The end of consumer culture as we know it?

ErikI wanted to eat insects with Erik Assadourian. Erik is a senior fellow at the Worldwatch Institute who directs its Transforming Cultures project, and he believes that we need to think differently about everything we consume, including our food. We’d first hoped to cook up some cicadas, but the much-anticipated bugs never made it to my neighborhood in Bethesda, Md. The Dutch Embassy served crickets and mealworms at a dinner last month to talk about the future of food, but I had a prior engagement. (Really.) Then we’d hoped to sample an appetizer called Cazuela de Chapulines, i.e., grasshoppers, at Casa Oaxaca, a Mexican restaurant, but they were closed for lunch. Bummer.

So we settled on Thai food, no bugs and a conversation about why western consumer culture as we know it has to come to end, at least in Erik’s view. He tells me that consumer culture could end more-or-less happily because we choose to make the transformative changes needed to adapt to a world of finite resources. Or it could end badly.

In the 2013 edition of  the Worldwatch Institute’s annual state of the world review, titled Is Sustainability Still Possible?, Erik writes:

…given that consumerism and the consumption patterns that it fuels are not compatible with the flourishing of a living planetary system, either we find ways to wrestle our cultural patterns out of the grip of those with a vested interest in maintaining consumerism or Earth’s ecosystems decline and bring down the consumer culture for the vast majority of humanity in a much crueler way.

Erik, who is 36, is not your typical environmentalist. He studied anthropology and religion at Dartmouth, and he’s as interested in economic “de-growth,” pet care and burial rituals as he is in Washington politics or electric vehicles. He’d like to see a broader and deeper environmental movement, one that helps people find their purpose in life.

“The environmental community has mostly thought about how to protect this piece of land, or how to prevent that dam from being built,” he told me. “We haven’t been in the business of cultural change.”

“We’re a chronically underfunded special interest, as opposed to a large active global community that is spreading its ideals and pushing for social change,” he added.

But what kind of change?

Lunch?

Lunch?

More radical change that most greens want to talk about. As Erik sees it, we’ll need to eat differently (more vegetables, less meat, maybe insects), travel less (unless we’re walking, biking or using mass transit), buy and consume far less stuff (or at least stuff that lasts a whole lot longer), live in smaller spaces (maybe with our parents or grown children), use less energy (of course), etc.

Yes, this seems unthinkable, but that’s because today’s consumption patterns are baked so deeply into our culture. Erik writes:

Consumerism feels so natural that it is hard to even imagine a different cultural model. Certain goods and services — from air conditioning and large homes to cars, vacation travel, and pets — are seen as a right, even an entitlement. Yet it is these and countless other lifestyle choices that in the aggregate are undermining the well-being of countless humans, today and for centuries into the future.

While my view of the future isn’t as dire as Erik’s (as I’ll explain below), I think he’s right that any serious environmentalist has to address the excesses of consumerism. The most vivid evidence of overconsumption is the obesity epidemic: More than 60% of Americans are overweight or obese. It’s not just people that are bigger than ever–so are homes. My suburban neighborhood consisted of perfectly good, small homes where families lived, happily; many, perhaps most, have now been torn down, and replaced by big, energy-hogging houses filled with more stuff than people. Meantime, our feverish consumption habits contribute to the long hours that so many Americans spend working, at the expense of our family lives, friendships and perhaps even our health.

Is more money and more stuff making us feel better? Measuring the relationship between income and happiness is complex, but even some economists who believe that well-being generally rises with income (and consumption) acknowledge that economic growth (and the associated growth in consumption) does not appear to have made Americans happier. In a 2012 paper [PDF, download], economists Daniel W. Sacks, Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers write: ”GDP has approximately  doubled since 1972 and well-being, as measured by the General Social Survey, has decreased slightly.” The point is, our consumer culture isn’t making us feel any better.

imgresSo why do we consume so much? Partly because we have been engineered to do so, Erik argues in a chapter of the 2013 Worldwatch book called Re-engineering Cultures to Create a Sustainable Civilization. When McDonald’s installs playgrounds in its stores, it’s not just providing parents with a chance to eat while their kids are having fun; it’s targeting those kids as future consumers, and shaping their palate to enjoy a high-sugar, high-salt, high-fat diet. Government policies come into play, too. Subsidize housing, as the US does with the mortgage-interest deduction, and homes grow bigger. Allocate public roads to cars and trucks, and it becomes hard or downright unpleasant to try to get around by walking or riding a bike.

Pets are a pet peeve of Erik’s. He writes:

People spend more than $58 billion on pet food each year around the world. Americans spend another $11.8 billion on pet supplies annually–with nearly $2 billion of that on just cat litter, adding up to billions of pounds of litter annually diverted to landfills–and $13.4 billion on veterinarian care that is often more sophisticated than most humans have access to. Considering the ecological impact of the millions of dogs and cats (133 million dogs and 162 million cats in just the top five dog- and cat-owning countries in the world), this is not just another curious consumer trend.

“We’ve made consumers out of our pets,” Erik says, cheerfully.

There’s lots to ponder here, and I hope to return to this topic before long, with a focus on how we can think our way out of overconsumption. Erik sees some encouraging developments–in green burial rituals and weddings, in “adjamming,” in Patagonia’s messaging around consumption, even in plastic bag taxes and New York Mayor Bloomberg’s efforts to ban oversized soft drinks. my impression is that so-called Generation Y, aka millennials, aren’t as driven by consumption as their parents were. The sharing economy — Zipcar, airBnB, city bike sharing systems–is another step in the right direction.

