What’s wrong with a consumer society?
On the BBC’s breakfast-time TV here in the UK on Monday, there was a brief discussion about the pros and cons of electronic books compared to conventional ones. Two invited studio guests, both published authors, debated all the usual points; such as “anything that encourages people to read must be a good thing” and “encouraging electronic books will lead to copyright theft and put conventional publishers out of business”.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, no-one mentioned the point made by Derek Wall in his No Nonsense Guide to Green Politics that it would be better for the environment if people did not buy books at all; choosing instead to borrow them from libraries. In Wall’s mind, it is the presumption of the need to own something that is the problem; if we shared things we would not need to have so many of them produced.
This may be a very radical idea but it is very hard to fault its logic: The demand for ownership drives demand for production; and production necessitates consumption. But what is driving the demand for private ownership? In the final analysis, it is advertising that panders to people’s selfishness; and makes them feel discontent and/or inadequate because of what they have not yet got (see also Acts 4:32).We live in a consumer society where the acquisition of things is seen as the primary measure of progress. What makes it worse is that, despite all the best efforts of governments to encouraging us to “make do and mend” and/or “reduce, re-use, and recycle”, many things are still sold to us with built-in redundancy because, after all, if everything we bought lasted forever manufacturers would soon run out of customers (or else have to go and sell their sense of self-deficiency and dissatisfaction into new markets).
As Wall points out there are one or two success stories – in the EU at least – such as the European Directive on Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (the so-called WEEE Directive). However, even this is not without its problems when you realise that much of Europe’s electronic waste (much of it sent for recycling in good faith by consumers) ends up polluting the environment in countries like Nigeria without stringent environmental regulations (e.g. unrepairable televisions).
Returning to the UK, it is a great shame that we ever gave up on selling milk and soft drinks in glass bottles for which the consumer was either helped to recycle or given a financial incentive for doing so. Instead, supermarkets have put doorstep deliveries out of business and seduced us into buying milk in non-reusable plastic containers; although at least much of this packaging is now being recycled.
So what is the alternative? Well, in the utopia that all Greens supposedly dream of nobody would own anything and everybody would share everything. Nobody would need money because one person’s need would be met by their fulfilling someone else’s (see also Acts 4:34-5). More than anything else perhaps, it is this kind of characterisation of Green thinking that allows the enemies of reason to paint Greens as the enemy of humanity (i.e. those who “want to return us to the feudal economies of the Dark Ages”, etc).
Unfortunately, this is a gross over-simplification and/or exaggeration of the Green message; which completely ignores the logic behind it. I accept that technology cannot be uninvented – and we cannot expect everyone voluntarily to give up on all the benefits of modernity – but, what if the alternative to moderating our over-consumption of the Earth’s resources is having modernity taken away from us by force?
Does it not then become preferable to try and compromise even a little? If we don’t want our children or our children’s children to live in a post-apocalyptic world, it may just be necessary for us all to accept that the path humanity has taken since the Industrial Revolution is not sustainable. We need to recognise and respect that too much of anything is bad for us; including perpetual growth in the consumption of the Earth’s finite resources… What we need is a conserver society.
See also my brief 500-word “Soapbox” item published recently in the Geological Society of London‘s monthly Geoscientist magazine, entitled Know your limits!