Sustainability is the possibility that humans
and other life will flourish on Earth forever.
Reducing unsustainability, although critical,
will not create sustainability.
The header for this blog is a headline from an article published by the American Anthropological Association, by Richard Wilk. I read it in the Green blog of the Huffington Post. I saw Wilk just a few days before this at a conference sponsored by SCORAI (Sustainable Consumption Research and Action Initiative). I was one of the group that established SCORAI. Here’s the beginning of what Wilk wrote.
Greenwashing is not just for corporations anymore — it has gone personal. Instead of feeling guilty about the huge gaps between wealthy and poor, the ways consumerism causes global warming, or how our daily pleasures cause rainforest destruction and despoil the sea, we can drink a few cups of fair-trade coffee, eat a rainforest crunch bar and instantly feel better. The consumer marketplace today offers us every kind of ethical, ecological and healthy option we can imagine, from recycled toilet paper to household wind turbines.
Goodness and moral values have been privatized in our post-Reagan-Thatcher neoliberal world. “Green” consumer goods promise the eternal lie of the huckster — that we can have our cake and eat it too, that we can change the world without sacrifice, or any more effort than smarter shopping. Because our gold ear-studs have been “ethically mined” we are absolved from thinking about why we feel we ‘need’ to wear gold at all. We can take expensive vacations in exotic tropical lands, ignoring the poverty around us while we enjoy “sustainable” gourmet meals and an organic mud bath… Green consumption reduces all of the problems of the world into making the right shopping decisions.
All this fits into the classic case of quick fixes that attempt to cure the symptoms without addressing the root causes. I have argued that consumption is an addictive habit created and supported by the underlying cultural beliefs of our so-called modern society. Wilk adds an important additional causal factor, the disappearance of public moral values. We lack a public voice shouting, “Mindless consuming is not OK; it is destroying the social and environmental fabric of civilization.” (my words)
Wilk goes on to argue that we, in the affluent world, possess sufficient knowledge to appreciate the harms we are producing.
Another difference between our own consumer culture and that of our ancestors, is that now we know so much more about the way our consumption connects us to each other, to our own health and that of the planet. For the first time we can see, or even talk to the people who grow our gourmet coffee, weave our artisanal rugs, and put beads in our cornrows on a holiday beach. This marvelous network of information leaves consumers more exposed to moral fault than ever before, and makes the burden of moral behavior heavier and more perilous. Often the only choices seem to be tokenism — making changes that are more symbolic than substantive — or cynicism grounded in the experience of falling for new trends or solutions that turn out to be misguided, co-opted, or fraudulent.
Patagonia’s advertising campaign based on the moralistic phrase “Don’t Buy This Shirt” may have persuaded some of its clients to postpone their purchases, but the overall effect was to increase sales. [Consumer] choice is held to be a cornerstone of liberty by perhaps a majority of Americans, who see every instance of public values emphasizing the Commonwealth as a reduction of that liberty. Couple that to a foundation-level belief that we are constituted as “I’s” by an insatiable set of needs, and the ultimate outcome of consuming the Earth should become patently clear.
We can continue to value consumer choice, but not in the unlimited way we do at present. Even the most ardent libertarians should recognize that some rules are always needed to enable the freedom they seek. Traffic signals allow for the flow of drivers, free from the threat of injury and death at every crossroads. The free market is never completely free. Some rules are always needed to prevent misuse that contravenes the intents of those who see opportunities to collect excessive rents.
A shift in understanding of who the “I” really is could retain choice, but within limits. The seemingly slight change from an image of human beings as constituted by need to one where one’s humanness springs from care can convert the quick fix of green consumerism to a more fundamental system capable of producing sustainability-as-flourishing. Care requires goods and services to satisfy one’s intentions in the several domains I wrote about just two blogs previously. The insatiability vanishes, however. One consumes only as much as is required to satisfy the target of care in all domains. The process is continuous as the world keeps changing, but is not insatiable.
With this belief, end points are dictated by existential assessments, not by comparisons with others, triggered by cultural values, or driven by persuasive mechanisms. The ideal of the Sabbath can be realized because one can cease consuming, satisfied that his or her world has been taken care of, at least for the moment. It will take a cultural transformation to get to such a point, more than Wilk’s call-out, “Shock treatment through dramatic public events that bring shame on high consumers, and other direct action has to be on the agenda.” This would be a good start, exposing the amorality of today’s consumer culture, but without an accompanying shift in existential beliefs, would only slow down the race toward catastrophe.