To Reduce Climate Change, Reduce Consumption

Share this article

At its core, climate change is a problem of production and consumption.

Stopping it means radically reducing consumption of those things whose production, shipping and use pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Look around, and you’ll see just how much that involves, from cheap clothing shipped half way around the world from China to gas-guzzling SUVs to processed and packaged food.

As environmental writers Derrick Jensen and Aric McBay put it,

“For an action to be sustainable, you must be able to perform it indefinitely.”

We can indefinitely grow our own food, which withdraws carbon from the atmosphere. Solar energy doesn’t produce carbon dioxide either. But our current consumption pattern of running to the store and having available whatever we want whenever we want it, courtesy of a limited supply of CO2-producing fuel, is not sustainable.

So what follows?

Reducing consumption doesn’t mean sacrificing a good life, despite brainwashing that equates consumerism with happiness.

Data from the New Economics Foundation strongly suggests that above a certain level of income, additional income doesn’t translate to additional happiness. The country whose people are most satisified with their lives, Costa Rica, has a per-capita GDP of $10,000, and 80 percent of the population lives on a lot less than that. The U.S. per-capita GDP is $45,000. But we don’t need to consume to be happy, and we don’t need to consume to live good lives.

Although the idea might seem radical, young people in the U.S. report that spending time with family and friends are the main contributors to their happiness, not buying the latest couture shipped over from China or Italy.

This gibes with a notion that hearkens back to a very old tradition in Western social science. Over 100 years ago, radical economist Thorstein Veblen was attacking “conspicuous consumption.” And for decades, American social critics have written of “created needs” or “created wants,” the creations of the American advertising industry, a $300 billion-a-year industry.

But does buying all that stuff make us happy?

Well, as we’ve seen, to a point: of course having enough to eat and having shelter are enormously important for happiness. But other factors beyond the number of iPods we have and airline flights we take are what really affect happiness. “Poor health, separation, unemployment and lack of social contact are all strongly negatively associated” with peoples’ average subjective assessment of their happiness level, according to researchers writing in the Journal of Economic Psychology.

Indeed, consumption is better characterized as the “the heroin of human happiness,” according to writer Neil Lawson. It’s a good metaphor. The issue shouldn’t be tinkering with policy choices to maximize U.S. consumption while minimizing its carbon-producing effects. It should be reducing it, as quickly as is reasonably possible.

This will require a bit of a change in attitudes, at least among policy-makers.

As Douglas A. Kysar and Michael P. Vandenbergh write in the Environment and Law Reporter, discussing a Supreme Court case in which the court decided not to force a federal agency to consider reducing electricity consumption rather than increasing its supply through the creation of nuclear power,

"it is unclear whether Congress, the states, or agencies ever seriously weighed reducing energy consumption as an alternative. … Or did policymakers essentially assume increasing levels of energy demand and assume that their role was to minimize the environmental harms from supplying that demand?"

The case is a perfect example of the larger point—that it is ultimately consumption that must be constrained. So how to reduce consumption?

First, in the U.S., at least, according to economist Nouriel Roubini, we have a bit of breathing room: Despite the talk of the economy’s “recovery,” U.S. consumers will be doing a lot less consuming for the next couple of years.

Due to structural unemployment and peoples’ massive indebtedness, there’s simply less money sloshing around to finance consumption. Even as people return to the work-force or get salary increases, they will have to use the money to pay down their debts. This will “create a long-term drag on growth,” which means that the economy is effectively re-setting at a lower level.

While government-sponsored redistribution can alleviate the worst consequences of this slowdown, preventing people from sinking into misery, from an ecological point-of-view the global recession has given us a tiny space in which to consider serious proposals to limit carbon-intensive consumption patterns.

One proposal is a tax on consumption, varying in response to the carbon footprint of a given product—effectively a carbon tax. Such a tax would be seriously regressive—nearly all of a poor or middle-class family’s income goes to consumption, so there would need to be a tax trade off or cash rebate for those with lower incomes, perhaps paid for by a global wealth tax (another proposal that policy-makers are reluctant to embrace in the United States).

The loss of luxuries would smart, but that’s not the worst thing in the world—the most important human needs can be met without emitting too much carbon.

As writer Robert Newman observes,

“The petroleum interval, this one-off historical blip, this freakish bonanza, has led us to believe that the impossible is possible, that people in northern industrial cities can have suntans in winter and eat apples in summer.”

It isn’t necessary, it isn’t sustainable, and it isn’t healthy for our environment.


See also:

Europe’s Cities Show How to Lower Emissions While Raising Living Standards

The Western Consumption Problem: We Can’t Just Blame China

Life Expectancy, Carbon Footprints and a Happy Planet

James Hansen on Climate Tipping Points and Political Leadership