Education

Week 22: Connect the Dots


So we’ve talked about food; we’ve talked about consumerism; we’ve talked about environmental impact and carbon footprint; we’ve talked about supporting local economies by buying locally. It’s time to connect these issues and understand how they are all a part of the bigger issue.

Author Anup Shah pulls a lengthy quote from Richard Robbins in the article The Effects of Consumerism on the Global Issues. It’s a bit heavy but I think it does a great job of summarizing how these issues we’ve talked about are all connected. Stick with it and we’ll talk about some of the solutions afterwards:

“William Rees, an urban planner at the University of British Columbia, estimated that it requires four to six hectares of land to maintain the consumption level of the average person from a high-consumption country. The problem is that in 1990, worldwide there were only 1.7 hectares of ecologically productive land for each person. He concluded that the deficit is made up in core countries by drawing down the natural resources of their own countries and expropriating the resources, through trade, of peripheral countries. In other words, someone has to pay for our consumption levels. [Emphasis Added]

… 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 produced and the more that is purchased the more we have progress and prosperity. The single most important measure of economic growth is, after all, the gross national product (GNP), the sum total of goods and services produced by a given society in a given year. It is a measure of the success of a consumer society, obviously, to consume.

However, the production, processing, and consumption, of commodities requires the extraction and use of natural resources (wood, ore, fossil fuels, and water); it requires the creation of factories and factory complexes whose operation creates toxic byproducts, while the use of commodities themselves (e.g. automobiles) creates pollutants and waste. Yet of the three factors environmentalists often point to as responsible for environmental pollution — population, technology, and consumption — consumption seems to get the least attention. One reason, no doubt, is that it may be the most difficult to change; our consumption patterns are so much a part of our lives that to change them would require a massive cultural overhaul, not to mention severe economic dislocation. A drop in demand for products, as economists note, brings on economic recession or even depression, along with massive unemployment.”

Richard Robbins, Global Problem and the Culture of Capitalism, (Allyn and Bacon, 1999), pp. 209-210

Pretty heavy stuff. So what can we do? How do we start thinking about solutions?

Recession and massive unemployment doesn’t sound great but some economists and environmentalists are talking about a new economic system that can be born out of our current model. This new system is being referred to as a “whole earth” economy or circular economy. The idea is that producers start thinking about the whole chain of connected events and systems that goes into making consumables rather than just how much profit can be made. By factoring in the impact on the environment, workforce labour, disposal or reuse of materials, etc, a whole earth economy would value more than just profit, it would see the system as connected and weigh the impacts along the way.

So what can you do to help? A lot of the topics we have discussed so far will play a part in helping a whole earth economy develop:

  1. Choose how you spend your dollars and research the companies that you support.
  2. Don’t over consume.
  3. Think about the environmental impact of your choices. 

Learning about these issues and re-evaluating our actions can be tough, but remember that every action you take can help make a difference!

Here’s some more great resources when you’re ready:

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