In case you missed it, the world is in a bit of a shitshow (this is likely my favorite English word). Consumption rates are out of control. Our emissions are increasing every year. Our waste systems are collapsing. Suburban sprawl is…sprawling. Look at how much of the world we have so far historically mined, are currently mining or are planning to mine right now. To the delight of extractivists, there is room left to plunder.
Please note that for this piece I’m referring to our over-consumption. Everything we consume beyond meeting our basic needs which is largely concentred on privileged folks (of which we, and many people reading this, are).
The big question then is, who is at fault? Humans of course.
But is it industry? Government? Consumers?
We get a lot of messages and comments telling us it’s China. It’s not China. You’re absolving yourself of responsibility when you say this. China is certainly extremely problematic nowadays but cumulatively the emissions from the United States are the highest in the world. The USA has contributed most to this problem despite the population being a quarter of China. If we zoom out and look at the per-capita environmental footprint contribution it’s not looking a lot better. Australia, America and Qatar all have shocking stats. If everybody lived like people in those nations, we would be absolutely stuffed (Indigenous peoples aside that is; if we lived like First Nations people we would be fine, just as they have been for tens of thousands of years). I have many, many issues with China and it will likely overtake the States for the highest emissions but that makes sense – it’s a powerhouse economy with over one billion people. It’s hard to fathom. China is a massive problem and they continue to relentlessly & recklessly contribute, but they didn’t create this problem. Who are they modelling their industrialization and riches after?
So to answer this properly I’m going to dig into a few angles of this (there are plenty more). Half of my life resides in design thinking and service design so it makes sense for me to address it in this manner first. During this process we usually conduct the five why-s activity. It goes something like this:
Customer: To get holes in the wall
Customer: So I can put in screws
Customer: So I can hang up shelving
Customer: So I can create an organized office space
They didn’t want a drill; they wanted to create a clean, organized office that allowed them to effectively work. It helps to understand what the true reason for a service is and the process we’re designing. To solve the problem of who is at fault with our current mess, we can use this methodology because in the end industry isn’t digging up all our minerals, fracking for gas, extracting oil and polluting with coal just for fun. Ultimately, it’s to get something to the end user. And that end user is often us; the consumers. For example:
Industry: So we can sell it to our vendors
Industry: So they can make goods from it
Industry: So they can sell products to their customers
Industry: Because their customers want jewellery
When we think of it like that, it’s easy. We consumers are at fault. It’s difficult to argue that we’re not a generally greedy groups in industrialized nations. We want for everything and we are somehow able to disconnect ourselves from nature, other animal species, and suffering humans, in order to get it.
The Centre for Behavior & the Environment released a report last year stating that nearly two-thirds of global emissions are linked to both direct and indirect forms of human consumption. Even conservative estimates for the potential of changing behaviors to reduce natural resource consumption represented an enormous contribution to reducing global emissions. They analyzed Project Drawdown’s eighty most substantive solutions to address global heating, which has quantified the emissions & mitigation impact, and found that thirty solutions were behavioral changes that can mitigate 19.9 – 36.8 percent of global emissions from 2020-2050.
Emissions are a symptom of consumption and unless we reduce consumption we’ll not reduce emissions. We like to consume things, but the more we consume the more we absorb the resources of the planet. That means we have to grow those resources or we have to mine them – and in doing that we generate waste. And consumption is going up all the time. There’s a conundrum – how do we shift ourselves from consuming? We need to do more about learning to live sustainably. We talk about sustainability but we don’t really know what it means. We need to make major technological advances in the way we use and reuse materials but we (also) need to reduce demand overall – and that means we need to change our behaviors and change our lifestyles.
– Professor Sir Ian Boyd UK Government’s Chief Environment Scientist
So it’s our fault right? Well, it gets complex. Real complex. Because, why do we actually want so much? We’re not born with that desire; it’s manufactured. Is it the marketers that pull every trick in the book to compel you to buy? Is the designers who understand our biases and heuristics and know how to manipulate these in order for us to want more? Is it the copywriters who have split-tested the words so they know which convert us into the sale more? Did you really want something then if, with different wording, you wouldn’t have bought it? Why if some people can resist this, others can’t? Is it the executives who are beholden to shareholders demanding growth each and every quarter? Is it the government who is playing into the trap of showing the public the country is experiencing continuous and eternal growth because this is what we’ve been told we need to succeed? Are the policies being amended to push these levers so that the leaders of companies will meet these goals at fault? Is is the taxes being raised so we need to work longer and harder, creating more stuff, to meet our needs? Or is it that our society makes us so miserable that we try to fill these holes with material goods and given that’s a temporary feeling, we do it over and over again?
