Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Buddha with the Fairtrade logo

Can ethical consumerism save the world? So many people would like to think so - in fact, the whole purpose of ethical consumerism is to save the world, one checkout scan at a time. People with a conscience are switching to brands which help uplift the communities they come from. They are buying products which have a lower carbon footprint than the competitors, or products that go easy on packaging. All of these things surely make a difference. But when the change that is needed is structural, is it really possible to change the system from within? If capitalism is destroying the planet, can a tweaked capitalist purchasing pattern also save it?

Environmentalists are quick to point out that the Earth is finite. It has finite resources, finite energy, a finite amount of space and a finite capacity to absorb pollution without ecosystem collapse. Capitalism, on the other hand, centres around the assumption of the infinite. Infinite growth. You don't need a masters degree in economics to notice that every single graph you ever see goes up as it goes from left to right. More production. More consumption. More technology. More money. More, more, more. If the graph goes the other way, or even levels out, the system is in crisis. It is termed a 'recession', 'stagnation' or, if it goes on long enough, a 'depression'. These terms fill people with almost as much horror as the prospect of environmental catastrophe because they bring about their own, very tangible catastrophes: unemployment and rising costs.

So is the choice we are faced with a stark one: environmental collapse or economic collapse?

As I see it, we have two choices. We can change what we buy and we can change how much we buy. Ideally, of course, we would buy less of everything and that which we bought would be ethically sourced/made. However, herein lies the great shortfall of truly ethical consuming in our current economic system. It only incentivises the production of 'green' products if people buy more of them, not less. If you simultaneously consume less and consume green, your voice in the mix decreases. Every purchase in a market economy sends a signal to produce more of that product, and the great dream of ethical consumerism is to collectively switch production from unethical products to ethical products. That will work - the types of products produced will change as people do this. But it does not depart from the model of more buying, more spending, more ridiculous infinity.

Why do I mention the Buddha in the title? Simply because, as in most cases, the answer was there long before the question. The Buddha's greatest insight was that attachment leads to suffering. That simple truism is the cornerstone of Buddhism. Attachment will unfailingly lead to suffering because everything is transient and so becoming attached to it will cause pain when it disappears or fades. It is for that reason that monks renounce their worldly possessions. And for that reason that shopping sprees are only so temporarily satisfying.

We can only save the planet by consuming less. And, serendipitously, that may well make us happier. If carried through universally it will indeed shake the very foundations of capitalism. It will bring about 'recession', 'stagnation' and unemployment. But are we so brainwashed to think there is no other paradigm? If we are not so attached to things, will it really matter if there are not more and more of them every year? Perhaps a new system will emerge where how much you produce is no longer the point: but what, how and why you produce. Besides, there is more than enough food to go round on this planet of ours. And one man's unemployment is another man's holiday.


  1. There is also a third and slightly controversial option. Since our resources and economic capacity are both limited, it would make sense to limit the population accordingly. The imbalance we see today is not due to capitalism, but by over-population. The steep increase in population over last century indicates that advances in food and medicine technology have enabled the population to balloon to a stage where the population and the earth are at an imbalance. In this regard I believe the right of reproductive freedom needs to be balanced with the rights of the society into which such a child/children are born. With every new baby the rest of the population suddenly has even fewer resources not to mention the thousands of nappies that need to be disposed of in landfills. I’m not proposing a draconian 1 child policy or sterilisation; I simply think it is greedy for a couple to have more than two children.

  2. Aha! But that is a favourite argument of the rich world who try to shift the blame to the overpopulated third world ;) The countries with massive populations are not the ones putting a strain on the environment (although they will, of course, as they are all racing to attain American lifestyles). There is enough to go round to every one of the six billion of us - but not at American levels of consumption.

    That being said, I totally agree with you that no one should have more than two kids