In our last week’s edition of the 3L&3S, we featured Yvon Chouinard’s oped in the NYT about the need for a quality revolution to drive sustainability and deal with climate change. A reader responded with this long read in The Guardian – an excerpt from a new book “Stuff: Humanity’s Epic Journey from Naked Ape to Nonstop Shopper” by Chip Colwell. The author takes us through his thinking of the problem and solutions he has encountered so far:
“Mass consumption has brought numerous benefits: jobs and financial wealth, physical safety and security. New ways of connecting, talking and thinking. Easy travel to nearly anywhere in the world. Lights that keep the dark nights at bay. Music constantly available.
But the costs have also been staggering. Economic inequality and wars over non-renewable resources have killed untold numbers. The steep increase in products in recent decades has accelerated pollutant emissions, deforestation and climate breakdown. It has depleted water supplies and contributed to the rapid extinction of animals. There are vast “garbage patches” floating across the world’s oceans, with infinite bits of microplastics working their way into food webs. Even if we accept the positives of mass consumption to date, we must acknowledge that the situation is unsustainable. And yet, we can’t seem to stop ourselves.”
The author then takes us through his family’s attempt at minimalism to do their bit:
“There are a wide range of possible motivations for this kind of strategic living: an aesthetic sense (when people like spaces with fewer things), sustainability (driven by concerns over the environment), thrift (saving money), mindfulness (wanting to be more intentional in one’s life) and experience (when people are excited to try different lifestyles). For my daughter, it was the environment; for my wife, mindfulness. For me, I lean toward a minimalist aesthetic. But mainly I was exhausted by endless shopping, and terrified by the possibility that our over-consumption was destroying the planet.”
Then gives us the limitations of minimalism:
“Living without things is impossible. And things can give us experiences of joy. Things connect us to each other, our pasts, our identities. Even if we loathe some things for the destruction they bring, we love the things that make us who we are. After all, humans have long depended on our things.
… Others have pointed out that attacking consumption itself in order to solve the problems of over-consumption is unlikely to succeed. Consumerism has become a symbol of liberty and democratic equality – in today’s world, the idea goes, anyone can consume anything, and thus be turned into the person they want to be. The symbolic glow of consumption cannot simply be turned off.”
Indeed, he quotes from Chelsea Fagan’s hilarious critique of minimalism: “Every form of minimalism, Fagan concludes, “is just another form of conspicuous consumption, a way of saying to the world, ‘Look at me! Look at all of the things I have refused to buy, and the incredibly expensive, sparse items I have deemed worthy instead!’””
Instead, sharing and loaning things amongst ourselves is becoming a more pragmatic solution: “In recent years, the app Nextdoor has gained popularity: neighbours use it borrow tools, trade items and give away things headed to landfill. Nextdoor reports that it is used in 11 countries and in nearly one in three US households. Similarly, Buy Nothing – a social network group founded in 2013 and dedicated to the “gift economy” of sharing and loaning items that would otherwise be bought or tossed – has a massively popular app. Creative reuse is also central to Singer and others seeking a “zero-waste lifestyle”, which requires reusing items (such as cloth grocery bags), borrowing others’ items (such as wine glasses from a neighbour for a party), and repurposing or “upcycling” an item (such as turning wine corks into a countertop).”
However, he concludes that individuals doing their bit is good but has its limitations and hence, much like Chouinard, he puts the onus on the governments and businesses to solve the problem:
“Eriksen believes the overall strategy must involve moving from a “linear economy” to a “circular economy”. This is a shift from a single-use, throwaway economy, as he wrote in 2017, to a model “with end-of-life design, recovery, and remanufacture systems that keep synthetic materials like plastic in a closed loop”. Ideally, synthetic materials are increasingly replaced by less environmentally harmful and less wasteful substitutes. Businesses can develop innovative packaging and delivery systems, such as returnable and reusable boxes.
Governments can pass laws that ban certain materials or products, and moderate planned obsolescence – for example, in the US, proposed right to repair legislation would support far more gadgets being repaired instead of replaced. In 2020, France passed an anti-waste law that compelled makers of smartphones, washing machines, televisions, laptops and lawnmowers to list their products on a “repairability index”, and banned companies destroying unsold items. Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania have all banned single-use plastic bags, and Kenya recently outlawed all single-use plastics, along with glass and silverware, in national parks. Legislation in Chile will ban all single-use food and beverage products by 2025. “There is also the zero-waste city model,” Eriksen said. “We especially see this movement in emerging markets that don’t have space for landfills or funds for incinerators.” This strategy involves creating a workforce built around waste sorting, recycling and composting.”
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