Consumption and the Transition movement

This TED talk by Hans Rosling made me think about Transition Initiatives (and sustainability more generally) and washing machines (and consumption more generally).

Only 2 billion of the world’s 7 billion people have washing machines. How can those of us who have washing machines tell developing countries that the environment cannot support them getting a washing machine? When around half the world’s energy is used by the richest billion people  in the world (which probably includes anybody reading this blog), we are the ones who need to become MUCH more sustainable.

Consumption thus needs to become the core business of the Transition movement. In planning the Transition Streets Challenge, we based the broad structure of our workbook on one from Transition Towns Totnes. They had seven chapters: an introduction and wrapping up, and then chapters on water, energy, food, transport and waste. While using essentially the same structure, the waste chapter become the consumption and waste chapter.  Until we address our addiction to consumption (see for example the Story of Stuff and the Post Growth Institute) we have no hope of becoming more sustainable.

In our chapter on consumption and waste, we discussed the notion of infinite growth.

Our modern world is based on an economy that requires continual growth. We are told we need economic growth for job creation. We are bombarded with economic figures about all areas of our lives, and analysis on what this will mean for growth. Official interest rates go up and down, or stay stable, based on these growth figures and predictions. Interest rates may go down in an attempt to get people to spend, in the hope that this spending will stimulate growth in the economy. Many of us received cash payments from the government during the 2008 Global Financial Crisis which we were encouraged to spend on whatever took our fancy.

Not surprisingly, issues around general consumption are rarely addressed when discussing environmental sustainability. While it is safe to talk about new technologies, new forms of energy production and increasing efficiencies of energy and material use; our actual levels of consumption is a topic that governments and society in general prefers to avoid. Our whole economic system is based on consumption, and growing consumption. To question our consumption levels is to question the way our whole society is structured. But we live on a finite planet, so infinite growth is not possible.

The American advertising industry predicted recession for the United States’ economy (Vale & Vale, 2009): they thought businesses faced the real problem of not being able to sell any more goods since everyone in America clearly had enough of everything they could possibly want. And this was in the 1950s! Clearly they were wrong. The advertising and marketing industry has always been able to persuade us to be dissatisfied with what we have, and entice us to consume more to address this dissatisfaction.

There are serious areas of conflict between our current economic system and environmental sustainability. According to modern economics:

  • Businesses and economies must grow (so in a finite world, we behave as if it were infinite)
  • Things we don’t pay for have no cost or value (so not factoring environmental degradation into the cost of goods and services means it is not the economy’s concern)
  • There should be an economic payback for actions taken (so if we do factor environmental harm or degradation into the price of goods and services, we expect a ‘financial’ return for these costs). (Adapted from Vale & Vale 2009)

The need to move to a steady state economy (one not based on growth) is crucial, and inevitable. (From the Transition Streets Challenge workbook).

Our Environmental impact = Population x Affluence x Technology (I=PAT). This means that our environmental impact is affected by the number of people on the planet, how affluent people are, and how energy or resource intensive the technologies they use are. We can therefore reduce our environmental impact by reducing the population (and there are huge ethical issues there), reducing the level affluence (mainly in the rich nations where most of the world’s resources are used), and/or changing technology to produce more from less energy and resources. The one that is having the biggest impact is our affluence.

I’m with Ted Trainer when he argues that the Transition movement needs to adopt simplicity as one of its guiding principles. This will not be an easy challenge, but it is one we need to address.

As always, it feels hypocritical writing on simplicity when I am clearly very rich (from a global viewpoint). We still need to have the conversation.

If you liked this post please follow my blog, and you might like to look at:

  1. 10 ways to reduce your consumption
  2. The widening gap between rich and poor – Time to even it up.
  3. What is Transition Streets?
  4. How (and why) I joined the Transition movement
  5. 21 Stories of Transition
  6. The Fair Share Festival

About Graeme Stuart

Lecturer (Family Action Centre, Newcastle Uni), blogger (Sustaining Community), environmentalist, Alternatives to Violence Project facilitator, father. Passionate about families, community development, peace & sustainability.
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