Can we get to an eco-economy?
It’s no longer a secret that the consumer habits of the wealthy are negatively impacting our planet. But at the same time, being wealthy is considered, by most societies, as being a “good” thing. It earns you more freedom, less stress and generally a happier, healthier and easier life. It is something that we are actively encouraged to aspire to, while it is in fact destroying our planet’s life support systems at a devastating rate.
Nothing new here, that’s clearly not breaking news. Neither is the fact that those living in developed countries, some of whom would not identify themselves as particularly wealthy, have a disproportionately large and unsustainable resource footprint and they are by all means considered to be affluent purely due to their country of residence. It is the systemic mechanisms in place in these affluent countries that are driving overconsumption and obstructing necessary change by actively controlling power relations and preventing policies that would protect the earth but stymie the private sector.
Progressive policymakers suggest “greening consumption”, this means to continue to grow economically without causing the current levels of biodiversity loss and climate breakdown. This can be done using technological improvements to reduce emissions and overall environmental impacts - technology is clearly going to be essential when it comes preventing (and in some cases even repairing) the damage already caused - but the problem remains that the global growth of affluence has consistently outpaced these advances, and it looks very unlikely that this will change much in the future. In a nutshell, these advances can have a positive effect on industry emissions but they are severely stunted by mass consumption.
So, we buy less? We buy better, less of it and it lasts longer. We repair, we recycle, we repurpose, we thrift and we compost. We lead a sustainable lifestyle, trim the excess etc etc. Pat our affluent backs, we’ve figured it out! However, it seems many of us are affluent enough to be a part of the problem, but not actually affluent enough that we can stop the damn train before it runs off of the tracks and inexplicably explodes like in some shitty sub-par 80's Blockbuster - except for in this scenario it will be very explicable.
When the first of 2020 lockdowns hit we saw an unprecedented drop in consumption and air pollution, but this won't (because it can’t) last under the Neoliberal nightmare that insists that economic growth is imperative for social security. It is the very affluent (=powerful) people who have a vested interest in economic growth, and therefore in us continuing our high consumption lifestyles. The story goes, once we have met our basic needs, we begin consuming “status goods” relative to our peers (cool clothes, fast cars, a nice blender etc.), as these trends trickle down from the most affluent to the mere-mortals, they become average goods and overall consumption of said goods rises. This is very good for the economy (read rich), this is very bad for the planet (also read poor).
Cultural change is clearly needed, but it's not enough on its own, more than anything we need extreme policy reform - eco-taxes would be one place to start, as would caps on income (let's stick a minimum income in here while we're at it) - the undeniable, unifying element is that the focus needs to be on positive environmental and social outcomes rather than economic growth. Our responsibility now is to hold our governments accountable, to drive both cultural change and policy reform. Perhaps most of all, it is our responsibility to elect people that will protect our planet and our children's futures (and their presents) rather than sacrifice them in the name of the private sector.