Industry benefits greatly from placing this focus on consumers rather than their process. Every time we talk about personal responsibility, we stop talking about the responsibility of industry. And this extends far and wide. To this day, Keep America Beautiful is still led by executives at soda pop and plastics companies including Dr Pepper, Dow and the American Chemistry Council. They partner with Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and the the American Beverage Association trade group with clever campaigns that continue to focus on so-called litterbugs; telling us we all need to deal with our plastic waste better whilst simultaneously opposing regulation that would place responsibility on them for the waste created.
Or does this too come back to our innate greed? We certainly do not need soda. You may have become addicted to the sugar rush or chemicals but it is ultimately a choice (in countries where you also have access to clean drinking water and other alternatives). Capitalism may have initially been forced upon us but we now actively vote for it. People didn’t go out en masse enough to vote for Bernie Sanders (the move away from hypercapitalism in that instance). They then followed that by voting for a fake-billionaire who lives on golf courses and golden towers benefitting of extreme capitalism & consumption, over a policy expert. In Australia they voted in a guy who ate a raw onion, followed by a business-man who was seemingly fond of offshore tax havens, and then a coal worshipper (really).
We don’t hold huge demonstrations of hundreds of millions of people to change hypercapitalism around the world (the Occupy movement is the closest we got to this). Most of us were born into neoliberalism and had no say in the matter. We talk about the economy abstractly without ever understanding why it is the shape it is, and who benefits from it. On the whole, most of us want to be richer. We want more. Better. More. More. More.
In true democracies (of which there aren’t really any but ones where your vote does count) the people could have voted better. We didn’t. We can also choose to educate ourselves in the age of open access to all. We largely don’t. This is so much so that educated people are even sneered at as unrelatable, climate denying is still in full swing, and feelings are more important than facts.
Long before we could ever use all the coal on this planet, we will have greatly exceeded tolerable levels of CO2 concentration. We ought to face the fact that we can’t use all that coal. The CO2 issue is not being seriously considered. And it is high time that it should be. Is the world ours to experiment with? I think not. I think we owe future generations, other life on the planet, a profound duty of restraint and, right now, we don’t seem to be exercising it. But to stop the easy flow of energy is difficult. We all enjoy it far too much…It is our wealth that has manufactured CO2. But, having created the problem, can we reasonably ask countries that have never enjoyed all this to exercise restraint?
– Warming Warning, 1981 (UK documentary on human caused climate change)
But it’s not really this simple of course. We do need things such as clothing and though we now demand to have more than ever, for cheaper than ever before with no consideration to the labor behind it, we did not ask for this to be largely made from polluting plastic polyester with mass chemical run-offs. Was it our demand for more at less that created the problem, or did the industry shift to cheap (thereby moving away from sustainable sources) and create the demand that we then weren’t able to resist (whether that’s in a addictive manner, or as a necessary evil)? It’s not like we have time to all be growing our own foods and getting a community garden is a fight in many place. The system does not profit off our free food. So we buy what’s available to us. Shipped from all over the world because our governments are involved in complex trade deals for profit. Wrapped in cling film that we often can’t avoid because we’re on the run. Or because we live in a food desert. Bought from supermarket monopolies that have no incentive to reduce customer food waste because they rely on more items to be sold than ever before.
This complexity extends to other realms too. I’m an avid supporter and proponent of public education. I very much believe we should have excellent public schools. It also makes education fairer, more diverse and accessible. But we don’t build the schools. Just like we don’t build the offices we go to work for. We don’t choose the materials or the labor that was utilized. We don’t have much control over the ongoing energy systems, the water use, the waste and what the organization will choose to allow. The school or company benefits us (arguably in a society where we’ve decided this is important) but we have likely contributed to significant resource depletion.
