Consume only Enough

Over the last few weekends, my wife and I ventured outside our downtown city neighborhood in order to visit our families. Both trips took us beyond the immediate suburbs, beyond the reach of Toronto transit, and into the Land of the Automobile.

For one trip, it was a humbling and frustrating experience for an otherwise independent adult to suddenly find himself at the mercy of family to give him rides. For the other trip we rented a car, and put ourselves at the mercy of the car rental companies and their heartless rules and regulations, knowing throughout the trip that if something went wrong we would be paying very dearly for a very long time. Signing a car rental contract is like signing a deal with the devil; there is no hope for you.

While we had the car we went on a very enthusiastic yet unsustainable consumerist rampage, visiting IKEA and all the other big box stores that we usually can’t get to, since big box stores are not profitable on expensive city land. We stuffed the trunk and back seat of the car full of lamps and housewares and clothing and towels, all bought at insanely cheap prices, and all of course made by people who live thousands of miles away in countries we will never bother to visit, because they’re poor and icky.

Being part of the modern world means that, to a degree, you need to keep up with the consumerism around you or you will suffer. We own our small condo, and put a lot of money into mortgage payments. It’s a nice building, but at 15 years of age our unit is getting a bit worn around the edges. The kitchen is becoming, well, decrepit, as is the bathroom, and the floors are ugly and dated. When we sell it in a few years we want to get a good return on our investment, so we need to keep it reasonably up-to-date. That means new appliances, new kitchen cabinets, new floors, sinks, taps, shelves, carpets, and paint: In other words, everything that keeps the globalized economy humming… and everything that keeps environmental wheel of destruction turning.

I am currently reading Al Gore’s Earth in Balance, published back in the early 90s and still highly relevant today (a new version will be out shortly, if not already). A few weeks ago I finished reading The David Suzuki Reader, a collection of essays and articles written by Canada’s best know environmentalist. Both books touch repeatedly on something that is making me more uncomfortable: the relationship between our economy and environmentalism.

Two basic schools of thought and priorities are colliding. I will attempt to paraphrase them from memory without plagiarizing anyone.

Environmentalism is, in part, about using less of the world’s resources. Ideally, it is about using as few of the world’s resources as possible as we live our lives. It is about learning to be satisfied with enough, rather than always wanting more. It is about considering many factors when making decisions that impact society — health, environment, happiness, sustainability, and economic well being — rather than simply valuing everything around us based purely on the dollar-and-cents value it adds to our economy. Environmentalism is about realizing that when we extract irreplaceable resources from the environment, release poisonous pollution as we turn those resources into a product, and then sell the product and call all the money gained “profit”, we are committing a grave accounting error.

Economic Growth is about constant expansion. It is about selling more of your product this year than last year, and more next year than this year. It is about opening more branches, finding new markets, developing new products, and convincing people that your product can solve a problem they didn’t even know they had. Economic growth is always about more and bigger; merely enough can never be enough, because it is not growth. In economics, things like health, environment, and sustainability are externals, and are not part of the overall equation of profitability that only considers dollars and cents in the bottom line. A few people profit greatly by taking our world’s resources and selling them back to us in a different form; but we all pay dearly for the consequences, such as in our taxes when we need to clean up our polluted lakes and rivers, or in health care fees when we need to take our children and grandparents to the hospital because our polluted air makes them sick.

In short, the key concept behind environmentalism is to consume only enough. The key concept behind economic growth is to consume always more. We cannot do both.

But escaping the grip of economic growth, and the personal consumerism that comes with it, and embracing environmental sustainability is much easier said than done. Small efforts like recycling, conservation and tree planting don’t hurt, but they won’t solve our problems. So long as everything and everyone around us is obsessed with economic growth — on a national (GDP) and personal (T4) level — the direction we are heading will not change.

Living outside this cycle would involve intense personal sacrifice. I, for example, could refuse to visit friends and family who are not easily accessible by transit. I would, no doubt, lose touch with them, and my life would become lonely. I could also step off the consumerist wheel, and live like a hermit, letting my household fall into disrepair and drop in value, or choose to live as a squatter beneath a freeway overpass or in a remote cabin. I would, no doubt, be miserable.

Within the context of the society we’re born into, we don’t really have as many choices as we think we do. It makes me depressed to be a part of the mob, helping to lead us all to destruction with eyes wide open, yet at the same time feeling helpless to stop it and hypocritical when I write about it.

When a surfer falls off his board, the wave does not stop and wait for him to climb back on.



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