Blog post also available on The Guardian Sustainable Business Blog.
A recent series of blogs on this site discussed the idea that the UK might finally be starting to decouple growth from environmental destruction. Whilst this looks unlikely, my concern is that the debate is in any case missing half the story. By focusing on consumption alone we are looking only at the means and not the ends. The real question should be ‘consumption for what?’ What is the endpoint we seek? To me the answer is sustainable-wellbeing.
The debate so far
The first blog loudly proclaimed the UK had reached the mythical ‘decoupling’ so dreamed of by technophiles, as consumption of some materials appears to be falling in the UK despite growth increases. Professor Tim Jackson responded by blogging that any declines in UK material consumption are tiny percentage changes, usually smaller than margins of statistical error. He also points out that the figures ignore carbon intensity from things like imports. Jackson noted that much of the UK’s growth has been related to financial transactions with concomitant increases in real material and carbon impacts around the world – our eco-financial footprint if you like. Next in line was George Monbiot who added additional concerns about the first blog and further undermined the idea that we are decoupling UK material use let alone overall UK emissions and global impacts.
Ends as well as means
Apart from these concerns about the data in the first blog, my worry is that this debate has still largely been missing what we should really be focusing on which is the far more crucial metric of the ecological efficiency of delivering wellbeing to all. This metric basically includes two factors, environmental-sustainability and wellbeing.
In terms of the first – the ecological efficiency aspect of this metric – it might be possible we can decouple some material use from growth. But we not only need to do this for all (not just some) materials, we also need to do it for all environmental impacts and perhaps most urgently carbon emissions. And yet carbon emissions from the UK and globally continue to soar – by some estimates locking us already into 4,5 or even 10 degrees warming and on this basis the outlook for mankind is looking truly grim.
For moral as well as physical reasons, far from needing merely to peak in consumption, the rich world needs to find a significant reverse gear in material use and emissions. Based on IPAT we need 11% p.a. reductions in energy intensity on every global $ of economic output, everywhere, every year till 2050, just to reach 450ppm (which is of course 100ppm too high). Factor in a contract and converge, fair-earth-share based solution and, if the poor world is to continue to develop, that means far larger intensity reductions are needed here in the UK. And the best we have been able to do in the last 20 or so years is 0.7% intensity reductions. So we are way, way off the likelihood of absolute decoupling in the UK let alone globally.
So what about the second half of the above metric – of wellbeing? Well we have been more successful with this decoupling. The rich world long ago managed to decouple growth from increases in wellbeing. Unfortunately someone read the instructions wrong and we headed off in completely the wrong direction. It was growth that kept going whilst wellbeing has flat-lined in the rich world since the 1970’s. Indeed indexes like Nef’s Happy Planet Index show that countries with very low GDP and material use do far better than ’successful’, footprint-heavy and relatively unhappy countries.
In a post-consumerist, beyond-growth, ecoslowcialist world I suspect we will no longer be obsessed by ‘bigger’ and ‘faster’ and our definition of prosperity will be defined less by efficiency and more by sufficiency, by the quality of our lives and how to maximize it within the carrying capacity of the planet.
Wellbeing and the shift to intrinsic values
This will inevitably require a shift away from wellbeing-damaging and unsustainable extrinsic values to the kinds of intrinsic values WWF discuss in their important recent report on the effects of advertising Think of me as Evil. Since this provocative report came out last week several companies have shown interest in better understanding this values shift. To me this suggests WWF have hit a raw nerve near the heart of capitalism.
And one thing we know for sure is that the sorts of intrinsic values WWF point to are the same values which bring increased wellbeing and with it a shift away from the shallow consumerism eating up our one and only planet.
A recent survey has found global sustainability experts and practitioners believe that sustainable consumption is possible to achieve, but that to do so we need to change the way we produce, sell and consume. A majority felt this included reductions in, not just altered, consumption. With the survey also finding a dangerous vacuum of political leadership, more pressure is now on the corporate world. If companies can’t make the leap to a post consumerist, intrinsic world then what Jeremy Leggett calls ‘scaleable microcosms of hope’ – community, collaborative and citizen-led solutions – will continue to take over markets and push current incumbents into the shadows. To many, including me, these Phoenix or Cinderella enterprises already offer a growing ray of hope in a rather dark sky.
As 93% of company footprints comes from the use of products by consumers, companies are now more and more aware of the need to shift the consumer towards sustainability. This shift will inevitably require a shift to the kinds of citizen-centric wellbeing-focused values WWF are encouraging. That’s why I am encouraging business leaders like Ian Cheshire to tune their organizations into wellbeing as a key new lens for strategic innovation.
Where to next?
Perhaps instead of obsessing about peak-consumption we also need to think about peak-consumerism?
The novelist Ben Okri summed it up so very well for me when he said: “The meltdown in the economy is a harsh metaphor of the meltdown of some of our value systems. Individualism has been raised almost to a religion, appearance made more important than substance. The only hope lies in a fundamental re-examination of the values that we have lived by in the past 30 years”. And how might we do that? Personally, I’m with Vaclav Havel who believes that “the only option is a change in the sphere of the spirit, in the sphere of human conscience. It’s not enough to invent new machines, new regulations, new institutions. We must develop a new understanding of the true purpose of our existence on this Earth. Only by making such a fundamental shift will we be able to create new models of behaviour and a new set of values for the planet.”