Can We Curb Conspicuous Consumption?


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.


*Steffen, Will, Katherine Richardson, et al. “Planetary Boundaries: Guiding Human Development on a Changing Planet. Science. Published Online January 15, 2014.




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