Unlike Erik, though, I’m skeptical about the notion of strict planetary limits. People are endlessly creative and adaptable, so I believe that technology and markets, as well as culture change, can help us find ways to consume sustainably. That’s not quite the same thing as consuming less. Essentially, if  we can price the costs of externalities — particularly carbon emissions — into everything we buy, we’d buy differently and, yes, we’d buy less. Commodity prices would rise. Recycling would increase dramatically, as would the use of clean energy. The economy would evolve into one where little or nothing goes to waste.

I’m hoping to continue the conversation with Erik. Maybe over bugs. What do you think?

Comments

  1. Mark and Erik,

    I think we should start eating our pets – as they do, reverentially, in some places around the world. Any one of your readers is welcome to have our dog for dinner. I’ll pay for the shipping.

    I have some hope for business models and economic incentives that create less demand.

    - Decoupling in the energy business so that utilities get paid the same whether they sell energy or conservation

    -HMO’s where doctors get paid on the basis of preventing bad health and the need for additional medical services.

    - Health care premiums that reward employees with lower for keeping fit.

    - Car-pool lanes and other incentives for traveling with less emissions.

    These schemes seem to offer some hope.

    Andy

  2. Hi Marc,

    Thanks so much for sharing my work with your readers. I hope we do find a time to eat bugs together. Maybe acorn weevils this fall, if not grasshoppers this summer.

    In case anyone wants to read these chapters, they are both available as PDFs at http://blogs.worldwatch.org/sustainabilitypossible/state-of-the-world-2013/ (see chapter 10 and 27). Plus, Jennie Moore and Bill Rees’ excellent chapter (chapter 4) on how far we’ll need to go to get to sustainable living is also downloadable.

    Best,

    Erik

  3. Marc, This may be the most important post you ever published! I’m devoting the rest of my career to this very topic.

    Consumerist culture is killing us — and we’re importing it by the second. But all over the world, other cultures have developed wonderful ways for people to live just fine with less stuff. I launched a website recently devoted to cross-fertilizing the best practices from around the world for preventing waste. Two examples of posts contributed by our global community of ardent Waste haters :

    http://www.WeHateToWaste.com/live-simnply-Swedes
    http://www.WeHateToWaste.com/Japanese-style

    I invite everyone to come visit, comment and share their own stories and ideas for preventing waste (rather than simply “managing waste”, by the way).

    I look forward to reading Erik’s book, and seeking him out for more productive conversation and collaboration.

    Thanks Marc.

  4. Excellent post, I think technology gets us less damaging consumption patterns, but a sustainable future will also require lifestyle changes. It is challenging to get the balance right. Encouraging people to give up a consumption based lifestyle that we have come to believe is a measure of personal success is going to take some doing. It requires an appreciation of the consequences of not making the change. But painting a full picture of those consequences leaves most people (myself included) feeling helpless. We need some new measures of success and a movement for change whereby people will really believe their contribution will make a difference.

  5. Ed Reid says:

    “Essentially, if we can price the costs of externalities — particularly carbon emissions — into everything we buy, we’d buy differently and, yes, we’d buy less.”

    Current estimates of the externalities costs of carbon emissions range from negative numbers to ~$300 per ton. How would we know if “The Price is Right”? Do we just start with some arbitrary cost number and keep increasing it until growth stops? Do we ignore the fact that increased atmospheric CO2 concentrations increase plant growth and reduce plant water demand?

    “Enquiring minds want to know.”

  6. Marc & Eric,

    Great post. I couldn’t agree more. I think that cultural programming has a lot to do with our living and consumption patterns. As an architect, I believe that a large portion comes from the inherent design of the suburban consumption pattern (not that urbanites don’t consume more than we have to as well, but the numbers are better).

    I agree with Erik that things like eating, transit and housing all have to come down, but we’re working within a model designed to do the opposite (as you touched on a bit in your article). We develop communities to be spread out over miles instead of more tightly concentrated. I walk to get groceries because I have 3 grocery stores within two blocks of my apartment, but walking 2 miles to the food store is out of the question–even for a proponent of alternative transit. These kinds of goals have to be designed into the DNA of communities. They can’t be added on.

    It is hard to blame Americans for car dependency until we give them an option that fosters walkability and biking in something other than the metropolis. We need a middle ground that helps push suburban settlement into a denser pattern.

    I am completely with you on smaller homes as well. We build homes full of space we don’t actually need or use as part of an antiquated idea of housing components. That formal dining room–how many meals a year does that room actually host? Maybe a week’s worth at most? Yet that’s still space we build, temper and maintain over time without any notice to how are living patterns have changed.

    We need some new working models that can help cultural norms evolve into a more sustainable archetype.

    -Tyler

  7. It’s curtains for the consumer society, I’m afraid Marc – just a question of when. Erik is right that it’s all about what we are used to. I think there is room to consume a lot less and still enjoy life, but I think in the end we’ll all have to realise that planetary responsibility is not a “nice to have”.

    We need to do it consciously or it’s going to be a hard landing. But it doesn’t have to be.

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