01.06.2008

Sustainable Consumption

In Part One of a two part series, Adrian Glamorgan suggests we each have a role to play in finding ways to let us all enjoy responsible and sustainable prosperity."

InPart One of a two part series, Adrian Glamorgan suggestswe each have a role to play in finding ways to let usall enjoy responsible and sustainable prosperity."

Many of us recognise the broad dimensions of the planetarycrisis: global warming and runaway CO2, the spread ofdeserts, the shortage of water, the costs of war, thepressure of population, the need to care for our forestsand oceans, how vital it is to maintain our witheringbiodiversity. The Earth Century we live in calls usto care for the planet as if our life – yoursand mine – depended on it. (Former Norwegian PMGro Harlem Brundlandt put it best in her powerful andinfluential 1987 Report, "Our Common Future".)

But at the same time, we are addicted to things: buyingthem, consuming them, discarding them and, while stillbloated, gnawed also by an unfillable emptiness, weforay out to find more things to buy, consume and discard.Can we learn to live beyond this neurosis? Can we findways to consume sustainably? Can we create a systemthat gives us "responsible prosperity" becausewe all know how much is enough? Or are we locked intoan economic system that is incredibly consuming forone third of the world, impoverishes the other two thirdsof the world, and is quickly but quietly destroyingthe life support systems for us all?

A first Earth Summit, in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, establishedan "Agenda 21" plan for our century. In2002, a second such gathering of world leaders met inJohannesburg for the World Summit on Sustainable Development.Much was discussed. Must India pay the price becauseEurope and America went on a materials carbon bingefor 200 years? Sustainable production, using renewablesand burning less fossil fuels, being eco-efficient,studying the life cycle of processes, was well canvassed.But the need for sustainable consumption was also clear.

There were a lot of thoughts about the need for researchand consumer education. For example, over the last decades,companies have been very successful in keeping informationaway from consumers. Companies haven't had todo life cycle assessments on what happens to their product,cradle to grave. Nor do producers have to be forthrightin providing consumers with information. Monosodiumglutamate becomes "621" in very, very smallprint. Genetically modified canola used as "vegetableoil" doesn't have to be identified. A shinynew four wheel drive doesn't come with a globalwarming warning, or point to wars or the threat of warsits throbbing engine will implicate us in. The packagingof products is often not something we think about. Andvery few of us give any thought to end use. (I enquiredabout an electric product a little while ago, and wasvery tempted. But I said to the salesperson, "Whathappens to the nickel cadmium batteries at the end oftheir life?" He blinked, and replied, "Noone's ever asked me that.") Increasingly,we have to become aware of what's called "theworld beyond the product".
Then there's force of advertising. Advertisingis the brassy trade that makes us feel inadequate aswe currently are, guaranteeing inner and outer fulfilmentif we buy, consume and upgrade. Next! A few years backKlaus Toepfer, Executive Director of the United NationsEnvironment Program (UNEP), argued that if we are tomove towards more sustainable consumption, marketeersneed to make it cool. Some advertisers have got themessage. We will have a storm front of feeling goodabout ourselves.

But still the Tuscan villas with the black roofs andthe megawatt air conditioners go up on the edges ofour cities. Still we transport basic food commoditiesacross the world, ignoring local producers. Advertiserswill play a significant part in telling us what is ugly(waste and overconsumption), but their own clients'products will never be depicted in that category. It'sunderstandable. Excess is never something that advertisersnormally shrink from! Their understanding of what itwill take to stem the environmental crisis is likelyto lag at least a generation of environmental thinkingbehind what's needed.

Coming out of the Johannesburg meeting has been the"Marrakech Process", a global effort topromote action on implementing sustainable productionand consumption. It's worthy, and necessary, butit's not enough. It operates at internationallevels, and there is no way to enforce suggestions exceptthrough the lengthy process of conventions. Nationalgovernments remain sovereign.

Tucked into the World Summit in Johannesburg was (bowto certain large countries) none of this action shouldbe used to stop trade, but (glance to the rest of theworld) appropriate regulatory, financial and legal frameworkswould be needed. National governments, sovereign, muchmore influenced by corporations than they are the UN,still need to do something. Obviously there can be incentivesto "go solar", or put in rainwater tanks.Government procurement, requiring certain standardsin products that are purchased for the government'sown consumption, can bring a sea change in producers'behaviour. Governments, through spending on infrastructure(like Perth's new southern railway), can havea dramatic impact on how a city or even nation consumes.They can help create the conditions for companies wantingto make their products and services more sustainable.

But something is missing. It's the question:"How will we know how much is enough?"
Scientists can tell us what the planet can take, whatour "ecological footprint" is limited by:so much water, so many food miles, so much CO2 in theatmosphere. But it is a tricky way to mediate whetherI buy this pair of socks or go on that particular worldtrip. All that has been done so far, and much more,must continue. But it can't all be done only atgovernment level. It is not just about structures andprocesses. It's about "being". Weare human "beings", as well as human "doers"and human "thinkers".
The assumptions behind the overconsumption and povertyeffects of our current economic system actually feedour being. Or should I say, their effect has often beento numb our being, to carve it out and leave it empty,to lay siege to a person's own deeper and unexploredambitions and wishes, creating all kinds of constrictionsand appetites that take us away from our own inner purpose.
In my next column, I'll explore ways in whichwe can focus more on our own "being" sothat when we act, and when we consume, we do so moreresponsibly, leading to our own and others' sustainableproduction consumption. But a clue: it's a lotabout your, and my own, deepest purpose.

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