Setting “Comfortable Lows” for Consumption

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In a recent op-ed article for The New York Times, Ken Ilgunas describes how, when winter weather arrived, he experimented with the thermostat in his house to find the lowest setting he could tolerate. As it turned out, he found he could cope with the thermostat set at 45 degrees as long as he wore multiple layers of clothing and wrapped himself in a down sleeping bag. While he never actually enjoyed the cold, he eventually adapted to what he called his “comfortable low,” and discovered “that one’s sense of comfort can be redefined with a bit of grit and resourcefulness.”

Well, I don’t bring up Ilgunas’s article to make the point that we all need to set our thermostats to the point where we see our breaths whenever we exhale. I hope things never get so bad—environmentally or economically—that we’re forced to lower our thermostats to 45 degrees. As a matter of fact, part of the reason I argue for cutting consumption a bit in the present is to try to avoid having to cut back a whole lot in the future. (And I don’t know about you, but I’d say setting the thermostat to 45 degrees in winter qualifies as a major cutback.) Ilgunas, himself, argues not that we all adopt his “comfortable low,” but rather that we find our own.

I mention this article because it poses questions that illuminate the connection between individual consumption and environmental degradation. It asks: “If we all set our thermostats to our own ‘comfortable low,’ how many West Virginia mountains could we save? How many fewer wells would need to be fracked? How much less greenhouse gas would we emit?”[1] Those questions are well worth taking some time to consider.

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[1] Ilgunas, Ken. “This Cold House.” New York Times. January 24, 2015, p. A19.

 

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Consumption Reduction

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In this blogpost, Mr. Welch shares some excellent suggestions for reducing waste. Thanks, Mr. Welch!

misterwelch

The majority of the stuff that comes in (and out) of my house is food. If we are to have a discussion about what we buy, food is usually the biggest area of (physical) consumption – by weight, by number of shopping trips, by volume…

When looking at my trash and recycle bins, food is by far the most of what is going out. Some of it is food, and some of it is packaging. The packaging is mostly a result of pre-made “convenience” food, most of which is over-processed crap. How can we reduce this waste? Well, what is it? Some of it is food, and a lot of it is packaging. Let’s look at food waste first.

Food Waste

1. Purchasing: Some of us purchase too much food. I know I have been at the store and think “I’d love to make [this yummy dish]” and then purchase the…

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Can We Curb Conspicuous Consumption?

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Evidence of the environmental impact of individual consumption is everywhere—from the single plastic bag hanging from the limb of a nearby tree to the millions of acres of plastic debris floating in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and other ocean gyres.

In recent years, plastic bags have become common features in our landscapes.

In recent years, plastic bags have become common features in our landscapes.

We see pictures and read stories about environmental tragedies and shake our heads in sadness and disgust. The rape-the-earth corporations are to blame, we think. In truth, however, each one of us is partially responsible. After all, it’s because we want stuff—and want it at the lowest price possible—that profit-seeking manufacturers grind out goods and transfer costs to the environment.

So while pointing fingers and tut-tutting at corporations can be personally therapeutic, in practical terms, our self-righteous indignation has achieved far too little. After years of condemning the bad guys, the ecosphere continues to unravel, and it does so at a rapidly accelerating rate. Each of us needs to find ways to protect the environment, and we need to do it now, because with every passing day environmental problems become harder to address.

But (you may be wondering), what about the government? Shouldn’t the government pass more environmental laws and enforce more environmental regulations? Well, yes, the government should play a more active role. As luck would have it, however, one of the two major political parties—the one that’s presently in control of Congress—is dead set against letting that happen. 

Okay, if not the government, then what about technology? Can’t we rely on some geniuses somewhere to come up with technological fixes for our environmental problems?

