Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Small is Inevitable: Shift from Consumption-Driven to Sustainable Paradigm

John Einarsen's In the Realm of the Bicycle is not only poetic; it is prophetic.

Firmin DeBrabander's "The Green Revolution Backfires: Sweden’s Lesson for Real Sustainability" published June 10 brings us counterintuitive news that Sweden's greenhouse emissions have increased since Stockholm began pushing electric and hybrid cars because people are driving them more.

The philosopher's conclusion: we cannot save the world by "greening" old habits. The only solution: reduce, even stop driving cars.

The consumption-driven "American Dream" (oversized cars and houses) has turned out to be an environmentally disastrous "World Nightmare" model that can no longer be pushed onto developing countries if the world is to survive: DeBrabander notes that we must shift to a reverse direction, making less developed societies the new paradigm:
American industry hungrily targets the rising Chinese consumer class. For the sake of the planet, we better hope it doesn’t get its way. Consider: China currently has a car ownership rate approximately one-sixth that of the US. If China achieves car ownership rates comparable to the US, that would put an additional 800 million cars on the road. And that’s just China. Even if we somehow succeeded in making China’s fleet super efficient, it would still be more than the planet can handle.
More on this inevitable shift from "Seeking a Cultural Revolution: From Consumerism to Sustainability" by Matthew Berger at Inter Press Service last year:
The last 50 years have seen an unprecedented and unsustainable spike in consumption, driven by a culture of consumerism that has emerged over that period, says a report released Tuesday by the Worldwatch Institute.

This consumerist culture is the elephant in the room when it comes to solving the big environmental issues of today, the report says, and those issues cannot be fully solved until a transition to a more sustainable culture is begun.

"State of the World 2010" subtitled "Transforming Cultures: From Consumerism to Sustainability" tries to chart a path away from what Worldwatch president Christopher Flavin calls "the consumer culture that has taken hold probably first in the U.S. and now in country after country over the past century, so that we can now talk about a global consumerist culture that has become a powerful force around the world."

In this culture, says the book-length report, people find meaning and contentment in what they consume, but this cultural orientation has had huge implications for society and the planet. The average U.S. citizens, for instance, consumes more each day, in terms of mass, than they weigh. If everyone lived like this, the Earth could only sustain 1.4 billion people...

"In India and China, for instance, the consumer culture of the U.S. and Western Europe is not only being replicated but being replicated on a much vaster scale," Flavin says.

Consumption has risen sixfold since 1960, the report says, citing World Bank statistics. Even taking the rising global population into account, this amounts to a tripling of consumption expenditures per person over this time. This has led to similar increases in the amount of resources used – a sixfold increase in metals extracted from the earth, eightfold in oil consumption and 14-fold in natural gas consumption.

"In total, 60 billion tons of resources are now extracted annually – about 50 percent more than just 30 years ago," the report says.

Escalating resource consumption has also led to unsustainable systems of distributing and producing those resources. In the field of agriculture, for instance, every one dollar spent on a typical U.S. food item yields only about seven cents for the farmer, while 73 cents goes to distribution, says the report's chapter on shifting to a more sustainable agriculture system.

It points to this as one outcome of increasingly unsustainable consumption habits. These habits have formed only recently – the same dollar yielded 40 cents for the farmer in 1900 – but they have now become ingrained, it says.

This consumption is based on more than individual choices. As co-author Michael Maniates says, "We're not stupid, we're not ignorant, we don't even have bad values."

Rather, we are acting under the heavy influence of cultural conventions that influence our behaviour by making things like fast food, air conditioning and suburban living feel increasingly "natural" and more difficult to imagine living without, he says.

To prevent future environmental damage, "policy alone will not be enough. A dramatic shift in the very design of human societies will be essential," says the report...Most of the report, in fact, discusses action that has been and can be taken to shift the cultural paradigm, rather than the damage the current paradigm has done.

The 244-page report cites a wide variety of examples such as the enshrining of the rights of nature into Ecuador's constitution and schools pushing children to think more sustainably by giving them healthy, locally-grown lunches and encouraging them to walk or bike to class...

The report also points to the roles different societal institutions can play in spurring cultural shifts. Among these, religion, government, the media, businesses and education all have key roles to play. Taken separately, their efforts might seem small, admits Assadourian, but taken together they can effect real change.

"Keep in mind that consumerism had its beginning only two centuries ago and really accelerated in the last 50 years... With deliberate effort we can replace consumerism with sustainability just as quickly as we traded home-cooked meals for Happy Meals and neighbourhood parks for shopping malls," he says, alluding to the tenuousness of what appear to be deep and solid cultural roots.

"Eventually consumerism will buckle under its own impossibility," predicts Assadourian. We can either act proactively to replace it with a more sustainable cultural model or wait for something else to fill the void, he says...

No comments: