Unless we actually change our buying and using behavior, any other “solution” is, in fact, worse than useless, because it diverts our energies while achieving nothing of any objective value. (This is reposted and slightly abridged from our original post, “In Criticism of Easth Hour“)
With due respect to the advocates of Earth Hour (in solidarity with whom our own family too will turn off all lights and equipment), we submit that the Earth Hour Movement is harmful to the goals of environmentalism. For it diverts people’s attention towards a symbolic non-solution and away from the real source of, and the real solution to, the ecological problems faced by humanity at large. We do not say this to detract from the real achievements of the movements for environmental reform, nor to deny the undoubted good faith of its proponents and organizers, but to warn against the dangers posed by false directions for activism.
And what is the real source of the problem? It is the unsustainable and immoderate (and we submit, catastrophically immoderate) consumption and production patterns engendered by contemporary industrial capitalism. To explain:
The Real Problem: Capitalist Patterns of Consumption and Production
The ecological problem, in sum, lies in the negative effects of the physical, chemical, and biological transformations in the non-human environment caused by human material activity. Without entering into the controversies on certain cases (for example, on the proportional relationship of anthropogenic CO2 emission to rising atmospheric temperatures), we may acknowledge the negative effects that some of these transformations pose to human beings and their environment.
Therefore, whatever contributes to the increase in such material activity would also contribute to the increase of environmental transformation. Seen on a per capita (or per individual) basis, the most important cause of its increase in modern times has been the immoderate material consumption and production patterns that prevail in modern industrial capitalist societies. This is by no means a unique or novel idea, and it may be seen even in our experiences as consuming individuals, families, and other groups such as societies.
For instance, with surplus income we buy a new computer, mobile phone, or other electronic product, or a new car, appliance, or other ware–even though our legitimate duties as parents, merchants, employees, etc. do not actually require the new product or the increased speed and number of features it promises. Hence, if we objectively look at how we consume in industrial capitalist societies, we will see that our material-use patterns have the following general characteristics:
- We purchase newer products without regard for their objective value or their real contribution to material and non-material betterment;
- We discard older products without regard for their remaining utility (“Nah, it’s old; get rid of it”);
- We accumulate material products without regard for their objective necessity, and limited only by our capacity to purchase them and to store them (“Can I afford it? “Where will I put it?”);
- We uncritically use, as standards for such purchasing and discarding, the increased amount (such as the use of aggregate and per capita GDP as the index of an economy’s “health”), speed, short-term pleasure, “convenience” they supposedly provide;
- We uncritically obey social and technological trends in material consumption, without examining them based on a standard other than the trend itself;
- We are willing to listen to biased sources like advertising and corporate-backed media for product information; and, perhaps worst of all,
- We often avoid social uses of surplus income–such as giving to an impoverished family, to desperately ill persons, or to an organization or effort that would help them.
In sum, our material culture manifests (a) the absence of objective limiting standards other than capacity, and (b) the prevalence of subjective and self-directed standards of consumption and possession that have no real relation to the material health, psychological happiness, and spiritual growth of individuals, families, and other groups. This means the absence of any self-limitation: material consumption and production have no barrier to indefinite constant increase.
Is in any wonder, then, that the United States has 25% of the world’s CO2 emissions with only 5% of its population? Note how the American media is massively polluted by advertising and other marketing strategies that often use emotional, sexual, or social pressure–in a word, propaganda–to manufacture the “need” for things that have no qualitative benefit, things that do not actually make us healthier, happier or better in ourselves, or help us to help other people.
If we might so add, we also submit that we will see a continued global per capita increase in material consumption and production in the long term. Capitalist societies will not renounce capitalism in the foreseeable future (notwithstanding the present financial crisis, which will end in a return to former material-use patterns when money becomes less tight), so their material-use will remain constant. However, new countries are adopting American-style capitalism and its patterns of material consumption and production, including Western marketing strategies, which will increase their per capita consumption.
In light of these trends, we will also see a continued increase in quantitative environmental transformations (especially macro-ecological ones like CO2 concentrations), though recycling and other byproduct-processing methods might cause a reduction in the rate of qualitative (especially micro-ecological) transformations.
