Sustainability, Politics, and Consumerism

As 2011 ends and we find some time for reflection, I am thinking a lot about the issue of material consumption and sustainability. Many of my students believe that a key answer to the crisis of planetary sustainability is for individuals to reduce their material consumption. When they say this, they are not thinking of the planet's poorest people, but the planet's richest people. There is a case to be made for seeing the issue of sustainability in these terms, but I'm not sure the issue can or should be confined to a focus on individual consumption. In any case, there is a strong argument for learning how to measure and assess the sustainability of all forms of economic consumption.

It is important to understand the power and seductiveness of material consumption and our modern technological way of life. In America, less than one percent of our population works on farms as compared to 40% at the start of the 20th century. Most of us are no longer directly involved in a daily struggle for food, water and shelter. Cheap and plentiful energy has helped make many of us mobile, comfortable, entertained, educated and well-fed. Those at home and around the world who do not share in this bounty, want it. And the root cause of much of the political turmoil in the world can be found in the gap between economic aspirations and realities. America's wealth and its level of political stability are closely connected phenomena. Presidential elections are won and lost on the degree to which candidates can convince voters that they can create economic growth. During Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign for president his political advisors constantly reminded him, "it's the economy, stupid!" Political power and economic growth are closely connected in our system.

A great threat to political stability is a situation where young people receive an education and then are unable to find a meaningful way to use what they have learned. They are wide open targets for cynical political manipulation by unscrupulous political leaders. All unemployment is politically destabilizing: of the educated or uneducated, of those young and those no longer young. People without work have less of a stake in society and are less concerned with its breakdown. Work is not simply a source of sustenance in the modern world, but a key part of an individual's identity. With the population increasing on the planet, reduced consumption could lead to increased unemployment. So in order to assure full employment we need to increase rather than decrease economic consumption.

Of course all consumption is not equally sustainable. Downloading an application on your smartphone uses fewer nonrenewable resources than driving to the mall. Borrowing a book from a library uses fewer nonrenewable resources than buying the book from a book store. Moreover, creating an "app" and operating a library both require people and enable them to hold jobs. More and more of our economic production relates to ideas, knowledge and entertainment. Still, we all consume food, clothing, shelter and transportation and those goods require the use of material resources. Material economic production and consumption is non-optional and is growing quickly in China and India and throughout the developing world.

How do we ensure that the material consumption we require is sustainable? Is there a chance that we can move from an ecologically destructive, fossil fuel and resource intensive economy to something else? Do people understand the crisis before us? Judging by the American presidential campaign, the answer has to be no. The Obama Administration keeps throwing environmental protection and renewable energy development under the political bus. The Republicans are worse and want to end EPA and continue to outdo each other in thinking of new ways to increase our reliance on fossil fuels. It is a truly terrifying moment when you realize that our political leadership completely misunderstands the connection between environmental protection and economic growth. To these folks, regulations are "job killers" and scientific evidence does not seem to make much of a difference in the national political dialogue.

It is difficult to have a meaningful public conversation on the issue of consumption and sustainability when the national political class in the United States still debates environmental issues like it's 1969. I think that a reduction of economic consumption would destabilize our politics and society. But I think if we do not make the transition to a renewable energy and material-based economy, the reduction in the planet's ability to produce goods is only a matter of time. The planet's productive systems are powered by the sun. Ultimately, human productive systems must mirror the planet's, either through processes powered by the sun such as photosynthesis or through artificial or nuclear suns we create for ourselves. Polluting our air and water to keep the economic machine moving is a short-run and ultimately self-defeating policy. But even if shutting down that machine was politically feasible (and it is not), a shrinking world economy would cause massive human misery.

The inevitable conclusion is that the issue of sustainability will eventually reach and even dominate the American political agenda. It will not be defined by a smaller economy, but a different sort of economy: With more resources devoted to preserving the planet and its productive capacity. There is a paradigm shift underway toward a sustainable, renewable economy. You see it in many cities, communities and in a growing number of corporations. Support for sustainability is more common among young people than old people, and it is as much a cultural and social mindset as it is a political motivation. In fact, at this point, the political force of sustainability is latent rather than manifest. But it is coming. At its core will be a new form of consumerism and new modes of production. Production will be more efficient and renewable. Consumers will resist goods and services that are not sustainable. Our political and regulatory institutions will both lead and follow these new realities. Unfortunately, this will not happen during the presidential election year about to start. But it is in our future.