For most of the past decade, the sky has been falling. Too long it was propped up by faith in endless natural resources and our belief in the sustainability of infinite debt, until, almost two years ago, it finally stopped struggling and succumbed to the gravity of our myopic lifestyles. The market's response to this crash was remarkably short-sighted, but not entirely unpredictable: spend more, conserve less.
The global economic meltdown of 2009 should have been -- and still can be -- a turning point in how we view our relationship to our natural world and our fellow beings. While consumer confidence may be the underpinning of a healthy economy, it is social confidence that binds us as a community, and shouldn't we care more for our neighbors than we do for the condo walls that stand between us? Those invested in their communities and relatively property-free were well-shielded from the crash, and their lifestyle choices offer an object lesson to the rest of us.
In the following series, I look at the societal and environmental benefits of sharing resources, focusing on three of the most socially divisive and ecologically destructive industries on the planet: housing, transportation, and clothing.
The recent meltdown has given us pause to re-imagine ourselves in relation to our environmental and economic debt. What if we saw ourselves as custodians rather than consumers? How much better off would we find our world if we approached both environmentalism and consumerism as a community rather than a collection of competing individuals? If we learned to think in terms of "ours" rather than "mine," how much richer would we all actually be?
Buy me a river
In 1899, a radical University of Chicago professor by the name of Thorstein Veblen published The Theory of the Leisure Class, in which he lamented the spending habits of the nouveau riche. A passionate criticism of the cycle of splurge and waste, Veblen's book coined the phrase "conspicuous consumption" to highlight the use of resources for status rather than practical means. The purpose of being wealthy, it seemed, was to remind others that they were less so.
In 1955, a successful businessman named Victor Lebow articulated the future of Western consumerism. The United States was moving from a war economy to a peace economy, and needed a way to continue the remarkable growth the war had engendered. In a passage titled "The Real Meaning of Consumer Demand," Lebow writes: "Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfactions, our ego satisfactions, in consumption. The measure of social status, of social acceptance, of prestige, is now to be found in our consumptive patterns. The very meaning and significance of our lives today expressed in consumptive terms."
Lebow is often misrepresented as being a champion of this self-feeding orgy of consumer desire, but it is much more likely that he was trying to warn us. Two decades later, he added: "Capitalism is already showing signs that it can no longer generate the social morale so essential to continued existence. It is true that it has freed probably more than half the American people from scarcity and want. But at the heart of this business civilization is a 'hollowness' -- everything is evaluated in money terms."
In the fall of 2001, U.S. president George W. Bush leaned against a podium and spoke to the American people. Puppy-eyed, addressing a nation in shock from the World Trade Center attack, he confirmed Lebow's prediction by telling us the best way to deal with our grief is to go shopping. And then, just for good measure, he added a plug for Disneyland.
We are a planet of locusts, and North America -- which makes up about five percent of the world's population but consumes 30 per cent of its resources -- is the heart of the swarm. According to Paul Hawken's 1999 book Natural Capitalism, so much material is wasted in the processing of goods, that within six months of an item's purchase, only one percent of the materials involved in its manufacture are still in use.
"In other words," says Annie Leonard in her internet video The Story of Stuff, "99 percent of the stuff we harvest, mine, process, transport -- 99 per cent of the stuff we run through this system is trashed within six months."
The 20-ton wedding ring
To bring the point home, take a look at the gold ring on your finger. Now imagine it weighs twenty tons. That, according to Leonard, is how much mining waste was produced for that lone circle of pinky insulation, whose only contribution to society is the generation of envy.
Leonard blames our out-of-control consumerism on the twin strategies of planned obsolescence (the reason Christmas lights break after 11 months) and perceived obsolescence (the reason your shoes go out of style after 11 minutes). Our value as human beings has become tied to how much we contribute to this cycle of consumption and waste -- whether we've got the sleekest car, the coolest shades, the flippiest cell phone. Sometimes change is pushed so fast that they just seem to run out of good ideas (parachute pants anyone?).
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, each person in North America generates more than four pounds of garbage a day. For each of those four pounds, 280 pounds of additional waste are created in manufacturing those products. What rabid environmentalists we would all become if we had to carry twice our body weight in trash to the curb each morning.
Many of the efforts by our governments, businesses, and media are aimed at combating the waste inherent in planned obsolescence -- cleaner energy, recycling initiatives, and caps on corporate pollution.
But the larger problem is perceived obsolescence, which has not only engendered an endless, species-wide sprint to next month's fashion craze or Whatever 2.0, but has divided us as a community, causing us to value each other based on how much we contribute to the cycle of consumerism.
Envying the wasteful
To put it another way, the more someone demonstrates their commitment to being wasteful, the more we envy them. The simplest, most immediate, and most rewarding solution to perceived obsolescence is not found in technology or regulation; it is found in a reassessment of how we value each other as fellow beings.
The very notion of "owning" resources vastly reduces the potential of those resources. Token changes to simply appear greener in the public eye is not a solution to our hunger for status, it is an extension of it, a phenomenon that has come to be known as "eco-narcissism" (such as spending $100,000 on a Lexus hybrid, when a used, diesel-powered Yaris gets twice the mileage for a tenth the price, without the extraordinary materials cost of a new car). If our environmental choices are to have any real effect, we must get past the idea that consuming responsibly does not necessitate a reduction in overall consumption.
In other words, it doesn’t matter that our consumer choices are "green" if we don't significantly reduce the consumption itself through community-based sharing of resources. The following series will examine specific ways we can move toward a shared-resource system, and, more generally, investigate the social aspect of community-based environmental solutions.
The lesson here? Mom was right. You should share your stuff.
Tomorrow: Communal bicycles: Montreal does it, why can't we in B.C? And other ways, beyond the bus, to share transport.