Do you remember your first ever toothbrush as a kid? You probably don’t. That toothbrush, however, is lying somewhere deep in a landfill or floating on the shore of a distant island, one that used to be beautiful 50 years ago. That piece of plastic will probably still be around a few thousand years from now, and might even kill a few dozen aquatic animals in its journey.
No, I do not argue that you should stop brushing your teeth. What I intend to do, is put into perspective the impact our actions are having on this beautiful but finite planet, and make you aware of the real culprit behind the climate crisis - consumerism.
About 65 years ago, economist Victor Lebow stated: “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 satisfaction and our ego satisfaction in consumption. We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever-increasing rate.”
Lebow was pointing to what would soon come to be known as consumerism. Oxford defines consumerism simply as “the preoccupation of society with the acquisition of consumer goods”.
Although coal and oil companies, cars, and industries directly cause GHG emissions, the underlying cause is our endless consumption of things, from tech gadgets to cars and owning heaps of clothes to wasting half the food we produce.
Every time we flip a switch, every time we pick a plastic bag or bottle from the store, every time we purchase something - anything, we are adding a burden on the environment, and on the coming generations, who will be the ones experiencing the most devastating effects of it.
But does it have a solution? Can we “fix” consumerism? It would have been amazing if we could simply turn off or cancel consumerism, but it is way more complex than that.
The Undying Romance of Consumerism and GDP Growth
Consumerism and a nation’s (even the world’s) economy are tied together in an almost unbreakable bond. The more stuff people buy, the more money is transferred between groups/individuals, in turn leading to more buying power, and this cycle continues.
If climate change and waste disposal problems weren’t real (like some people claim), then consumerism would have been a blessing for us. Sadly, that is not the case - CO2 emissions have skyrocketed with the ascent of the global as well as national economies. Take a look at the graph below:
Source: Hannah Archer (Medium)
It clearly shows that a country’s GDP (which can be considered as the representative of the nation’s economy, and a direct result of consumerism), and the subsequent CO2 emissions go hand-in-hand.
This is even worse in developed countries like the US, where overall consumption is enormous, for instance, an average person in the US consumes over 10 times the energy consumed by an average Indian - obviously a result of rampant consumerism aided by fantastic buying power. According to biologist Paul R. Ehrlich, "If everyone consumed resources at the US level, you will need another four or five Earths."
Is There a Solution?
I wish this question had a simple yes or no answer, but like all great problems of our world, it is far too complex. Thankfully, it is not impossible to address the problem. And like most other issues, consumerism’s solution has the same two parts -
There are several potential laws any government can put in place to curb consumerism, such as charging a carbon tax on everything except essential items, because every object has a carbon footprint, and the tax can be proportional to the object’s carbon footprint.
The tax can be also levied on luxury items only, which can not just be a way to reduce consumerism but also reduce the wealth gap.
There can also be other regulations that limit consumption of non-essential objects, like the number of cars a family can own, or the number of flights a person can take in a calendar year/month.
All of these sound amazing, but there are two kinds of obstacles in implementing any of these.
The first obstacle is that curbing consumerism does no good to businesses, and upsets businessmen which means weakened ties between politics and corporations. The undying romance between commerce and politics is a huge reason the climate crisis is not wholeheartedly addressed.
James Gustave Spet, in his book The Bridge at the Edge of the World, notes, "Basically, the economic system does not work when it comes to protecting environmental resources, and the political system does not work when it comes to correcting the economic system".
The second obstacle is that although the policies sound good on paper, some of them can have certain domino effects that possibly do more harm than good, or some of them are simply difficult to implement.
For instance, it is difficult to categorize things into essential and luxury, where can we draw the line? But at the same time, Covid-19 forced us to draw that line for a few months and proved that it is not impossible, what we lack is a powerful will to do it.
2. Change at the individual level
If everything could be solved by creating legislation, we would have had no crime, no poverty, and no climate change. Regulations can discourage people from doing something, but only to an extent - this is where the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation comes into play.
I once read an article which quoted television legend, Sir David Attenborough saying something along the lines of “the solution to our environmental problems might be as simple as turning the lamp off”. What he meant was that causing change at the individual level can be the most powerful way to reduce emissions and prevent a climate catastrophe.
If each of us makes a 20-50% change in our lifestyle, we can make massive changes in the trajectory of where the planet is headed. A significant number of people worldwide are transforming the way they live and consume, thus aiding in the transformation in the Earth’s story.
There are inspiring stories of citizens embracing simple ways of living, cutting down on their carbon footprints, adopting to some extent a lifestyle known as “Minimalism”.
Minimalism and its Bonus Feature
There are a limitless number of ways in which people are changing their consumption - using bicycles, cold water for washing machines, eco-friendly packaging, fewer and more sustainable clothes, and a lot more. Almost every object and almost every action today has an ecologically friendly alternative. The minimalist movement and the campaign against overconsumption are rapidly spreading.
Every year, on November 27, a considerable number of people in multiple countries celebrate the “Buy Nothing Day”, as a way to protest consumerism. The day comes right after Boxing day, which you might remember as the one where people line up all through the night to buy things on discount and even fight each other like groups of hyenas fighting over a dying deer (isn’t that symbolic!).
Although it initially feels daunting, adopting minimalism can be an easy process, if done gradually and by asking yourselves the right questions every time you are about to make a purchase.
Interestingly, minimalism is not just benefitting the planet, it brings with itself another bonus feature - a spiritual one. Many of the people who opt for minimalism do so for the freedom it provides. By having less and needing less, it liberates individuals from a consistent struggle to maintain the difficult balance between earning and spending.
Minimalism takes away the need for fancy cars, excess clothes, expensive electronics, and a whole lot of things. Things humans take time to realize they did not need in the first place.
As Henry David Thoreau so wisely puts it - “The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run”, or take Will Rogers’ take on it - “Too many people spend money they haven’t earned, to buy things they don’t want, to impress people they don’t like”. Minimalism liberates people by bringing tremendous clarity about “wants” and “needs”.
Summing It Up
We are at a critical point in history. In the entire 100,000 years of existence, humans have never put their own future along with so many other species on the line like they have today.
A lot of scientists and historians label this century as the sixth mass extinction. Some say we have only 12 years to act, and some even say we are past the point of hope.
Speaking of hope, I believe humans have incredible abilities when they decide to work toward a common goal. Action against consumerism is slow and delayed because a lot of us are not aware of the consequences.
It hence becomes crucial to start speaking about it and to actively make lifestyle changes to reach at least some degree of minimalism. If a majority of the population does it, climate change is half solved.
But remember, it begins with you - today, and now.
About the writer:
Aniket Bhor is a Solar Energy Content Writer with experience working in the engineering and management positions of the solar industry. He created over 500 engaging pieces of content for several companies in the North American, European, and Asian solar markets. Check out his work: www.aniketbhor.solar