Green shoots

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Green shoots

Luca works at the Prinzessinnengarten urban gardening project in Berlin, September 2012. Photo by Thomas Peter/Reuters

Can sustainability really hope to beat consumerism? Yes, and all without a vow of poverty or a change in human nature

Jonathon Porritt is a founder and director of Forum for the Future and the former director of Friends of the Earth. His latest book is The World We Made (2013). He lives in Cheltenham.

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Sustainability is often described as a big idea in waiting. In the pantheon of today’s big ideas, though, it’s still relatively small fry, while the seductive appeal of consumerism has grown only more formidable over the past few decades.

The governments of countries in the Organisation for Economic Co‑operation and Development (OECD) depend more and more on increased consumption to keep the engine of growth turning. Governments in countries such as China, Brazil and Indonesia use its promise as a way to maintain social stability. The harsh truth for the sustainability community is that most citizens the world over seem more or less content with the conflation of ‘better lives’ and ‘increased consumption’. For politicians, this is powerful incantatory magic, reinforced at every turn by the hundreds of billions of dollars that are spent each year on advertising and marketing. The devils of consumerism still have all the best tunes.

In the world of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), on the other hand, things have got very stuck. The field is dominated by what I can only describe as ‘minority mindsets’; the kind of people who assume that, if the science says that we’re heading into a dark place for the whole of humankind (and believe me, it does), reason alone will suffice to win broad acceptance for change. This belief, naive as it has proven to be, has a very disturbing counterpart. Many campaigners imagine that it will get easier to change the behaviour of large swathes of society when things become demonstrably more threatening and unstable – as if it wouldn’t be entirely too late to do anything about it by then.

It’s depressing how many good discussions about these things end in resigned and often fatalistic references to ‘human nature’. As I was told the other day: ‘It doesn’t matter how much science or worthy exhortation you chuck at the problem, it won’t make a jot of difference. You’re up against much more powerful forces in human greed and self-interest.’

Psychologically, then, this is an extraordinary moment for all those who care about creating a more sustainable world. Doom-and-gloom advocacy appears to have run its course, and there’s convincing evidence that the rhetoric of threats and fear actually disempowers as many people as it energises.

If the NGOs have hit a dead end, politicians and business leaders are stuck in a different respect. They’ve never played the doom and gloom card anyway. ‘Can-do’ mindsets dominate the world of corporate sustainability (though it is notable how many business people have concluded that it is too late to prevent runaway climate change, even if they never say that in public). As for the politicians, very few have successfully developed an upbeat, positive way of ‘selling’ sustainability to their prospective voters.

If the discourse of doom is collapsing under the weight of its own despair, what will take its place? It surely has to be something that NGOs, governments and business can all get behind, albeit ‘messaged’ for very different audiences. This is where a little hope creeps back into today’s dismal picture. In this ‘spare me the apocalypse’ world, no fewer than three narratives are vying for supremacy.

The first is not new. In fact, it’s as old as the hills in which our original religious precepts were first developed. The gist is this: live simply; find purpose beyond material consumption; be fulfilled in family, friends and service to others. When the world’s religious leaders eventually get the plot (laying claim, as they do, to the loyalties of most of human beings on Earth), it is to this fundamental teaching that the optimist in me believes they will return. And one can’t help but be impressed by some of the early speeches from Pope Francis, ushering in a very modern take on what was once described at ‘liberation theology’.

There are, however, rationales for the simple life that have nothing to do with religion. In these constrained times, when young people increasingly expect to be worse off than their parents, simplicity lends itself to an ever more compelling secular justification: it is cheap. This is not an argument that will sit comfortably with every interest group.

I doubt that politicians will go there unless they absolutely have to, because it undermines the pursuit of conventional economic growth as the measure of good things. Businesses will struggle to weld it onto their ‘more is better’ philosophies, even though splendidly disruptive campaigns from companies such Patagonia, Ecover, and the Brazilian group Natura suggest that ‘smart brands’ could still thrive in such a world. But cash-strapped, asset-poor young people might make it happen come what may.

Some politicians feel quite uncomfortable drawing on religious or spiritual insights of this kind. There is, however, a second alternative discourse that is likely to seem far more attractive to politicians and the business community. This is the idea of a growth so lean, efficient, low-carbon and waste-free that its economic benefits are entirely ‘decoupled’ from the negative impact of business-as-usual.

the appeal of this way of thinking appears to be a no-brainer – we keep the cake and (temporarily, at least) carry on eating it

Over the past decade, there has been a huge investment by bodies such as the World Bank, the OECD, various UN agencies and even the International Energy Agency to give this idea of ‘green growth’ traction. NGO literature is awash with catchy related concepts such as ‘closed-loop manufacturing’, ‘cradle-to-cradle’, ‘the circular economy’, ‘net positive’ and so on, going right back to the original ‘Factor Four’ idea in 1997 (‘doubling wealth, halving resource use’). For those politicians who have come to terms with the physical impossibility of business-as-usual, the appeal of this way of thinking would appear to be a no-brainer – we keep the cake and (temporarily, at least) carry on eating it. The idea has caught on in Germany and Scandinavia, and even China is now trying to find its own stability-enhancing version of the green economy.

