A Moral Level of Consumption?

By Robert Jensen

Published in Counterpunch · October, 2003

[A version of this talk was delivered at Elon University, Elon, NC, on October 27, 2003.]

Whatever arguments one might want to have about the pace of global warming and toxic waste accumulation, about the rate at which humans are degrading the earth’s capacity to sustain life, about how long before our current way of living destroys the planet — one thing is beyond contention:

If all the people of the world consumed at the level of the typical middle-class American, the game would be over tomorrow. The earth cannot sustain 6 billion people living as we live in this country. Over the long term, our society is unsustainable, and in the short term our society can continue only if people in other parts of the world are consuming far less.

More than a fifth of the world’s people live in abject poverty (under $1 a day), and about half live below the barely more generous standard of $2 a day. That means that at least half the world cannot meet basic expenditures for food, clothing, shelter, health, and education. The sources of poverty, like the causes of most social/political phenomena, are complex. But at the heart of worldwide inequality today is the continued economic domination of the underdeveloped world by the developed world — with U.S. trade, foreign, and military policy square in the center of that system of domination. It is that system which allows us to consume as we do, and it is that system which helps keep the poor of the world poor.

This kind of realization is not confined to “radical environmentalists” or “leftist revolutionaries.” Consider the recent judgment of World Bank President James Wolfensohn: “It is time to take a cold, hard look at the future. Our planet is not balanced. Too few control too much, and many have too little to hope for. Too much turmoil, too many wars, too much suffering.”

So, anyone serious about our ecological future and global justice have to face this question: What is a morally defensible level of consumption?

Many people avoid the question by arguing that the key to overcoming those threats and disparities is political change, not lifestyle changes by individuals. That’s certainly true; large-scale economic and political changes to overcome the problems inherent in capitalism and nation-states are required. But that doesn’t obscure the need for people to address the question at the personal level, for two reasons.

First, precisely because the ecological problems require large-scale, global solutions, people in the United States have to reduce their consumption. Why should anyone in the developing world take serious any claims about the need for environmental regulation made by people in the industrial world? If we in the developed world show so little interest in curbing our own ravenously destructive habits, what standing do we have to preach to others? How can meaningful international solutions be reached when the industrial world shows so little interest in such change?

Second, if we are serious about meaningful change, political movements and personal choices cannot be separated. Our willingness and ability to work on the big-picture politics flow in part from our personal connection to the question. On any issue, we become more effective in political organizing as our commitment and understanding deepen. On environmental questions, that deepening comes in part with honest self-assessment about our own life choices and willingness to act.

An analogy to the struggle for racial justice is helpful: In the 1950s in United States it certainly was true that no serious progress on the problem of racism was possible without abolishing Jim Crow laws and providing meaningful guarantees of voting rights for non-white people. But did that mean that anti-racist white people should have ignored the ways in which they engaged in racist behavior, perhaps unconscious and subtle, in their personal lives, until those political changes were in place? Would we have accepted from politically active white people the claim that until the Voting Rights and Civil Rights acts were passed, personal behavior didn’t matter? Or that once those laws were passed, that’s all that white people need worry about? Of course not. We would point out that a real commitment to racial justice means that white people have to be accountable, engage in self-criticism, and commit to changing their attitudes and behavior — along with the pursuit of political change at the societal level. In such arenas, no one suggests it is acceptable to ignore accountability for personal behavior while pursuing political goals.

So, we return to the question: What is a morally defensible level of consumption?

The answer can’t be that, until there is justice and equity, we should all consume at the level of the poorest on the planet. The poorest in the world live in misery and starve, and no one can be expected to adopt a lifestyle that leads to death. Neither is it feasible to ask people to live at a subsistence level, the bare minimum needed to survive. Even if people were willing to do it, we couldn’t be effective politically living at such a level. Perhaps if we all knew that we would face such a life unless economic and political change happened immediately, it would be a powerful motivator. But that is not the world in which we live.

