Can the world function without over-consumption? That is the question that one of our readers asked after we posted a call to join the ongoing General Consumption Strike. This deceptively simple question leads us directly to the heart of the global problem: we feel on the one hand troubled with endless consumption but on the other hand we are afraid that without consumption there will be only suffering. This is the consumer paradox. But identifying it, does not mean we have found our way out of it. So instead of trying to provide glib answers to what is in reality a difficult question, I will instead provide a few pointers in the hopes that other readers will speak up and share their knowledge.
First, here is the thoughtful comment from Disengage that I think is worth taking very seriously:
People are over-consuming. But this is not a black and white situation. I guess black is over-consumption and white is under-consumption. Neither is going to work in the economical system we have today. We have to stay in the grey zone, find a balance between black and white. Over-consuming made the system fail because people were loaning money they didn't have and didn't have the ability to pay back. Under-consuming will also have a negative effect because then no money will be moved around and people will stop making money and lose jobs.
It seems to me that the proper place to begin is on a definition of what over-consumption and under-consumption would be. One compelling definition of over-consumption comes from Global Footprint Network. Their goal is "a world where all people have the opportunity to live satisfying lives within the means of Earth's ecological capacity. We are dedicated to advancing the scientific rigor and practical application of the Ecological Footprint, a tool that quantifies human demand on nature, and nature's capacity to meet these demands." They believe that the Ecological Footprint should be a metric as important as the Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
I decided to test my own ecological footprint, using the excellent Footprint Calculator they have developed. I was surprised to discover that according to their website I was over-consuming by 3 times! If everyone lived like I do, I learned, it would take 3.6 planets to sustain us. The primary source of my over-consumption is that the majority of my food comes from hundreds of miles away. Even though I eat a primarily vegan diet, I am still depending on trucks, fuel, highways, etc to deliver my "healthy choices".
So, if we accept the moral principle derived from Kant's Categorical Imperative -- act in the way you would want everyone else to act -- then proper levels of consumption would mean a lifestyle that everyone can enjoy and which the planet can handle. This, however, seems to be the very problem with consumer society: there is not enough world for everyone to be as wasteful as the average North American.
To argue that the average North American, myself included, needs to drastically reduce their consumption is not to say that they should crawl into a ditch and starve. As I mentioned above, the primary reason why my lifestyle is unsustainable is because my food is not produced locally. It is too much of a resource drain on the world for food to be transported long distances. This is why some people are now proposing the idea of "relocalizing". According to the Relocalization Network,
Relocalization is a strategy to build societies based on the local production of food, energy and goods, and the local development of currency, governance and culture. The main goals of Relocalization are to increase community energy security, to strengthen local economies, and to dramatically improve environmental conditions and social equity.
For obvious reasons, the movement to relocalize is built at the local level by community groups across the world: "Local Post Carbon Groups work, within their communities and in cooperation with local government and other community-based organizations, to put the concept of Relocalization into practice. The Groups work on projects such as cooperative transport and food networks, local renewable energy production, community assessment inventories and municipal action plans."
Relocalizing is part of the wider agenda of Economic Degrowth. Anti-bank activist Enric Duran does a great job explaining degrowth:
Degrowth doesn’t need to be a negative idea: just as when a river bursts its banks and we all want it to diminish and for the waters to return to their course, the same thing occurs with the unsustainability of the current situation. Degrowth isn’t something negative, but rather something necessary.
Degrowth attacks the myth of growth. It proposes abandoning the parameters of productivism and consumerism, and ultimately leaving the capitalist system. In order to do this, it proposes re-localising our ways of life. Degrowth consists in abandoning the process of economic globalisation and re-localising the economy —production and consumption — thus reducing transport. In order to do that we must re-localise politics, thus putting it back under the control of people.
Re-localising politics means, for example, that the levels of sovereignty go from the bottom upwards. Everything that can be decided at the municipal level should not be decided at higher levels; only things that affect the whole country should be decided at that level. Living in that way would allow us to liberate ourselves from the power of the transnational companies and global economic forces.
This transition to the local ambit should be put in practice together with a radical reduction in consumption, which could in turn lead to a reduction in production and transport. Things which are considered necessary should be produced according to increasingly ecological principles and completing the cycles of the materials used.
According to the participants of the Economic De-Growth For Ecological Sustainability And Social Equity Conference degrowth is characterized by:
- an emphasis on quality of life rather than quantity of consumption;
- the fulfilment of basic human needs for all;
- substantially reduced dependence on economic activity, and an increase in free time,
- unremunerated activity, conviviality, sense of community, and individual and collective health;
- encouragement of self-reflection, balance, creativity, flexibility, diversity, good citizenship, generosity, and non-materialism;
Returning to the question of whether the world can function without over-consumption, I believe the answer is yes. Of course, it will require some substantial changes to the way our world is organized, it would involve a fundamental "relocalization" of our food, energy, goods, currency, governance and culture. But I find this prospect exciting because it feels like real change is at our fingertips.
What do you think? Here are some of the ideas that other readers have brought up so far. If you have any specific knowledge about these alternatives, please share.
- workers' self-management
- labour credit vouchers
- self-sufficient intentional communities
- Participatory Economics
- Proudhonian Mutualism
- no-interest banking
- financial co-operatives
- economic secessionism (along bioregional lines?)
- Josiah Warren
- Benjamin Tucker
- "How To Be Free" by Tom Hodgkinson