April 22, 2013
By Matt Palmer
This article by George Monbiot “Let’s stop hiding behind recycling and be honest about consumption” illustrates one of the big challenges facing global society: consumption and the off shoring of emissions.
Monbiot argues that countries claims of reducing carbon emissions are misleading because they fail to account for emissions caused by consumption of imported goods from places like China and India.
When nations negotiate global cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, they are held responsible only for the gases produced within their own borders. Partly as a result of this convention, these tend to be the only ones that countries count. When these “territorial emissions” fall, they congratulate themselves on reducing their carbon footprints. But as markets of all kinds have been globalised, and as manufacturing migrates from rich nations to poorer ones, territorial accounting bears ever less relationship to our real impacts.
It’s important that we continue to streamline and improve the efficiency of our energy systems, and reducing harmful environmental impacts. But we must not forget that our consumption of goods comes with environmental impacts, many of which have been sent off shore where the goods are produced, and in many cases dumped when we are done with them, particularly electronics.
What are the things that are most important to us? If we are honest with ourselves, what are the things that bring us the greatest sense of happiness, fulfillment, and inner well-being? What level of consumption can fulfill our needs? What do we value most in our lives, and how does our First World consumptive lifestyle support or not support it?
Just saying consumption is bad is not helpful, nor will it motivate people to change their habits. Perhaps a different conversation is necessary then to allow all of us to contemplate a different way of consuming, making different choices. These are conversations to be had globally yes, but perhaps by starting within our own families, our local communities, the conversations themselves can be the seed of change, by creating a greater understanding of our our needs and desires, and connecting us more with those around us. The emotional voids then decrease.
The additional benefit to these conversations is the inspiration they serve to community leaders, corporate leaders, and public policy makers to make changes at all levels.
Monbiot makes a generalization I do take umbrage with:
And this is where even the most progressive governments’ climate policies collide with everything else they represent. As Mustapha Mond points out in Brave New World, “industrial civilisation is only possible when there’s no self-denial. Self-indulgence up to the very limits imposed by hygiene and economics. Otherwise the wheels stop turning”.
The wheels of the current economic system – which depends on perpetual growth for its survival – certainly. The impossibility of sustaining this system of endless, pointless consumption without the continued erosion of the living planet and the future prospects of humankind, is the conversation we will not have.
The culture of self-indulgent consumption has not been good for the environment, nor for our own self-interest, our inner well-being. Filling an emotional void with stuff does not work.
However, this is not an argument against consumption, after all life must consume to survive. Humans have needs for shelter, warmth, clothing, food and on, but how far can we sustainably stretch “and on”? What choices can we make to ensure that as many people as possible can thrive? And, these choices will impact the global ecosystem, and the global economy. Thriving is important for our collective well-being. What values are most important to you that will help you to thrive?