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06. October 2015 · Comments Off on Transforming Cultures: From Consumerism to Sustainability · Categories: Articles

John Mulrow at East Branch of the DuPage River



By: Sustain DuPage Board Member John Mulrow 6 October, 2015. 

There are many ways to frame the transition to sustainability. Most commonly, we hear about technology-based transitions: Replace fossil fuels with renewable energy, industrial agriculture with organic and local agriculture, combustion engine cars with electric, recycling instead of landfills, etc. Framing the transition in this way allows us to picture the future as not much different from today, just with different nutrient and energy sources working behind the scenes.

A former EPA official reinforced this notion when he commented on the White House’s recently-announced Clean Power Plan: “It’s really a technology issue, and I think the only effective way to deal with climate change is to make sure we’re investing in technologies that will give people what they get today from fossil fuels at a [comparable] cost.”

To be sure, true sustainability – keeping resources, biodiversity and human systems in stasis with the planet’s ecological systems – is about much more than climate change and fossil fuels. But even in other realms of the discussion, the technology framework is often front and center.

A few years ago I worked with Worldwatch Institute Senior Fellow Erik Assadourian documenting behavior and lifestyle changes involved in the transition to sustainability. But rather than create guides with Ten Simple Things You Can Do to save the planet, we took a step back to the many factors that influence behavior and lifestyle. These factors are definable – they make up a thing called “culture.” WE created a simple yet powerful framework for transitioning culture from one of consumerism to true sustainability, and it continues to influence my work and writing on this topic.

Here are the basics:

First, the planet cannot keep up with today’s levels of human consumption and still function like we expect it to. The latest measurements from the Global Footprint Network show that humans are extracting, consuming, and emitting more than our God-given biological system can handle – we are in Earth Overshoot.” We would literally need another half of a planet to continue indefinitely consuming the way we do (and remember, “current” consumption levels still fail to provide adequate nutrition and sanitation for about a quarter of the world’s population).

It’s our culture that drives consumption. Culture can be defined as a set of social expectations that dictate how we must look and behave in order to be normal humans. Today it is completely normal to drive cars, buy new products, and consume processed foods on a nearly daily basis. Without hesitation we celebrate birthdays and holidays with disposable dishware and plastic gifts. And this lifestyle is expected or desired everywhere. It is this globally-shared culture that is driving unsustainability.

But how did we get here? The shift to a culture of consumerism happened mostly in the past 100 years, and its mechanisms are traceable. The shift to car-centric lives provides a great example. Today, US auto companies spend more on advertising than any other industry, surrounding us with images of the car-enabled good life and making it nearly impossible to imagine life without a car.

As the car industry grew in the early-mid 1900’s, more deliberate efforts were made to encourage car use: Car companies were allowed to buy up and shut down public transportation systems; Laws were passed against jaywalking, making streets the sole property of the car; and auto insurance companies sponsored classroom programs on the dangers of playing in the street. However uncoordinated, all these efforts have added up to a massive shift in humanity’s concept of travel.

We need another massive culture shift – toward sustainability. In order for humans to thrive well into the future, we need to make sustainable living culturally normal – just like consumerism feels normal today. We can take the lessons of past cultural shift and apply them, creating a deliberate shift to cultures of sustainability.

The shift is already happening around the globe! The Worldwatch Institute’s Transforming Cultures Project has documented hundreds of efforts to shift away from consumerism and toward sustainability. These efforts include the increasingly-legal Benefit Corporation status, the rise of the sharing economy, and smaller efforts to get us walking to school, using reusable diapers, and pursuing green burial.

A culture of sustainability is the fundamental requirement for saving the planet. Without it we are left with technology and policy solutions that do not fully fix the problem. With it, we may live lives that are not only healthier, but more equitable.

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