The Real Solution: Reject Capitalism in its Present Form
Hence, if our per capita consumption and production pattern is the primary cause of increased quantitative and, especially, macro-ecological environmental transformations with their attendant problems, then what is the real solution? The solution is a sustained global and local effort to moderate consumption and production patterns in capitalist countries; to propagate objective limiting standards for the purchase of products and their use; and, more fundamentally, to combat “consumptionist” ideologies that set up material activity and accumulation, or “success”, as the primary standard of human value. In short, the solution to environmental problems is to promote a general change in thought and behavior relative to material action and use.
Any other solution is bound to be useless. Such useless pseudo-solutions include tree planting (which has little effect on global CO2 reduction, which is more dependent on marine plankton activity anyway) and turning off lights for a mere hour, if we do not also tell ourselves not to buy a new iPad or Droid, a flashy new Toyota or a Chrysler SUV, or a new amplifier unless we objectively need it for our legitimate responsibilities. Every such product has a carbon footprint, which is especially large in highly technical goods because of the sheer amount of energy and wastage involved in making them. Has anyone computed how many joules or BTUs it takes to manufacture a single dual core microprocessor from raw silica? And what about telling people to stop driving cars or to drive less if they have alternative transport?
This includes even population control; for, considering that 5% of the world’s people produce 25% of its Greenhouse gases, how we influence the environment depends less on our number than on our behavior. If we go on buying more and newer at the same rate, and in an increasing number of countries, then even with a population one-tenth of today we will still have global warming. However, if we limit our consumption to what we need, use our surplus money to benefit the destitute, and re-adopt non-materialistic ideologies that deny the primacy of wealth and social standing as values, then even with a population ten times of today we may have sustainable patterns of material use.
Unless we actually change our buying and using behavior, any other “solution” is, in fact, worse than useless, because it diverts our energies while achieving nothing of any objective value. On this score, the 60’s social movements like hippie culture was better than some modern environmentalism: the 60’s emphasized behavior and ideology, but modern ecologism ignores them, and therefore misses the point.
So why aren’t we pursuing the real solution? Why do we resort to useless gestures like Earth Hour and tree planting and diversionary issues like population? Simply, we do not want to change our thinking or our behavior. We are willing to turn out the lights for an hour, or to have fewer children, because these do not demand any self-discipline or denial on our part. We neuter the poor to make people fewer, because we do not want to admit that it is we, the moneyed, who are destroying the earth with our self-indulgent and wasteful ways! We want to continue on our merry way, buying and consuming whatever we want, and we expect the environment to be righted without our making any REAL sacrifices ourselves.
Yet how, for instance, would the targets in the Kyoto Protocol be achieved without people opting en masse for public transport and rejecting private cars, or simply saying ‘no’ when Steve Jobs, his successor, or his competitor proposes to further expand our iLife? If we buy an a Droid when our old unit is still working, or an iPad if our desktop is still serviceable; if we get a car to look cool, or new clothes to look hot, when we’ve never had problems with taking the bus and using our old wardrobe—then it is we who are destroying the earth. Let’s not blame anyone else.
To conclude: Environmentalism will achieve nothing, and certainly no reform* of ecological transformation, unless we stop worshiping products and technologies for their own sake (wanting more and newer and embracing bigger and more “advanced”), and instead see material things as a means–as an aid to BEING better and loving more rather than as a primary value in themselves. In the end, then, we can save the world of matter only if we reach beyond it to the spirit, and we can make material activity “ecological” only if we reject materialism and prioritize the non-material and trans-ecological value of seeking and contemplating the holy and true, the good and beautiful. The old philosophies and religions across the centuries, even in the West before it turned greedy and gluttonous, told us to flee material things: maybe it’s time we took their message seriously.
Needless to say, if we have erred anywhere here, Dear Reader, we beg your pardon and would welcome your due correction.
May God bless us all.
*We use ‘reform’ and not ‘stop’, because not all ecological transformation is necessarily evil.