Consume less, and all else will follow. It's as simple as that. The citizens of the modern developed world are consuming far above their needs. The planet's resources are being gnawed away, and are diminishing at an alarming rate. The environmental side-effects are catastrophic. And the relentless organism that is our global 21st-century economy rolls ever on, growing fatter every year, leaving ever less pockets of the Earth unscathed, and seemingly unstoppable. But despite the apparent doom and gloom, the solution is ridiculously simple. It all begins with us. Or perhaps I have it all wrong: perhaps that's precisely why it's so complicated.
I recently finished reading an excellent book: Collapse, by Jared Diamond. Diamond explains in this book, through numerous examples, the ways in which we are consuming above our needs, and he points out the enormous gap in the average consumption of 1st- vs 3rd-world citizens. He also explains the myriad ways in which we can reduce our personal consumption, and yet still maintain a healthy modern existence. In the conclusion of this book, Diamond presents a powerful yet perfectly sensible suggestion to the problem of global over-consumption: it's we that do the consuming; and as such, the power to make a difference is in our hands.
It's a simple matter of chain reactions. First, we (local consumers) choose to purchase less products. Next, the retail and wholesale businesses in our area experience a drastic decrease in their sales — resulting in an (unfortunate but inevitable) loss of income for them — and as such, they radically downsize their offerings, and are forced to stock a smaller quantity of items. After that, manufacturers and packagers begin to receive smaller bulk orders from their wholesale customers, and they in turn slow down their production, and pump out a lower quantity of goods. Finally, the decreased demand hits the primary producers (e.g. miners, farmers, fishermen and loggers) at the bottom of the chain, and they consequently mine less metals, clear less grazing fields, catch less fish and chop down less trees.
A simple example of this would be if, for example, the entire population of a major metropolitan city decided to boycott all (new, not second-hand) furniture purchases, building and renovation efforts for an entire year. If this happened, then the first people to be affected would be furniture businesses, building companies and home improvement stores, who would quickly be forced to stock far less items (and to employ far less people in building far less houses). Next, timber wholesalers and distributors would follow suite by stocking less bulk-quantity timber. Finally, logging companies would inevitably be forced to simply chop down less trees, as they would simply have insufficient customers to buy all the resultant timber. And when you think about it, almost every major city in the world could do this, as most cities literally do have enough existing houses, commercial buildings and furnishings, that their entire population could choose not to buy or build anything new for an entire year, and yet everyone would still have ample supplies.
What so many people fail to realise is this: it's we that are the source of the problem; and as such, it's we that are also the only chance of there being a solution. There's only ever one way to tackle a big problem, and that's by digging down until you find the root cause, and attacking the problem directly at that root. We can launch protests and demonstrations against governments and big businesses — but they're not the root of the problem, they just represent us. We can write letters, draw cartoons, publish blog posts, and capture footage for the media — but they're not the root of the problem, they just inform us. And we can blame environmental stuff-ups such as oil spills, fossil fuel burning and toxic waste dumping — but they're not the problem either, they're the side-effects of the problem. The problem is our own greed: we lavish ourselves with goods, and the world suffers as a consequence.
Obstacles and solutions
One of the biggest obstacles with the principle of reducing consumption, is the automatic rhetoric that so many people — laymen and politicians alike — will blurt out at the mere suggestion of it: "the economy would collapse, and unemployment would go through the roof." While this is true to some extent, it is at the end of the day not correct. Yes, the economy would suffer in the short-term: but in the long-term, the prices of less-consumed goods would rise to reflect the new demand, and businesses would find a new level at which to competitively operate. Yes, unemployment would spike for a time: but before long, new jobs would open up, and the service economy would expand to accommodate a higher number of workers. Ultimately, our current inflated rate of consumption is unsustainable for the economy, as it's only a matter of time before various resources begin to run out. Reducing consumption before that happens is going to make the inevitable day a lot less unpleasant, and it will impact our lifestyle a lot less if we've already made an effort to adjust.
At the more personal level, the main obstacle is education: informing people of how much they're consuming unnecessarily; explaining the ways in which consumption can be reduced; and increasing awareness of the impacts of over-consumption, on the environment and on the rest of global society. Few developed-world people realise that they consume more than 10 times as much as their third-world neighbours, in almost every major area — from food, to clothing, to electronic, to stationery, to toys, to cigarettes. Less still are aware of exactly what kind of a difference they can make, by purchasing such things as new vs recycled paper, or old-growth vs plantation timber products. And what's more, few have a clear idea of what (small but important) steps they can take, in order to slowly but surely reduce their consumption: things such as hand-me-down clothing, home-grown vegetable gardening, and a paperless office being just a few. As I blogged about previously, new approaches to reuse can also play an integral part in the process.
Finally, we get to the most basic and yet the most tricky obstacle of them all. As I wrote at the start of this blog entry, consuming less is the simplest thing we can do to help this planet, and yet also the most complicated. And the reason for this can be summed up in one smelly, ugly little word: greed. The fact is, we humans are naturally greedy. And when we live in a world where supermarkets and mega-stores offer aisle after aisle of tantalising purchases, and where our wallets are able to cater to all but the dearest of them, the desire to buy and to consume can be nothing less than irresistible. And to solve this one, it's simply a matter of remembering that you need a better reason to buy something, than simply because "it's there" and "I can afford it". Hang on. Do you need it? What's wrong with what you've already got? And how long will the new purchase last? (Boycotting cheap consumer goods with a "4-year life span" is also a good idea — it's not just a longer-term investment, it's also a consumption cut.)
I don't have the answer to the problem of the greediness that's an inherent part of human nature in all of us. But I do believe that with a bit more education, and a bit more incentive, we'll all be able to exercise more self-discipline in our spending-driven lives. And if we can manage that, then we will be step one in a chain reaction that will radically reshape the global economy, and that will bring that previously-thought unstoppable beast to a grinding halt.