emerge, I accept the difficulty of working with these concepts.

So, I'll try to get there by talking about values instead. Values are nothing but an ascription given to the general way we order our behavioral habits. They are explanations actors and observers give when asked why certain kinds of actions show up more often than others in similar contexts. But, real or not, we are much more willing to talk about changing our values than changing our "ontological mode." And change is needed.

values wheel.pngI referred to extrinsic values above as ties to Having. Their opposite is intrinsic values, related more to the way we think about ourselves in terms of what we care about. Tim Kasser uses the diagram shown to represent this polarity. The congruence of these terms to Having and Being is not perfect, but goes a long way to support the polarized nature of the two ontological modes. Further while the expression to change the [ontological] mode of existence from Having to Being sounds strange and abstruse, changing values is much more familiar and acceptable. But not just any old set of values.

The cause of sustainable consumption would be better served if the community would think about change starting with ways to move rightward in the values multiplex diagram. In my way of talking, this move is the same as going from Having to Being. If such change happen and we finally arrive at a world where sustainability comes forth, the resultant patterns of consumption will be the "normal" patterns by definition. They will always only emerge when the whole system is working coherently. To try to determine what they should be, a priori, is both impossible and misdirected.

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annemarie linnehan said:

Quoted from today's NYT editorial "The Wrong Idea."

"Excessive indebtedness is a real, long-term problem. But Europe’s broad downward trajectory can only be turned around if governments — both those of lenders and debtors — spend more in the near term to put people back to work and get consumers back to spending."

As a consumer one feels caught in the middle. How do consumers reconcile the global economic imperative to spend with 'normal consumption' levels? What if consumers are currently in the process of changing their values and are actually moving toward their natural comfort level?

Jamie Saunders said:

Living with the paradox of 'Having' AND 'Being' ... parallels with consumer perspective to a citizen perspective; where 'consumption' and 'production' merge; and from a 'techno-market' view to a socio-ecological one (Josephine Green)...