We may not want to contribute to exploitation in the Congo (of people and resources) but we do live in a world where it’s pretty difficult to go to work, for that job you need to pay your mortgage, without a phone. So your phone contributed to these problems unless you purchased a Fairphone. And you may have no idea about that company because who has time for research when we’re all working multiple jobs or long hours in between kids, life administration and hustling, because that’s how the system is designed now? It’s set up to distract us and consume us, so we will consume more of it. Keeping everyone busy is a boon for governments and industry. And yet, it’s our decision to buy a new one every upgrade rather than simply looking after out technology and not lusting over the next release (phones still easily run four to five years). We did not shift to a predominantly services based economy.
It’s clear of course that all parties are at fault here. Our relationships with each other – consumers, companies and governments – are interwoven and web in all directions. We have different choices in some ways, but we also don’t in many others (where we is referring to privileged folks). We both benefit and suffer from the system. We both want the system we’re in, and want to destroy it.
In systems thinking we keep zooming out and out to get a better view of the problem but eventually we need to decide to draw the line somewhere in order to resolve issues. The same goes for this. If we shift out our view a little, is it the fault of the baby boomers? Sure, it is. So we zoom out a little more. They were post-war. They had a lot of trauma handed down to them. They grew up with an odd perspective on wealth and individualism. Then they had a whole new bunch of wars thrown at them. But it is also clear if we shift our view much further that many of our problems actually stem from industrialization and colonization. We can go further, and further into how that all came about and how we got there (and it’s important for our understanding and in order to create just transitions and equitable changes) but for this purpose eventually we have to draw a line and deal with the issue at hand. We’re in a mess.
So how do we get out of this mess addressing the fact that we’re all a primary player in the problem?
- If you’re privileged, reduce your consumption. Immediately rethink your house size; these are getting absolutely out of control in places like Australia and America which are constantly competing for most square footage per person. I promise you, you don’t need that new fossil-fuel powered car. Don’t buy it. Unless you are desperately in need of something to live, think about the item for a month before buying first; the feeling will most likely pass. We have a checklist you can use before making purchasing decisions. A lot of what we do is habit; we need to pause and force ourselves out of that trained instinct to buy. It’s also great for our budgets which many of us are limited by or need to reign in to pay off debts. Make it a game to see how little you can buy, how much you can reduce and how much you can therefore save. I have plenty of pasta & tomato sauce months when needing to play it very tight. If you’re not at all restricted by your budget, place yourself on one. Generally speaking the wealthier you are, the more you contribute to this problem. If that’s you, give away at least half your income or look at other ways you can effectively contribute.
Everything you see above the ground, comes from resources on or below the ground, or our oceans.
- We need far better laws and regulatory frameworks. This is absolutely key to our success. We need companies to be heavily regulated when it comes to environmental destruction (and ethical supply chains). In fact, we need to outlaw it. We need significant transparency laws that ensure companies must publicly disclose their environmental impact (including emissions, extractions, water usage, deforestation, land-use change, biodiversity loss etc). We need regulations that simply stop the usage of certain materials and chemicals and we can pull all our levers here to ensure that companies abide by circular economy rules or cease to exist. Planned obsolescence needs to be effective mandated against. We also need to start playing around with taxes that incentivize and discourage certain buying decisions. This is proven to work and we can do this in an equitable manner. In line with this, we can also ensure we have schemes in place to retroactively fit out existing builds such as solar panel schemes that assist households in funding these.
- On this note, we need to remove corporate lobbying and funding from politics. It’s that simple. Nobody should be funded by mining magnates or fossil fuel executives. Nobody should have a private job lined up with a company they gave quite a few favors upon their public service exit. Nobody should be in any way influenced by corporations that have their own destructive – and extractive – agendas. If we don’t rid ourselves of corruption at the highest levels, we will not solve our problems.
- We need to vote better and have a pipeline of inspiring politicians. We actually need to be educated before voting. In the Netherlands we have a comprehensive quiz where you weight your importance on certain topics and it takes you through a whole lot of current policy decisions. At the end it aligns your choices with the party closest to these (we have eight primary parties). It’s helpful but more than that, you’re forced into recognizing the current matters on the table and becoming somewhat familiar with them. All countries should have this (though it relies on people actually using it; having it mandatory before voting is not a terrible idea). We need to be far more educated voters understanding the things that matter, not some kind of reality show or a few three-word zingers that get perpetuated throughout the media.