Unlike the ideal of simplicity, which poses a direct challenge to everything that consumerism stands for, politicians can frame green growth as a pro-consumer concept. All of which makes it remarkable that centre-right governments in the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand have failed to seize hold of this opportunity to square the circle.

Will the third option fare any better? In this final scenario, young people redefine aspiration to suit their hyper-connected lifestyles. This means maximising the benefits of digital technology, saving money without going down-market, still ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ but without the kind of materialistic arms race that powered growth in the late 20th century.

At the heart of this new discourse lies the idea of ‘collaborative consumption’. Why buy your very own power drill at considerable expense when you can rent one for a few hours? Why take on the hassle and expense of owning a car when you can enjoy all the advantages simply by joining a car club?

There’s now quite a buzz of excitement about this idea. It’s positive and upbeat, and wins out every time over pious appeals to put on the sackcloth and ashes. Personally, I’m not entirely persuaded that it will make that much of a contribution to the radical decoupling that we now need, but it will certainly help prepare the way for it. Most importantly, this discourse acknowledges that most people remain mindful of their status and relative position in their peer group. At the same time, it avoids the grotesque appeals to excess and competitive consumption that lie so malevolently at the heart of today’s marketing and advertising industries.

At its most exuberant, the idea of collaborative consumption can be talked up into the kind of high-tech cornucopia that Peter Diamandis captures so brilliantly in his book Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think (2012). But it can also be articulated much more modestly, with the emphasis on personal responsibility and compassion for others – in effect, a digital, more aspirational variation on the discourse of voluntary simplicity.

Three alternative discourses, and politicians ought to be able to make use of all of them, rather than sell their souls, election after election, to the devilish call of Earth-trashing consumerism.

But 20 years since that ‘moment of truth’ at the 1992 Earth Summit, when world leaders formally recognised that prosperity for 9 billion people could not be secured using the same economic drivers that brought prosperity to the first 1 billion, I am pretty disappointed at how little progress has been made.

Still, the abiding truth of our times is that sustainability and conventional consumption-driven economic growth are incompatible – and the sooner we get good at coping with that reality, the rosier our prospects will be. Sooner or later, our politicians will have to get good at re‑framing the politics of the 21st century through a combination of these three lenses.

Read more essays on economics, energy, resources & sustainability and nature & environment


  • Lester

    Thanks for an enjoyable article.

    I suppose we could say that environmentally exploitative systems have been with us for most of the last 150 000 years. It's just that we have become far more efficient at them since the end of the paleolithic diet and the agricultural revolution.

    Sustainability can happen with relatively small indigenous groups with cultural tendencies toward respect of nature that are located in large areas. But a modern consciously created structural sustainability is a new concept. Can it work?

    Definitely. But I imagine it won't be through choosing 1 of Jonathon Porrits 3 options. Such projections are always dubious and rooted in the present and past. Hyper-connected lifestyles for example is reminiscent of a kind of techno-millinarianism that purports a not yet understood future where everything will be better because of not yet fully formed technologies.

    And Green Consumerism is a Trojan Horse idea, with the logic of capitalism more deeply embedded, yet inevitably and eventually going to appear in it's more virulent (current) form.

    Even the falling back on the idea of Human Nature (a false concept as Jonathan rightly suggests) is really about refrencing the fact that there is a feedback system between the individual and culture, one that creates and re-invents both through the feedback process. For sustainability to really work we need the feedback system to create a culture where relationships are totally different than they are currently. And this means re-thinking and re-feeling the way we relate to each other and the natural world. In short it means thinking about use-value and non-market interaction.

    But all of this is no reason for anxiety. There are no blueprints to Utopia. But this is good. A blue print for Utopia is a hierarchical idea where some people have the expertise to direct other toward a righteous place. Sound familiar?

    Real sustainability is about constant awareness, constant fluidity in response to circumstances ad real democracy embedded in an economy of different relationships. All of which are practiced daily by billions of people around the world.

    I don't see the problem with sustainability becoming a reality. We have the ideas and we already behave in the ways that drive sustainability. The challenge is to dismantle the current power paradigm. Which is a slightly different question.

  • ColtsHeadBen

    As I've gotten older I've actually gotten more optimistic about the ability of a capitalist system to organize around resource scarcity. The author ably restates it in point number 1: "Sustainability" is cheap. Not wasting resources needlessly saves money and improves profitability. As resources like fossil fuels start becoming a less and less negligible part of the the bottom line, everyone from the US Military to the local grocery store is beginning to understand that green = greenbacks. It's a welcome change in mindset from the "Recycling = poverty" mindset.

