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Sunday, September 1, 2013

Consumption and the Road to A Sustainable Future

I saw an interesting video the other day.    The video is popularly known as “The Girl Who Silenced the World for Five Minutes”.   The speaker is Severn Suzuki.   At age 9, she founded the Childrens’ Environmental Organization (CEO), dedicated to learning and teaching other children about environmental issues.   In the video, at age 12, she is speaking at the International Earth Summit in Rio De Janeiro. 

The full text of her remarks (with a few errors) is found here:

Severn Suzuki, age 12, speaks about sharing.   

“In my country, we make so much waste.   We buy and throw away; buy and throw away; buy and throw away, and yet northern countries will not share with the needy.  Even when we have more than enough, we are afraid to share; we are afraid to let go of some of our wealth….
If a child on the streets, who has nothing, is willing to share, then why are we, who have everything, so greedy?....
I am only a child, yet I know that we are all in this together, and should act as one single world, towards one single goal….I am only a child, yet I know, if all of the money spent on war was spent on finding environmental answers, ending poverty, and finding treaties, what a wonderful world this would be.”

Suzuki’s comments address the two major social and economic problems of today’s world: The problem of relieving poverty, and the problem of environmental waste.   The problems are in part contradictory.  As economic development has raised standards of living across the world, consumption has increased.  As consumption increases, finite resources are depleted more quickly, and wastes accumulate. 

Why Do We Consume Wastefully?
Economist Thorstein Veblen (1857 – 1929) was an early graduate of Carleton College (yay, Carleton!) in Minnesota.   In his master work “Theory of the Leisure Class” Veblen coined the term “conspicuous consumption” – consumption solely for the purpose of demonstrating status in society.  A century ago, Veblen saw that this excess consumption leads to waste.  Today, our society has adopted wasteful practices for a variety of additional reasons: for convenience, to save time, and to enhance corporate profits.   

But as Velben noted, high rates of consumption lead to high levels of waste.  Higher consumption leads to faster depletion of resources.  As the standard of living increases around the globe, consumers change their habits, consuming more meat and processed foods, buying disposable products, and buying products which require more resources to produce and transport.  It is the reward of economic development, but carries environmental costs.

The Role of Sharing in the Global Economy
Sharing is a fundamental human gesture of kindness.  It is encapsulated in Karl Marx’s phrase: “From each according to his abilities, and to each according to his needs”, (once described to me as one of the highest expressions of human ethics). 

But sharing in modern economies and across international boundaries is complex.  Sharing goods without sharing employment provides no future.  Sharing employment (as in the low-wage factories of East Asia) without sharing wealth is exploitation.  Globalization and economic development of less-developed nations is a form of sharing, but must proceed according to decent standards of human rights, human dignity, worker safety, environmental responsibility and living wages, enforced by the purchasing practices of the companies importing goods from developing countries.  Companies buying goods in foreign markets have a responsibility to know their suppliers, and to buy from ethical manufacturers.  Consumers have a responsibility to know which products are produced ethically, and which are not, and to choose accordingly.

Awareness and oversight of working conditions in developing nations has improved over the past two decades, although there is clearly a long way to go.   Pressure from activists and consumers has forced companies such as Nike and Apple to evaluate the working conditions among their suppliers, and to improve the lives of those workers.  However, consideration of broader environmental issues has lagged behind the concern for workers’ rights.

Consumers buying a cheap pair of tennis shoes may consider the reputation of the brand with regard to workers’ rights, but rarely consider the environmental damage from the coal-fired electricity producing those shoes.   In sharing economic development with the less-developed world, the developed world has “over-shared” the environmental damage associated with development.  

In some cases, the environmental damage is literally exported to other countries.  In the mining of rare-earth elements, the United States formerly shipped raw ore to China, and Australia still ships ore to Malaysia for the separation of valuable metals from waste rock.  The waste rock (or tailings) from rare-earth mining is generally radioactive and highly toxic.  These wastes, of course, remain in the underdeveloped nation, while the valuable metal is returned to the developed nation in the form of products, leaving the environment of the developed nation pure and pristine, and the underdeveloped nation contaminated.

It seems that consumers and companies in the developed world need to be reminded of Severn Suzuki’s message:  “We are all in this together, and should act as one single world, toward one single goal.”

Paradoxes on the Path to a Sustainable Future
Industrialization has increased the standard of living in most countries on the globe.   Greater wealth is accompanied by many good things: better health care and education, increased life expectancy, decreased infant mortality and sustainable population growth.   Of these, the stabilization of population is perhaps the most important thing, as a requirement for a sustainable future.   But economic development also accelerates the depletion of resources, creates a growing gap between rich and poor, and degrades the environment.  This is particularly evident in China.

High rates of consumption require high production; high production requires rapid depletion of resources.  There is a conflict between the goal of industrialization for developing countries and the goal of decreasing the impact of production on the environment.  Economic development is necessary for the equality and dignity of the people in the developing world; but restraint is required to maintain environmental sustainability. 

Environmental writers, such as Donatello Meadows (principal author, Limits to Growth, the 30-Year Update) emphasize the need to reduce consumption to achieve sustainable levels of resource use.  However, consumption is the engine of modern economies.  The University of Michigan’s Consumer Confidence Survey is one of the most important indicators for the health of the American economy.  Lower rates of consumption may be driven by fear of economic or political instability, high interest rates or high energy prices.   When these conditions occur, low consumption inevitably pushes the economy into recession.  High unemployment and economic inefficiency are the result of widespread reductions in the rate of consumption.

So paradoxes and conflicts exist on the road to a sustainable future.  Environmental responsibility must be shared, along with wealth and economic development.  Consumption should be reduced to reduce the depletion of resources to sustainable levels, but developing nations must be allowed to improve the lives of their citizens, and to reap the rewards of economic development.   In some ways, this paradox requires restructuring of the economy, and of expectations in life.  Some of that restructuring has already been happening for the past 40 years.   As automation has replaced many workers in manufacturing, there has been a rise in the service sector of the economy.  Increasing numbers of workers are employed, not in manufacturing, but in providing services to their fellow human beings.  Perhaps this is the vision of a sustainable future:  a world in which we consume less, but in other ways to serve and care for our fellow man.
As an adult, Severn Cullis-Suzuki continues working as an environmental activist, organizer, speaker, and author.   She lives in British Columbia with her husband and two children.