Well, maybe, but counting on technology to save the day would be a mistake. For one thing, creating a new technology takes time, and with environmental problems tangling and metastasizing by the day, waiting for a genius somewhere to have a brainstorm—which might never even happen—is a risky strategy. Beyond that, like a Trojan horse, an attractive new technology can carry unexpected troubles in its belly. In too many cases, the troubles that escape through the trapdoor are more difficult to fix than the problems the technology was designed to solve.

Which leaves us where? Contemplating our navels? If governmental actions are constrained and technological innovations are problematic, sitting back and waiting for the government or technology to solve environmental problems for us is, at best, a waste of time. And while ecological economists offer finely limned blueprints for a sustainable future, the necessary transformation from a growth-based to a steady-state economy won’t happen overnight. So the big question is: What can we do right now, as individuals, to help reverse destructive environmental trends?

Well, for starters, we can face the fact that we’re shopaholics and take the cure. And if the first step to recovery is admitting we have a problem, then square one should be reachable, because most of us recognize that consumption in the U.S. is excessive. According to opinion polls conducted over the past three decades, we Americans agree, by overwhelming majorities, that our fellow citizens consume too much stuff, produce too much waste, and need to make major lifestyle changes in order to protect the environment.

So why don’t we just go ahead and make those changes? Well, for one thing (generally speaking, of course), we’re consumption addicts, and addicts specialize in denial. While we’re ready to admit that aggregate consumption is excessive, we deny that something we buy could actually be responsible for somehow damaging the environment, or we assure ourselves that the environmental impact of our own consumption represents such a tiny fraction of the whole that there’s no point in denying ourselves the things we want unless a whole lot of other people make similar sacrifices.

Which brings us to one big doozy of a question. Ready? Okay, here goes: If most individuals won’t reduce their consumption unless masses of other people reduce theirs, is there a way to motivate the masses to reduce their consumption voluntarily when those masses are made up of individuals who won’t reduce their consumption unless a whole lot of other people reduce theirs? In other words, is there a way to solve (to borrow from Churchill) this “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” and bring about the necessary groundswell of consumption reducers?

I think there might be. It won’t be easy, but there just might be a way. And that way is (drumroll please): conspicuous consumption reduction.

To be successful, consumption reduction must be conspicuous, and here’s why: Those of us who are inclined to curb our consumption will be much likelier to do so (for reasons mentioned above) if we know that other people are curbing theirs. As things stand, we have no way of knowing whether or not a stranger is committed to consumption reduction. We don’t necessarily know about our friends, family, or coworkers, either. If they are cutting back, they might tell us; but, then again, they might not. What we need, then, is a way to signal each other that we’re members of the consumption-reduction community. Getting the signal from someone else will reassure us that we’re not sacrificing alone and in vain, but are instead members of a movement that is actually helping to protect the environment.

So, if we agree that we need a way to signal our commitment to consumption reduction, we need to decide what that conspicuous signal should be. While it could be a lot of things, I suggest we use a tattered armband and call ourselves the Tattered Armband Alliance.

tattered armband on 11-12-14 at 11.58 AM

As I mentioned in a previous post, joining the Alliance would be a simple matter of taking an old rag or worn out piece of clothing, tearing a long strip (perhaps unraveling the edges a bit), tying the strip around the upper arm, and declaring ourselves members. There would be no dues or products offered as incentives for joining. Simply wearing a tattered armband and vowing to be a consumption cutter would be sufficient for membership.

People will probably ask Alliance members why we’re wearing those raggedy bands on our sleeves. If they do we can explain that scientists have begun to warn us that the Earth might not be “a safe operating space” for humans in a matter of decades.* We need to act immediately, and conventional approaches to environmental protection are insufficient. Given that our excessive consumption is a major driver of environmental degradation, cutting back will make a difference, and it’s something we can start doing today.

The tattered armband is just one idea. If you have another idea for organizing a consumption-reduction movement, please share it. The need to act is crucial, and the more ideas, the better.

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*Steffen, Will, Katherine Richardson, et al. “Planetary Boundaries: Guiding Human Development on a Changing Planet. Science. Published Online January 15, 2014. http://www.sciencemag.org/content/early/2015/01/14/science.1259855

 

 

Good News, Procrastinators! It Isn’t Too Late!