  • Derek Roche

    A sustainable planetary civilization, I'm afraid, is something that will have to happen to us rather than something we plan because sustainable systems are organic and organic systems have no command and control centre. That's why the best we can do is regulate free markets, for carbon credits for example, and trust to the invisible hand of price signals to reign in excess and greed.

    Regulated free markets are what's raising standards of living in the BRIC economies and lowering them in the former Imperial powers for the same reason. Whether the process can continue on to the Middle East and Africa is moot but I can't see any other plausible way forward to global sustainability.

    • beachcomber

      Unfortunately Africa is currently being subjected to a neo-colonialist surge of Chinese interest in land and resources with very little consideration for sustainability.

      Unsophisticated Africans are the next market to be exploited by the multinationals and capitalistic greed ....

      • InStride247

        Umm...I'm no history major, but when have unsophisticated Africans been anything but exploited by civilization?

        • beachcomber

          Hmm ... probably before "Western" colonialism and the Arab slave trade if by "civilisation" you mean European and Asian traders.

  • G

    Sustainability is ultimately a population/consumption equation, and at present we are failing on both counts.

    The following is based on extrapolations from WWF figures on ecological footprint:
    At 5 billion humans, sustanability = Eastern European lifestyle. Using Poland as an example, it's darn good: something that would work for most of the world's people, plus or minus Americans being dragged kicking & screaming into the future they helped make. But at 7 billion, sustainability = Cuban lifestyle. That means no automobiles unless there's a very good reason to have one. It means a 100-watt solar circuit into your house: enough for a few lights & a laptop, but no big TV, and a communal refrigerator shared with four other households.

    The solution to overpopulation is simple in theory, difficult in practice: equality for women worldwide, including equal education, the right to say 'no' (to unwanted sex & pregnancy,) equal job opportunities, and equal rights under law. For female equality, the industrial democracies are ahead, and most of the Middle East and much of Africa are still stuck in the dark ages. But as it occurs, the birth rate naturally drops to sustainable levels. This is well known and documented.

    The solution to overconsumption ultimately requires a change in the culture. 'Green consumerism' and 'growth without impact' are illusions. How many 'virtual experiences' can you consume to make up for not spending the money on a car? What happens to employment levels when the entertainment industry becomes the driver of the economy (again, see the USA)? More to the point, what happens to the price of finite necessities such as a roof over your head, food on the table, clean drinking water, etc., when they remain finite while 'virtual experiences' are the driver of 'growth'? To mangle a paraphrase of Shakespeare, it will be 'video games, video games, everywhere, and not a drop of water to drink unless at the price of petrol per litre.'

    In the end, you can't have infinite growth on a finite planet, any more than you can map an infinite plane onto the surface of a Euclidean solid.

    In the end it comes down to culture change, and the 'intrinsic values' such as friendship and love, family and community, knowledge and wisdom, that can't be bought and sold. One way or another we will get there. That, or we will crash the biosphere and regress to a caveman existence, and remain stuck there until we go extinct.

    • Simon Very

      Pedantic point but you can map an infinite plain onto a circle by using conformal projection.

  • jay_C

    " In these constrained times, when young people increasingly expect to be worse off than their parents, simplicity lends itself to an ever more compelling secular justification: it is cheap. This is not an argument that will sit comfortably with every interest group."

    It doesn't sit well with me, because
    1, it sounds defeatist.
    2, I know that I don't want my family to just survive, and eek out a living for the "good of the greater community". I want to personally THRIVE and grow, as well as have PERSONAL PRIDE in creating a better family legacy and community for my children! If everyone is given the opportunity to do that then I believe the rest will take care of itself.

    I could be just seeing things, but the other issue is that to me, the sustainability movement seems to willfully and stealthily confuse or couple community and government, and by extension, links their efforts to the "social justice" movement. That whole effort seems forced and very agenda driven..... Nice, free, and accepting on the outside, but tyrannical and controlling on the inside. If you don't agree with us you are... at the very least, misguided, or (insert vitriolic name calling here). Suddenly the gloves come off and the "sustainable community" is not so (compassionate, tolerant, and respectful of the diversity of ideas).

    This apparent agenda is to me part of the cause of the "constrained times" you speak of. I am put off because I want to be able to see my OWN wealth to be given where I choose to give, to go to those community programs I choose. Not via inefficient government taxation and redistribution.

    In my opinion, the problem is that the Government, and some in the "sustainable community" don't want opportunity to just happen, they want to give some more opportunity than others. Thus driving a wedge between groups. I don't think that is what this country is about.

    If the "sustainability movement" could ease my mind by DE-coupling community with government and just letting folks be good people, I think my mind would be more comfortable with their goals.