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.