The damage that western lifestyles are doing to the environment is only part of the problem. If some technological fix does appear, meaning that western consumerism can carry on as usual, then those other problems will still be there. While we are at a crisis point at the moment, it is often in time of crises that new solutions and ways of living can be found. Instead of just looking at one particular result of western consumerism and trying to fix that, we need to look at all the ways that our lifestyles are causing harm. They all need to be addressed together. Now is the time that we need to be searching for new ways of doing things, new ways of living and new values and belief systems that are beneficial rather than detrimental, to the world and ALL the people that live in it.
Most people realise that our western lifestyles are causing the environment harm. Many of us also realise that those lifestyles are having a negative effect on people in developing countries. There is also a realisation that the way wealth and resources are distributed is unjust and must be changed. Then there is the issue of many people being paid slave wages so that western consumers can buy their goods more cheaply. A technological environmental fix is not going to resolve these issues - and they need to be resolved.
Another issue is the way people in western countries are negatively affected by consumerism. To be constantly bombarded by messages telling us we need to buy something or that we have certain problems that need to be fixed or that our lives will somehow be meaningless if we don't have a certain item - none of this is good for us. I believe it harms our self-esteem, our sense of self-worth. We try to find meaning and fulfilment and in products - and then wonder why we are left feeling like our lives are still meaningless and unfulfilled. It makes us think our worth is somehow based in what we earn or what we own. A technological environmental fix isn't going to fix any of these problems either - and again, they need to be resolved.
A third way that consumerism harms people is by making some people in western countries feel excluded. In Hard Work, Polly Toynbee gives an account of her attempt to live as the working poor in the UK. One of the saddest passages in the book comes near the end, when she is reflecting on her experiences:
'Wherever I walked, everything I passed was out of bounds, things belonging to other people but not to me. No Starbucks sofas beckoned anymore, no Borders bookshop, no restaurants, not even the most humble café. This is what 'exclusion' means, if you ever wondered at this modern wider definition of poverty. It is a large No Entry sign on every ordinary pleasure. No entry to the consumer society where the rest of us live. It is a harsh apartheid. Exclusion makes the urban landscape a forbidding place where every bright lit shop doorway designed to welcome you in to buy, buy, buy is slammed shut to one-third of the population. Shopping for the meanest food staples under rigorous cost-control is no fun, and it becomes less so every time.' (1)
Toynbee is not criticising consumerism as such. She freely admits that she likes to shop. Her main point is that living wages needs to be increased. But this passage, to me, is a sad reflection on how consumerism excludes people. While people in the western world may like to go shopping and buy lots of consumer goods, it will always create people who can't afford those goods. And while I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing to be excluded from Starbucks or other stores, in a world where are told constantly that shopping brings fulfilment and improves their lives, it does leave people with a sense that they are somehow missing out on something important. Furthermore, it is consumerism that often ensures that many people are working for low wages. If we demand certain clothes, food or services at reasonably low prices, what happens to the wages of the people who help to provide those clothes, food or services - especially when the people employing them are trying to make as much profit as possible?
A technological environmental fix is not going to change anything for the working poor. In fact, in some cases it may end up leaving them worse off than before. For instance, solar panels reduce people's use of electricity. But the working poor cannot afford solar panels. If we use technology to reduce our use of electricity, is this technology going to be denied to people who can't afford it? Or will they have to purchase it anyway, leaving them even less money for the goods (and luxuries) that are considered such a normal part of daily life in a western country?
While I believe the damage we are doing to the environment is extremely important, it cannot be considered in isolation. We need to look at all the ways our lifestyles and structures are causing harm. And they all need to be addressed.
However, I am, at heart, an optimist. And I do believe that this time gives us an opportunity to critically look at our lifestyles and make changes that improve things for everybody. If consumer lifestyles cause so much harm - to the environment, to developing countries, to the working poor and to everyone living in western countries - then changing those lifestyles or reassessing them can also bring benefits to everyone as well. At this point of ecological crisis, we have the motivation to look for other alternatives - not just alternative energy supplies, but alternatives ways of living. It is now that we are most likely to change. And while change is often scary, it often brings rewards that we never imagined.
1. Toynbee, P. Hard Work: Life in Low-pay Britain. London: Bloomsbury, 2003.