Do we consume too much?

A staple in debates over how we can counter the climate crisis is that we need to reduce our levels of consumption. Often, this appears to shift the brunt of the responsibility to the consumers aka citizens. But do we really consume too much? I have just completed reading this great achievement of historical scholarship, Trentmann’s ‘Empire of Things’, which, I believe, is a ‘must-read’ for anybody thinking about climate change and necessary policies. Trentmann agrees that radical change is needed, but he also shows that the point is not about individual consumption per se.

We learn from the book that ordinary people consumption levels were low in most countries of the world until the end of WWII, and that certainly the United States led the explosion of consumer society during the ‘Great Acceleration’. But how much of that is just reflecting marketing campaigns prominent in that consumer culture? Consider places such as Chicago even today, how many people, mostly black, are still poor and struggle to make ends meet? Well, fridges became bigger and bigger, drinks cooler and cooler. But on the other hand, consider that housing is one of the biggest tickets in generating CO2 emissions, including construction, and then heating, cooling and so on. The great US crisis of 2008 was caused by the unhappy marriage between financial interests and progressive causes in making decent housing available to those groups of society who did not have access to cheap mortgages, and so the subprime tool was created that almost pulled the entire financial system of the globe down. But is that desire for a home really ‘overconsumption’?

One simple response, that applies on different levels of aggregation, is that the real problem is distribution of consumption, not consumption per se. The fuel-guzzling SUVs of the well-heeled are the problem, not the needs of the average worker. The same about advanced industrial nations compared to poor Indians: Who can responsibly deny the right of higher levels of consumption to hundreds of millions of Indian farmers? But then we must accept that perhaps scrapping SUVs will not help much in balancing the explosion of emissions that will happen if those hundreds of millions move into decent housing with fridges, flush toilets and air conditioning.

I mention air conditioning because this is one of my favourite examples illustrating the ambivalence of the eco-ethical approach to consumption. Most high-income Europeans like me grew up without air-conditioning and tend to regard this as a luxury. Air-conditioning can play a fatal role in the climate crisis as it fosters positive feedbacks: Cooling heats up the environment, and that triggers demand for even more cooling. Optimists, of course, think that tech advances will help to get out of that contradiction.

The ethical issue with air-conditioning is the following. Yes, many of us can just live with less cooling. Japanese subways offer low-cooling coaches, which save energy and are preferred by those who often catch a cold by excessive cooling. But our societies age with high speed. It is a medical fact that the death toll of heat among old people is considerable. So, from that perspective cooling is not a luxury at all. How can we now ethically weigh these losses of life against the equally scientifically proven contribution of cooling to climate change, affecting the lives of billions? Should we refrain from cooling old-age homes to avoid collateral damage? For the old, cooling will be a necessity facing global warming, not a luxury.

Trentmann’s book gives very rich material on ethical quandaries like this. Much of ‘excessive consumption’ is not luxury but is just what we today treat as a standard for decent living that expresses human dignity. That seems to support some critics’ view that the clarion call for downsizing consumption is just an upper-middle class luxury and implicitly manifests another driver of consumption, i.e. lifestyle consumption as expressing status and prestige. After all, displaying ethical excellence showers you with a ‘warm glow’ almost throughout the day, once you start the day with your veggie breakfast which, perhaps, a low-income person cannot even afford, at least for intaking the calories to be burnt during a hard day’s work..

Trentmann’s book clearly shows that the only solution is comprehensive change of the entire economic system including the public sector. Consumption cannot be separated from the other spheres. A cynic may even say that shifting responsibility to consumers is the best means to protect the interests of the capitalist class that profits from the system: They can just continue with it, well knowing that eventually consumers won’t be able to change it just by buying green food. But, as I mentioned previously, that would be also too narrow a perspective: Much of expansionary policies driving consumption are also motivated by progressivist causes.

So, what can we do? In my last post I presented my basic ideas. We must change certain fundamental rules that define our economic system, and which, on first sight, might not be directly involved in the climate issue at all, such as our system of corporate governance. This is what we can do as citizens, but not as consumers. It’s a political revolution, not a moral revolution. In a new economic system, people would just live their lives as consumers, though certainly in a vastly different material shape. But that is not achieved via austerity, which, as Trentmann shows convincingly, was always an important element in the evolving consumer culture but could never motivate 99 percent of people to just do without material satisfaction, or, perhaps even more important, dreaming of it while struggling with hard work all days. I firmly believe that consumption behaviour will adapt to the new system, but cannot possibly change it.

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