Why anti-consumerism is not enough

Rejecting population growth as a valid topic for environmental concern relies on the assumption that the world's poor will stay in their current state of poverty, while simultaneously insisting that said poverty is a moral outrage and needs resolving. This doesn't make sense.

Oliver Williams
29 April 2014

Flickr/E. von Muench - SuSanA

Across Africa, the sale of second hand clothes from the west is big business. Western charities raise money by selling donated clothes, African consumers receive cheap goods and clothes don’t end up as landfill. It’s a perfect win-win scenario. Except that it isn’t. The argument of a new study, Unravelling the Relationships between Used-Clothing Imports and the Decline of African Clothing Industries, is that African countries fail to establish their own clothing industries due to the competition of second-hand good. The author of the study, Andrew Brooks, a lecturer at King's College London, explains that "Your t-shirt may be quite cheap for someone to buy, but it would be better if that person could buy a locally manufactured t-shirt, so the money stays within the economy and that helps generate jobs". According to Brooks, while recycling is good for the environment it is, in this instance, not so good for the world’s poorest people.

Trickle-down economics does not work. Leaving the untaxed super-rich to spend their cash does not raise all boats. But to accept this is not to deny a basic fact, that the material consumption of both the rich and poor is what drives economies, and our jobs depend on it. One can accept that money does not buy happiness, and that the reining in of the rapacious acquisitiveness of the affluent is an environmental necessity while still facing up to a moral conundrum: what is good for the environment is sometimes at odds with the ability of people to find jobs. It would, of course, be nice if the ability of people to earn a living could somehow be decoupled from the unsustainable mass purchasing of products.  How such a decoupling may come about is currently incomprehensible. We can make the ethical consumer choices – we can buy the biodegradable and sustainably sourced goods, but to embrace the green dream of minimising consumption itself has its own negative externalities. Due to its economic effects, the widespread adoption of frugality and asceticism is not a viable political solution. Other than vague promises of green jobs, those who advocate anti-consumerism alone as the solution to environmental devastation have ignored the implications this solution has on employment. I recently submitted this article to Resurgence & Ecologist magazine. The editor replied “What's so great about work anyway?” Ask the unemployed in Greece or Spain. Even in countries where the unemployed are provided for financially, they face lives of ennui, lack of purpose, listlessness and boredom.

There may well be enough work created in the manufacture of solar panels and wind-turbines to replace those jobs lost at coal-fired power plants. But in an imagined world where we all stop shopping, green-collar jobs have no chance of replacing those eliminated. Environmentalists are promising two seemingly incompatible outcomes: that green energy can be cheap, but also that it will employ millions of people. The global human population is growing massively. Meanwhile machines are increasing in efficiency. While this increasing productivity is good for those who want cheap goods, it will mean the necessity of ever more people buying ever more goods simply to keep employment levels at their current rate. The more people there are, the more jobs are needed. The more jobs are needed, the more consumption is needed. Population is therefore the key factor to our environmental problems.

While it would be desirable to limit advertising, particularly to children, it is worth noting that many people purposefully bombard their own mind with the equivalent of adverts: they go out of their way to read about the newest fashions, throwing away perfectly good clothing, for example. They buy magazines and visit websites where the entire content consists of object-fetishization.

The Guardian newspaper is at once coaxing the government to spend more on aid, money that will build the infrastructure of foreign countries – roads, power stations etc, dispensing travel advice, and telling us that the only way to beat environmental problems is to change our lifestyles and to consume less. The main problem with green anti-consumerism isn’t the fact that it never happens but that it assumes the primary driver of environmental problems is frivolous spending: as if the basics of life—getting to work, heating ones house, etc—are not a problem so long as we buy less “stuff”. Yet the single biggest source of greenhouse gases isn’t private jets, it’s agriculture.

The encomiums to poverty (“If everyone on Earth lived the lifestyle of a traditional Indian villager, it is arguable that even 12 billion would be a sustainable world population”, “Households in India earning less than 3,000 rupees a month use a fifth of the electricity per head and one seventh of the transport fuel of households earning Rs30,000 or more. Street sleepers use almost nothing”) coexist with moral outrage about that same poverty (“More than 500 million Indians have no electricity” protests an article demanding more aid for India). If only we could all live like a traditional Indian peasant, everything would be fine - but let’s also all feel guilty for not solving privation worldwide.

The traditional Indian villager is, in fact, fast becoming the urban poor. Population growth itself has made more traditional forms of survival untenable: surplus agricultural workers have headed to the cities. The rapid urbanization of the third world is unstoppable. Developing countries offer no alternative model to growth-addicted Western economies, they offer poverty. Development and the environment are undoubtedly at odds with one another. They would be easier to bring into accord were the world population not growing.

Any talk of population is seen as blaming the poor people when it is the super-rich who have a vastly disproportionate impact. But we shouldn’t want people to live lives of green-destitution. Do we want the people of the third world to have affordable energy or not? Do we want them to have transportation infrastructure to get them to the nearest hospital or do we want them to die in remote villages? While it is the neo-Malthusians who are seen as hating the fecund poor, it is in fact the population-deniers who seemingly want to keep them in a state of penury. To point to the currently sustainable nature of the lifestyle of the poor assumes—or hopes—that they will stay that way. In Pakistan in 2012 persistent power cuts led to rioting – they do not want the life environmentalists have planned for them. If we genuinely do want to bring a decent material standard of living to the world’s poor, there is no environmentally friendly way for that to occur if our population reaches 9 billion. Providing free contraception and providing girls with an education (and ending pro-natalist policies in Western countries) is a far more achievable goal than abolishing human avarice. We should try to do both.    

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