Consumer or citizen?

Our recent episode with The Story of Stuff Project prompt the question as to how do we change our consumptive lifestyle and what governs our consumption. How do we shift from the take-make-waste culture and to what other option?

Currently, we are asking a finite planet to support continuous growth, production, and consumption. However, while we frame economic growth and consumption as an increase in wealth and happiness, this is not necessarily true beyond the provision of basic necessities. Meanwhile, environmental degradation and natural resource depletion remain largely an issue that threatens the livelihood of generations to come. There needs to be a new way of thinking about how we consume the Earth’s resources in everyday products, such as food, clothing and furniture, for example.

We need to ask ourselves why purchasing material items makes us happy or if that contributes to long term happiness. With that begs the question as to why excessive consumption and continued economic growth are related to welfare. In the end, the truth is that our current lifestyle results in environmental degradation of the very finite natural resources we are utterly dependent on. Rather, we need to focus on a sustainable future with both economic activity and acceptable human welfare.

The barriers to changing consumption habits are governed by economics, social, and cultural

norms. By lifting these barriers and redefining welfare as greater than the sum of consumption and economic growth, individuals are more likely to alter consumptive behavior in ways that

benefit the environment and mitigation of climate change. The greatest challenge in decreasing and changing the pattern of consumption is defining welfare to encompass more than consumption. It proves difficult to do so because our social structure that frames consumption as an expression of culture. The things we buy and consume are a demonstration of our wealth, prestige and identity. For change to happen, we would need a suite of disciplines, ranging from psychological to political, in order to decouple consumption, materialism, and perceived individual success.

Nonetheless, much of it starts on the individual level and rethinking what it means to expend. The potential for changing individual consumption lies in reducing overall consumption or altering the pattern of consumption. Amongst actions that have the greatest impact in mitigating climate change, having fewer children, eating a plant based diet, living without a car, and avoiding flight travel have far greater effect than highly marketed methods such as recycling. Reduction of food waste has large effects as well in preserving the resources that are used for production and the land use changes. However, these more effective mitigation pathways are not being talked about more. This is not to discourage actions such as recycling and turning off lights, but rather to show that significant change lies in larger actions that cause us to reshape our fundamental way of thinking.

Given the challenges regarding the barriers against changes in consumption, government

intervention can help elicit change in structural norms to help cutback consumption. This

could be through carbon tax on food items and efficiency measures. Government

intervention, a top down approach, might prove to be the most time efficient in reaching

climate goals. However, in the current state, environmental politics are not popular to play and there is an argument of governmental overreach in such policies. Yet, policies help encourage everyone to participate by reducing “free-riding.” They also help foster “social

innovation,” a shift in overall behavior of the population.

Additionally, a focus on teaching others how to reduce and alter consumption rather than simply encouraging it will prove to more effective. Educating individuals about high impact actions, such as plant based diets, relative to low impact actions will increase understanding and place power with the individual.

As of now, our society has become one consisting of consumers, rather than citizens and communities. We have forgotten the social and environmental cost of excessive private consumption. Not only that, we have forgotten the boundaries that nature has.

Moving forward, we need to focus less on economic growth and more on welfare that embraces social welfare and environmental protection, as these two elements are vital parts to overall human prosperity now and in the future.

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