Sustainable Consumption and the Global Environmental Crisis

In a series of discussions on Earth Day, I found myself returning to two 1970s reports by the Club of Rome: The Limits to Growth and Mankind at the Turning Point. While those analyses were weak on policy design, they did a thorough job of describing the interconnected set of problems that remain at the heart of the world's environmental crisis. By a combination of population growth, economic growth, the pattern of material consumption and ignorance, human impact on environmental systems threatened to damage those systems and their ability to sustain human life. Those threats continue four decades later. Climate change is one of the obvious impacts of human activity, but it is by no means the only impact and it may not be the most difficult to address. Our production of chemicals that have toxic impacts on ecosystems and harm a variety of living species (including the human variety) may prove to be more difficult to mitigate than climate change. The fact is we do not know enough about human impacts on this planet.

There has been a great deal of change over these past forty years. We have become a more urban species and as the technology of health care improves, the rate of population growth has begun to decline. Children in the developed world do not work the farm, do not die as frequently as they once did and are not an economic asset. As a result, in some parts of the world the population has begun to decline. Without immigration, the U.S. population would stop growing. The pressure on the planet from the combined impact of population and consumption is being replaced by pressure from increased consumption alone. Asia, Latin America, and eventually Africa will be increasing their level of material consumption for the foreseeable future.

The idea of reducing consumption is a popular idea with some in the environmental community, but on a world-wide basis has no real relevance. People with few possessions and little food are not interested in reducing consumption. In nations with a growing middle class there is also the problem of the connection of wealth and consumption to political power and political stability. Once achieved, people fear the loss of material security and well-being. Look at the public opinion polls in America when the economy is in decline. Every elected leader in the country stops talking about everything except for job creation. Reducing consumption and reducing economic growth are politically infeasible prescriptions for environmental sustainability. We need to protect the planet, but we will not get very far if our method of protection is to slow down the economy.

We know what won't work, so what will work? In my view, the solution is something we have come to term sustainability. In simple terms, sustainability involves these critical and complex steps:

  1. Earth Observation: We need to understand the earth's living and physical systems and be capable of measuring and modeling the impact of human activity on those systems. Humans are living creatures. We require non-toxic air, water and food to live. Our understanding of the planet is growing but still very incomplete. We must invest more resources in the science of earth observation. We need to use the information we gather from our observations of the earth to manage our use of its resources.

  • Regulation: We need to regulate human activities, production and material consumption to minimize damaging impacts on the planet's living systems. This means we need to understand the planet's ecosystems and the impact of the substances we are introducing to those systems. We then need to reduce and control negative impacts. In developed nations, this occurs through environmental law. Those laws must be modified as new technologies are introduced. We also need to introduce the precautionary principle to the introduction of new technologies. We require prior testing of drugs before they come to the marketplace; we need to extend that principle to the introduction of new technologies.
  • Sustainability Management: Each organization and every organizational manager must understand and carefully manage the energy, water and other materials used by their organization. They must also understand and carefully manage the amount and impact of the waste generated by their organization's activities. Just as managers understand finance, human resources, strategy, marketing, law and information, they must also understand the physical dimensions of their organization's activities. The management of the physical dimensions of sustainability must become a routine management action, as commonplace as the application of generally accepted accounting practices. Of course to do this, we will first need to develop and adopt generally accepted sustainability metrics. The efforts to develop these metrics are still relatively primitive, and resources must be invested to develop these critical measures.
  • To build a more sustainable world economy we will need to change how we produce goods and services and gradually change the nature of what we consume. We need to end the practice of using finite resources once and then dumping what remains as waste in holes in the ground--or emissions into the atmosphere. We need to recycle more and use more organic, biodegradable substances in production. We need to move off of fossil fuels and replace them with renewable energy. Increases in consumption will need to be less oriented toward "hardware" and more oriented toward "software". The way we now think of personal computers might serve as a metaphor for a new model of economic growth. American computer companies like Apple and IBM have learned that there is more profit in designing computers and software, and in providing related consulting services, than in manufacturing those machines.

    Imagine a computer hardware that lasts for a decade (or more) and is then recycled for remanufacture, but software which changes monthly and upgrades the way the computer is used. The software is sold and sent over the internet and has a very slight environmental impact. People go to work each day and are paid for working on the software, and the rest of us pay for the software and spend time in front of our computers "consuming" the software's benefits. The proportion of economic consumption that does not require signficant material resources can continue to grow. Obviously, there are limits to the analogy--we still need to eat, wear, and live in material goods. But the production principles of renewable resources, recycling and minimal ecological impact can be applied throughout the production and consumption cycle. Just as we have introduced principles of occupational safety and product safety to production and consumption, we can extend those principles to environmental sustainability. We don't reduce consumption, we transform it.

    They key is to transform sustainability management so that it becomes a routine factor in decision making. We are already seeing that in many places. Here in New York City, we are seeing it in the plans that Mayor Bill de Blasio has started to articulate for the city's sustainability. Some of the new mayor's plans are to continue his predecessor's sustainability leadership, and so on Earth Day he reported:

    • "Accelerating energy efficiency improvements by expanding the NYC Carbon Challenge to include multifamily buildings.
    • The cleanest New York City air in 50 years thanks to air quality programs like NYC Clean Heat, which supports building owners converting to cleaner sources of energy.
    • A reduction in citywide greenhouse gas emissions by 19 percent since 2005, two-thirds of the way to the goal of a 30 percent reduction by 2030.
    • Moving forward a solar energy system that will increase the city's renewable energy capacity by 50 percent, on the former Fresh Kills landfill site on Staten Island."

    On Earth Day the mayor sent a reassuring message of continuity with Mike Bloomberg's PlaNYC 2030 sustainability program. But a few days later, in an inspirational speech at Columbia University's annual David Dinkins Policy Forum, he also sought to integrate his efforts to reduce poverty with sustainability when he announced his intention to improve the energy efficiency of all of the city's buildings by training and employing unemployed workers to construct energy retrofits. By continuing his predecessor's path-breaking sustainability plan, but adding his own distinct approach to that work, de Blasio brought sustainability further into the city's routine decision making process.

    We are seeing that phenomenon in cities throughout the world and in organizations ranging from universities to big-box stores; sustainability factors are being integrated into routine decision making. The transition to a sustainable renewable economy will only succeed if it is integrated into efforts to achieve other economic, social and political goals. If sustainability is seen a threat to a way of life that people value, or if it threatens the power of the entire economic elite, the transition to a renewable economy will be very difficult to achieve. A sustainable economy can be compatible with economic growth, but only if we do a much better job of understanding and managing the environmental impacts of economic production and consumption. Like globalization, it will eventually become an unremarkable part of modern life: "Oh, that's just the way we do things around here..."