Excessive Consumption Is Damaging Our Planet.

Could Greed Lead To The Collapse Of The Climate As Well As Our Society?

An activist walks on the ramp with a banner that says "Overconsumption = Extinction" after crashing the women's ready-to-wear collection show of designer Nicolas Ghesquiere for fashion house Louis Vuitton during Paris Fashion Week on October 5, 2021.© Gonzalo Fuentes, Reuters

Richard Robbins is worth quoting at length on the impact of consumption on the environment and on people.

"Our consumption of goods obviously is a function of our culture. Only by producing and selling things and services does capitalism in its present form work, and the more that is created and the more that is purchased, the more we have progress and prosperity. The shortage is made up in hub countries by pulling down the natural resources of their own countries and expropriating the resources of external countries. In other words, someone has to pay for our consumption levels.

It is clear that the current capitalist, growth-driven economic system, since World War II, has not only increased prosperity but has also led to a massive increase in inequality, financial insecurity, resource consumption and environmental pressure on the Earth's vital support system. The question then arises whether reducing consumption and production can be sustained while respecting human needs and social functions. To answer this question, we must understand the various growth imperatives of capitalist economics and social and economic system and the role of the super-rich segment of society.

Reducing air travel, driving, energy consumption at home, food waste, shopping and protecting our children and grandchildren from climate chaos will not only lead to a reduction in the quality of life. It also means reducing spending on wealth in a more sustainable corridor of consumption.

The economic policies of rich countries and their consumption requirements mean that more land is used to produce cash crops (bananas, sugar, coffee, tea) for export to wealthy countries while another land is used for non-productive purposes (tobacco, flowers, etc. This boom-and-bust cycle leads to various dynamics, such as booms and more consumption in affluent and poorer areas and more people moving to rich countries.

Individual and grassroots change is necessary, but major systemic changes - personal and prosperous growth - can only be achieved through resource extraction. Thus, as we approach climate catastrophe, there must be a global democratic plan for the economy that ensures that the resources are distributed fairly and that we organize our societies to manage the effects of climate catastrophe for generations to come.

Just like with many issues, there are various debates. For example, one might say living standards have only risen under capitalism when forced from below - either by trade union activism or through the election of social democratic governments. And on the other side, some say industrialization has done this, not capitalism. Therefore, only the workers deserve credit, not the owners.

However, the massive consumption of minerals, which is responsible for much of the world's pollution, does not take account of the prices it offers on the market. By exporting pollution and waste from rich countries to poor countries, pollution is directly linked to increased consumption. Consumption itself is the production of waste products, which are then used for consumption.

The world's sustainability cannot sustain endless consumption and production, and there is a contradiction at stake. If sufficient consumption creates more demand for production, the production cycle becomes paralyzed. Thus, the socio-economic system has a parasitic relationship with the Earth in which we live and exploits people and the planet.

So what's the answer?

I've seen both sides of the argument first hand.

Having been raised in a village in a communist country (now ex-communist), I washed with a bucket of cold water and a pouring scoop – usually country well or rainwater, but in some places skin-itching seawater. In other, more touristic places, I had access to a shower – sometimes with warm water – even though the local people seldom had such facilities.

When I moved to London and then NYC, I was most pleased to have drinking water on tap and a dependable hot shower of all the luxuries now at my disposal. However, as I look around the home, I am puzzled by just how much stuff I own. When will I wear so many clothes, and why do I need to change multiple outfits and read so many books; what am I going to do with all these accumulated items?

Guilt-free consumption could one day be attainable. Whether it will make us happy is another question.

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