- We need to move away from the shareholder model as it currently stands. Company executives are legally bound to do only what is in the interest of shareholders. If they place the environment above profits for example, they could be sued. An interesting case to argue might be that ultimately anything placing environmental sustainability first is also in the interest of shareholders as it sustains life and potential future company profits. B-Corps are trying to shift the needle on this. We have lots of work to do in this space that removes shareholders as the primary influencers and at the same time, investors also need to take far more responsibility in what their money is contributing toward.
- We need to redesign the industries that make us want more all the time. Marketing, design, copywriting, digital optimization, and sales cannot keep going the way they are. Most of us can recognize the problem designers have created in gaming (in terms of addiction, spending & advertising) but we fail to see it in the products and services around us. I am at heart, a designer. We can all be designers. Design can be – and is – a huge force for good. It can also be a manipulator and capitalist. These industries need to be shifted. They are currently nearly entirely incentivized to do the wrong thing over the sustainable and ethical one. We could collectively use these skills and expertise on organizations doing good thing and on redesigning the systems we’re all so limited within.
- Ideally, we reduce our working weeks down to at least four days a week instead of time. Governments and companies monopolize on our five to six day working weeks greatly. We have no time. No time to spend in the kitchen cooking our own foods (significantly reducing plastic and food waste). No time to mend our clothes and repair our electronics. No time to spend creating a community garden with bountiful supplies for everyone. No time to educate ourselves on government corruption and policies. No time to volunteer for our local region. No time to hold senators accountable. No time to demand better from companies. We need our time back – it solves a significant amount of the our convenience problems.
- And lastly, one that isn’t talked about anywhere near enough; we need to take our power back as people. We need to be setting up peer-to-peer (P2P) solar grids in our neighborhoods and controlling our own energy storage and supply, for example. We need to be using apps such as ShareWaste with regularity. Those of us with more privilege should be setting up community gardens (growing our own food is one of the biggest acts of rebellion we can undertake). We need to move our money away from major corporations and shift it all directly to local farmers and small businesses who are doing all the right things with extremely limited resources. We need to force the companies we are involved with – like banks – to divest from destruction. Our governments should be in charge of the big things like mass-rapid-transit and making sure they’re affordable. They can also be just as – if not more – efficient than private business, but we can take our own power back in so many places. As soon as government and profit isn’t involved there, we own that space and can eliminate the waste and corruption from it.
Serious harm to the Earth is preventable when government ministers can no longer issue permits for it, when insurers can no longer underwrite it, when investors can no longer back it, when CEOs can be held criminally responsible for it, the harm will stop.
– Ecocide Law
These solutions (or problems) don’t address climate justice, inequality, poverty and other such issues in this post but, like always, they will return in a future article as we expand this conversation. It’s important to keep this in mind though – this is directed at a specific issue in industrialized countries.
I will end this with something I posted on our socials recently:
For over a decade I have travelled, lived & worked in some of the poorest regions of our world. I have watched children born into extreme poverty. Watched mothers deliver kids on a piece of metal mesh without a mattress, in an empty room. I have watched children go to hospital & die for curable illnesses. I have stepped over AIDS patients who have no other options. I have lost a child in a family we were funding to sex trafficking. I have seen little boys drugged up to traffic goods. I have watched families & children work in what is slave labor for fast-fashion. I have seen forests come down in their entirety. Watched rivers & rice fields choke to death from chemical run-off. Spoken to people who face one of the most difficult choices of all; destroy their country to provide for the wealthier in others, or not put food on the table.
Simultaneously I have had friends buy brand new (non-EV) cars. I have watched them fill up huge homes with things they do not need. I have listened to them brag about cheap t-shirt purchases. Mountains of plastic in their homes. I have been admonished for daring to say anything. On leaving Cambodia this year, a friend (no longer) told me to be more optimistic about the suffering I had witnessed due to climate change & development.
The uncomfortable truth? Millions of others suffer, for us to flourish more than ever before. The cost of your children attending a fancy school, having all the toys, new clothes & an endless supply of processed food, is families suffering for it.
Our world is complex. We need to work in destructive industries to break bread too. We still need homes. But we also have so much more power. We can collectively force change. And we certainly have the power to consume far less. We’re up against a system, but we have control of that. I’m in that with you, every day.
Some economists say if we all lived like the 1960s we might be able to bring this world into balance. That means, our consumption habits. It would lift millions out of poverty right now and return our living habits to sustainable levels. According to my mum, the 60s were pretty great for that (and we still thrived).
Let that discomfort linger and then use it to act.