Editor’s Note – The below post is written as part of the World Environment Day blog competition, themed: “Seven billion dreams. One planet. Consume with care.”
The goal for sustainable consumption seems to be fairly straightforward: to consume only what you need in order for yourself to survive and flourish without compromising the needs of others on the planet. The actual task is quite difficult. With so many options, gadgets, technologies, and “the next big thing(s),” is sustainable consumption possible? Is it really possible to “consume with care” when the world is full of marketers spending half a trillion dollars a year encouraging you to consume with abandon?
In short, the answer is no. This is not because there is nothing we can do to move towards global sustainability, but rather because we are looking at the challenge in the wrong way. Our consumer culture has outgrown the ability to discuss sustainability in a manner that makes sense and that will be able to achieve results. The most obvious example of this inadequate language is the fact that the word “consumer” is considered synonymous with a human being. In a world where the main component of who we are is the idea that we are consumers, no extent of consumption limitations exist that will allow us to achieve sustainable living. Careful consumption is a misnomer. It distracts from real progress in the area of climate change and sustainability, and will get us nowhere if we continue to discuss it as such.
In fact, in order to reach sustainable consumption through “consuming with care,” we would have to reduce our consumption levels by an amount that consumers would aggressively resist, especially in high-consumption cultures like the United States. According to Jennie Moore and William E. Rees in State of the World 2013, a one planet lifestyle in a world of 7 billion will require consumers to forego much of what are seen as entitlements today, including drastically reducing flying, private car ownership, meat consumption, home size and energy use. How will it be possible to implement such a restrictive system? Especially in societies where individualism is highly valued, such restrictions would cause outrage and would most likely fail miserably. Instead of approaching sustainability in such a restrictive way, we must implement practices that will in the process help to change the values of a society from consumerism to environmental stewardship.
Instead, what we’ll need is a paradigm shift in the way we view ourselves and the way we view our relationship to nature. We can no longer view ourselves primarily as consumers. We must learn to think of ourselves as first as community members (locally and globally), producers, and stewards of the land and planet we live on. Previously, nature has been viewed as an abundance of resources at humans’ disposal for our use. We must change the way we view nature as well. There needs to be a relationship, a give and take, rather than just a continual “taking” or consuming of the natural environment.
To create cultural change in the way we view ourselves and nature will be a daunting task. Perhaps the easiest way to start is on an individual level. In a future where we can no longer depend on fossil fuels for the production and distribution of the majority of our food, we will need to have many more producers than we have now. One form this can take is that of small-scale localized farms (what we like to call “yardfarms”) that can be grown in every yard space across the United States and other developed countries. While yards don’t sound like they’re going to save the world, in the U.S. alone, these spaces add up to 40 million acres.
It is estimated that 80 percent of the world’s food supply is produced by small-scale farmers already, mostly in developing countries. In places like the United States, farms have gotten larger and larger, and are now mostly run by a handful of corporations. If we are to transition away from a consumer-centric culture, we will realistically need to return to smallholder farming. This way, we would no longer be consumers who go to the grocery store and place demands on far off farmlands to provide us with shelves full of processed food and baskets of produce (a large percentage of which gets thrown out in supermarkets). Instead, we would be producers who care for the land around us, and in return it provides us with fresh produce that we can use to feed and sustain families and communities.
These yardfarms would help us to decrease the astronomical food waste currently present in developed countries. In the United States, food waste estimates are around 40 percent—an incredible amount if you think about how many people in the world are consistently going hungry. We would get in the habit of eating foods that are in season in addition to depending less on fossil fuel intensive and easily disrupted supply chains for most of our sustenance.
Yardfarms speckled in neighborhoods across the country could potentially serve as catalyst for the transition to this new community/producer paradigm. Gardening gets people outside to work and take care of their land, and would spark conversation with neighbors and community members when they see someone ripping out their water- and fertilizer-guzzling monocropped lawns to plant sustainable gardens in their place. Fresh, delicious fruits and vegetables shared with neighbors from one yardfarm could lead to more yardfarms the following year.
Though yardfarming may seem like a small solution to a large problem, the potential it has for feeding local communities and reducing overall consumption is astounding. In a study done by the University of Delaware, researchers used geographical information systems to map the city of Philadelphia, and were able to calculate the amount of space in the city that would be suitable for small-scale gardens. They determined that if only 5 percent of the available land was cultivated for food production, over 9.9 million pounds of food could be grown locally. And let’s not forget that the Victory Gardens movement provided 40 percent of household produce demand by the end of World War II. Surely the global crisis we face today should be sufficient to mobilize the drafting of lawns to grow vegetables at an even larger scale. And in the process, help sow the seeds for the transition to a culture not based on consumerism, but on community and stewardship.
About the Author – Emily Helminen is a fellow for the Transforming Cultures project at the Worldwatch Institute.