Sustainability is the possibility that humans
and other life will flourish on Earth forever.
Reducing unsustainability, although critical,
will not create sustainability.
I am currently taking a course named after one of the texts we are using, The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander. The main theme is the scandalous mass incarceration of young black men as a result of the “War on Drugs” policies over the past several decades. Bolstered by several Supreme Court decisions that supported police sweeps without significant grounds, the young black male population has become virtually decimated in many urban communities. They have been jailed for either drug possession or drug dealing, most often without a trial, being induced to plea bargain with prosecutors threatening draconian mandatory sentencing guidelines.
This issue is, by itself, worth following. I encourage you to get and read a copy of Alexander’s book. If your sensitivities are at all like mine, reading it will produce more than a few sleepless nights, but this is not the point I want to make in this post. Although drug-related criminal justice is becoming more rational, the idea that drugs are addictive and therefore bad for human well-being, therefore those using or providing the stuff should be punished. But shouldn’t this idea be extended to those who produce addiction in any form, so long as the addiction is harmful. Addiction refers to a particular habit that is very strongly embedded in one’s behavioral norms and also creates a harmful consequence along with whatever the user considers beneficial.
Drug addiction eats away at the health of the user and produces additional consequences: criminal activity. These are not mere side-effects. They are just as much a result of the addiction as is the primary reason for it. Crime is an example of a societal consequence that accompanies the private set of benefits and costs. People are addicted to bad food habits, leading to obesity and to social costs in the form of higher medical costs. Many are addicted to alcohol, with outcomes similar to the case just above. Alcoholics cause many deaths every year via drunk driving and suffer impaired relationships at home and at work. We tolerate these and many other addictions in spite of the harms caused to others and to society in general. Recent political and legislative activities indicate that we are beginning to question the severity of the severe criminalization associated with drugs.
But these addictions are small in comparison with one that virtually everyone in the United States and other affluent nations suffers from—the addiction of consumption. Let’s face it. We are addicts individually and as a group. We can laugh off aphorisms with consumption themes, like, “When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping,” or the advice George W. Bush gave the Nation shortly after 9/11. He told us to, “Go shopping.” People joke that “the one with the most toys when he or she dies wins.” Wins what I cannot figure. A brief Internet search suggests that others also cannot figure this one out. It certainly suggests that consumption and doing well are related.
Consumption is not addictive up to a point. Economists, psychologists, and others have demonstrated that consumption contributes to our well-being but only up to a point where more consumption does nothing for our well-being or may decrease it. Except for those at the lower end of the distribution of wealth who struggle for subsistence and the basic needs that Abraham Maslow showed us, we are acting in addictive patterns. We have come to act as if all the problems of life can be solved by some form of consumption of goods and services. We don’t even think about it; we automatically follow President Bush’s advice every time our lives encounter a hiccup. Healthy activities become replaced by purchased services. I have written about available services that are empty of the health-giving power of relational practices. One that always gets me going is the hiring of “professional” potty trainers. We trade an important part of nurture to a stranger.
Addiction to consumption has another consequence similar to the public costs of food or alcohol addiction. It shows up as unsustainability. Consumption always does and will impact the health of the Planetary system which provides us our life-support: the air we breathe, the water we drink, the energy that turns our wheels, the food we eat, and all the materials that are transformed into everything we use. Our addiction has reached levels that now are visibly impairing the health of this system. Climate change is rapidly becoming the most evident. In general we have ignored these so-called “side-effects,” a poor, misleading word because it implies that these effects are marginal. They are not!
Drug addiction and trafficking is considered to be a crime. Crimes are acts that contravene societal norms. They refer to actions that harm the public. Why then is not consumption a crime and those who traffic in it criminals? We are surely destroying the ultimate source of well-being and perhaps even the source of life itself. Is it simply that we do not see our addiction because the social consequences are not immediately recognized? Or are we, like many alcoholics, living in complete denial? Have we yet to understand that the cost is more than the value we give to the instant surge of gratification? Are we just a bunch of hypocrites that express our concerns one moment, and then ignore them in the next? It really doesn’t matter. Our addiction is taking us to a place I believe we do not really want to be.
So, what should we do about it? We could criminalize it like we do for drugs, but there would not be room in all the jails for us. Besides no one would left outside to run them. We could make the producers and market intermediaries criminals, and just lock them up. We would have to pass a lot of laws and regulations to permit those providing “necessary” consumption to continue to operate. We could take a different tack and initiate a huge rehabilitation program that would, like Alcoholics Anonymous, allow us to live with our addictions, but hold them in check. Economists, politicians and business leaders would require an extra special program to rid them of the trafficking role that they play. And so on. This may look like a satire, but it is not. It is deadly serious. We are indeed addicts. The economic agents—the dealers—know to drag others along. This is happening under the guise of globalization and the export of our addictions elsewhere on the Planet.
Alcoholics heal themselves only when they accept that their addiction is part of their self. Addictive consumption is just a much a part of all of us as is alcoholism to alcoholics. It is fed by the fabric of our societal culture. It feeds off the obscene bombardment of persuasion in all our media and now on the internet. Our economic and political systems are grounded on everlasting growth of consumption.
When I began to think seriously about sustainability, I spent a lot of time learning about the 12-step program and the principles that underpin it. I am convinced that our troubles do stem from a cultural addiction that manifests itself as consumption. I can’t imagine any program that puts us all in jail, but I can visualize rehabilitation approaches like the 12-step system that might work. But following those now in play for various forms of addiction, we would have to, all of us, acknowledge our addiction. Then we could work to bring it under control. We are going to have to face this sooner or later. We have a much higher chance of leaving a healthy Planet for future generation is we choose sooner. As it has been said, “Denial ain’t just a river.”