My book, Somebody Else’s Problem calls for a radical change in how we think about consumerism, sustainability and design. The book takes a historically-framed approach to the problem of consumerism, arguing against the popular myth that our environmental crisis can be attributed to individual choice alone. While I admire people who ‘go green’ and go against the grain of their neighbours, the ‘no impact’ people of the world, individualising our problems are dangerous, because they shift blame from those who build, maintain and profit from unsustainable systems and services to those who often have no choice but to use them, and in fact might even depend on them.
Instead, my book argues that our choices, however well-intentioned or seemingly well-informed, occur within larger technological systems over which most of us have little control, and this is especially true amongst those who have the least – in money or education. These everyday systems have resulted over time, sometimes over many years, in prior irrecoverable commitments or ‘sunk-costs’. Each massive provisioning system – transport, food, products, built infrastructures – necessarily makes us dependent over time, shapes our behaviour, and each comes with a heavy environmental price tag. Our dependence in turn blinds us to their failings – it becomes normal to drive to work, to shop in a supermarket, to live in a house with a large air conditioner powered by a coal-fired power station. Many of us cannot choose to live a ‘greener life’, to escape these systems, and indeed many of us work in professions that directly depend on them or are entangled with them.
Opposition to sustainable change can thus be seen in terms of a series of dependencies that cannot be really understood by those who are caught up in them – they seem ‘normal’ because they have grown up, worked and benefitted from them in this way. They soon adopt what are called ‘sunk-cost fallacies’ – legacy biases – that help them justify what they do, and also justify their dependence on the things others know to be unsustainable: for example, driving cars for transportation, drawing power from coal-fired power stations, wearing clothes that are made from cotton grown in fields that take their water from precious groundwater ‘somewhere else’, eating food from a supermarket that throws away 40% of the food the farmers produce for it, etc, etc. These systems must change – we know they must – but we have to recognise that there are many who not only depend on these systems the way they are, but that this dependence blinds them from seeing their negative effects. This means we must stop the blame game and start looking directly at what we hold in our hands – the things we do and the systems we use.
In the book I also argue also against the popular ‘green growth’ myth, that technological innovation alone will somehow deliver low-carbon living without any substantial behavioural, political or economic changes being required. Again and again research shows that ‘dematerialisation’ along with a ‘decoupling’ of economic activity from material flows, only occurs in particular situations and contexts, and while this occurs, growth – because our money flows like water – continues elsewhere. Even when we seem to dematerialise our consumption through going virtual, we still spend our money on travel, on exotic experiences, or something that has been promoted for sale. My book tries to show that while technological innovation is always welcome, and can save or dramatically improve our lives, it typically can do little to influence the escalatory dynamic and destructiveness of consumerism on its own, that is the desire for something exciting and new, and the desire to update what we have, to have, or experience, the ‘latest and the best’. Consumerism, I argue, is thus the ultimate social dynamic behind Climate Change, since it is so inherently escalatory.
By escalation here I mean a very simple trend which technological development and globalisation have dramatically extended and complicated: more products are now being bought by more people in more places, but these are being replaced sooner. Increasing energy saving, increasing efficiencies in use, are soon overwhelmed by this escalatory dynamic, for more people are buying more things within the same time period. From mobile phones to clothes, food and holidays, we are buying more for our money, more quickly, and more often, and this generates more wastes, more pollution and more emissions, even if our factories are becoming more efficient, and our cars ‘greener’. Unless this urgent danger is faced up to, we cannot expect to slow and reverse Climate Change in the timeframes this requires.