The Green Column #3

It’s Not The Economy, It’s Consumption

May 18, 2009—In the economics media blitz over the past months, I am haunted by a headline that read, “Everything that we have learned has turned out to be incorrect.” As usual, startling but describing only a partial reality. Almost everyone agrees, however, that the reality is dark.

Futurists believe that the darker an issue, the greater the opportunity for innovation.

The present crisis demands a Reformation in economics. We have been too single-minded about the economy. Modern economists who believe in a perpetually rising level of consumption and urge people to buy, consume, throw away and buy again are preaching a false gospel that the planet cannot support and will therefore lead us into both economic and environmental bankruptcy.

At the height of the 1983 economic crisis, Paul Hawken wrote, in his book The Next Economy, “Most people view the growing economic crisis as evidence of something gone wrong. Depending on one’s economic philosophy, one can put the blame on various groups and institutions. Conservatives point to the government, monetarists blame the Federal Reserve Bank, Marxists blame the capitalist system, politicians blame their predecessors, consumers blame big business and OPEC, and big business has blamed consumers, OPEC and government. Like a losing team, we see only our failures, and as a result, we have turned on one another.”

Sound familiar?

In the current crisis, I would like to put the blame not on the consumer, but on the decision processes used by those of us who design, finance and make consumable products. Consumption has fueled the success of global economies. However, consumption is also the principal contributor to the depletion of natural, nonrenewable resources, and most likely to the rate of global warming.

The problem is not that we have both needs and desires for consumption of goods and services, but that the consumer is often not presented with good choices.

The ultimate question for the 21st Century is: How can we reduce consumption (of nonrenewable materials) AND sustain the environment in balance with the (desired) quality of human life?

“The challenge is to redesign the materials economy so that it is compatible with nature,” wrote Lester R. Brown, president of Earth Policy Institute, in his book Plan B 2.0. “The throwaway economy that has been evolving over the last half-century is an aberration, now itself headed for the junk heap of history.”

The new materials economy must be one of “reduce, reuse, repair and recycle.” We must be smarter, conservation-minded and more efficient in our decisions. But this intelligence must begin at the conceptual stage of the manufacturing or construction process.

Three conditions—all elements of the design process—must take more prominence in the making of products and goods for consumption:

  1. manufacturers and goods producers must use more renewable or recycled materials and less nonrenewable materials whenever possible (especially for the so-called “big ticket” items such as cars, buildings, appliances and electronic and mechanical products);
  2. all manufacturing processes and the produced products, and their transport to markets must be designed for the maximum possible energy efficiency; and
  3. all products and goods must be designed for longer life and efficient maintenance, and, if possible, ease of repair and/or reuse.

What can I, as a single consumer, do to influence this Green Reformation?

Demand complete and universal labels. The impact could be huge if every citizen would push for energy and materials information on everything we buy. This simple step would result in competition to make greener products and enlist the great power of the market.

For example, the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) building ratings system is a good beginning for the homebuyer to know, before construction, what a building’s performance will be.

City, county, state and national governments could also apply such principles and transparency to governance and the use of resources, if voters demanded the information.

© Lincoln Green by Design