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Have you made a New Year’s resolution? Are you thinking about making one? If so, you’re among the 44 percent of Americans who, according to a December 2014 Marist poll, say they are likely to make a resolution for 2015.

The Marist survey asked: “What is it that you will resolve to do or not do in the New Year?” (Here’s a link to the poll in case you’re interested in analyzing the data: http://maristpoll.marist.edu/wp-content/misc/usapolls/us141203/Holiday%20Shopping_New%20Years/Marist%20Poll%20National%20Holiday%20Shopping_New%20Years_Tables_December%202014.pdf#page=4).

The results of the poll show that some of the most common resolutions involve consumption reduction of one kind or another. While the most common vow is to lose weight (that is, to eat less), resolutions to spend less money, stop smoking, and stop drinking are also popular. Absent from the survey are resolutions to achieve materialistic goals. Apparently, Americans aren’t resolving to become rich and famous in 2015—or, if they are, they aren’t admitting it.

In addition to resolving to cut their consumption, people are vowing to improve themselves (by exercising more, being a better person, getting closer to God, going back to school, setting goals, and getting a better job) and to spend time in better ways (by increasing family time, worrying less, enjoying life, being kinder to others, and getting politically involved). Worth noting is the fact that, with the exception of 1% who are resolving to get a new house and another 1% who want to travel, Americans are resolving to do things in 2015 that are either environmentally benign or environmentally beneficial.

So let’s seize the moment.

It’s January, and now, with the super-duper, holy-cow(!), consume-like-there’s-no-tomorrow season behind us, a lot of us are thinking about reducing our consumption of food and other stuff. It isn’t too late to make a New Year’s resolution. Let’s resolve to think about the environmental costs associated with the stuff we buy and then cut back the amount we consume throughout the year.

When Was the Last Time You Used the Word . . .

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Splurge? When was the last time you heard someone use splurge in a sentence?

For me, it’s been years—maybe decades. I remember a time, though, when splurge was a relatively common word. It’s been a while, but I can still remember when it wasn’t at all unusual to hear someone say something like: “I’m going to splurge and have a chocolate sundae for dessert tonight,” or “Why don’t we splurge and buy that painting we saw at the gallery this morning?”

So what happened to the word? Well, this is just a guess, but I think we quit talking about splurging after a lot of us started buying just about whatever we wanted whenever we wanted it. Once splurging became a matter of course, the word lost all meaning. And that’s too bad, because giving ourselves permission to be self-indulgent occasionally makes life more exciting. On the other hand, getting just about whatever we want whenever we want it turns (former) treats into boring, everyday fare. Consequently, it takes more to excite us.

When we actually splurge, we tend to savor. And when we savor something we enjoy it much more. Take a chocolate sundae, for example. One every once in a while as a special treat tastes a lot better than one eaten every night in front of the TV.

Researchers have observed the impact of overconsumption on savoring and happiness. According to a pair of psychological studies, overconsumption inhibits savoring, and savoring enhances pleasure; therefore, over-indulgent consumption undercuts pleasure and happiness.[1] So while we may think that reducing our consumption of wanted-but-unneeded stuff will make us unhappy, in fact, cutting back the amount we consume—and savoring more intensely the stuff we do consume—will almost certainly make our lives richer and better.

 

 

[1] Quoidbach, Jordi, Elizabeth W. Dunn, K. V. Petrides, Moïra Mikolajczak. 2010. “Money Giveth, Money Taketh Away: The Dual Effect of Wealth on Happiness.” Psychological Science. Vol. 21, no. 6, pp. 759-763; Chancellor, Joseph, and Sonja Lyubomirsky. 2011. “Happiness and Thrift: When (Spending) Less Is (Hedonically) More.” Journal of Consumer Psychology. Vol. 21, pp. 131-138.