In a complex world, there can be no easy, bright-line answer to this question. But that doesn’t mean we have nothing to say about the search for answers. Instead, we can look to common ethical principles for guidance. One of those principles is the assertion that we should treat others as we would like to be treated, a claim that shows up often in human thought, both in religious teachings: –None of you truly believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself (Islam). –Do unto others as you would have them do unto you (Christianity). and secular philosophy: –Act only on that maxim that you can will a universal law (Kant).

Such a “golden rule” does not dispose of all ethical questions, of course, but it provides a starting point for working through questions involving our use of resources: Consume at a level that could be generalized to all people. That is, the morally appropriate level of consumption is one that, if all people in the world lived at that level, would allow for sustainable life on the planet. In this context, sustainable means a system that would not exhaust the finite resources of the planet necessary for the survival of human and non-human life, and would not generate pollution and contamination at levels that make the planet unlivable.

Obviously, the sustainable level of consumption depends on the size of the human population. The current population of more than 6 billion will rise in the near future, perhaps as high as 10 billion by 2100, before leveling off. Also relevant is the future of technological developments that might make more efficient and less polluting use of resources. But for purposes of this discussion, precision is not required on either issue. The question of a sustainable level of consumption cannot be answered with great clarity. Instead, the goal is to assess where we stand today and understand the direction in which me must move, with some sense of the urgency of the task. We can assume the population will continue to grow in the short term, and that whatever advances in technology lie before us they won’t solve all our problems.

So, what we can say with confidence is that all the people of the world cannot live at the level of Donald Trump. A world of 6 billion Donald Trumps is not sustainable.

Those of us who aren’t Donald Trump may at first find that reassuring; it’s easy to focus on the most outrageous consumers as the problem. But it’s equally true that the middle-class American lifestyle also is not generalizable to the whole world. Take the simple issue of automobiles. Klaus Toepfer, head of the U.N. Environment Program, recently made the point that China’s aim of quadrupling its economy by 2020 can only occur if developed nations radically change their consumption habits to free up scarce resources for the world’s poor. If China had the same density of private cars as a developed country such as Germany, Toepfer said, it would have to produce 650 million vehicles, which the world’s supply of metal and oil would be unable to sustain.

So, if we were to apply a golden rule of consumption (consume at a level that, if applied throughout the world, would allow all people a decent life consistent with long-term sustainability), it seems we have to get rid of some of our cars. Actually, lots of our cars, and not just the SUVs. Again, it’s easy to point a judgmental finger at the most wasteful of the vehicles on the road, but the real problem is the number of individually owned and operated vehicles out there. The owner of a fuel-efficient small car is as implicated in this as the driver of the gas-hog.

So, should everyone who owns a car stop driving? That certainly would improve the health of the planet, but it’s not feasible immediately in a culture designed around individual car travel. Many people live in circumstances that make it impossible to maintain family, work, and social commitments without a car.

That means that large-scale change is necessary — most obviously the development of mass transit and the redesign of cities to make them less auto-dependent. But that doesn’t mean that as we work for those changes, there is nothing individuals can do. Here’s a short list: –Do not buy an auto if it is feasible. –If one has to use an auto, create a car cooperative with others to share a vehicle. –In a family unit, maintain the least number of vehicles possible. –Buy the smallest and most fuel-efficient car possible. –Use a car only when necessary, walking/biking and taking public transportation whenever possible.

To be clear: My argument is not that all people are morally compelled to spend all their time pondering and taking action to lower consumption. We do not live under conditions of our own making, and if we want to participate in the culture in a way that allows us to be politically effective, then no one can claim a position of purity. The question we should ask is not, “Have you met THE standard?” set down by some arbitrary authority, but instead “Are you willing to confront the problem and make good-faith attempts to move in the right direction?”

If anyone doubts that direction must be toward far less consumption, visit the website http://www.myfootprint.org/ and run through the quick survey. Using the concept of the “ecological footprint” — assessing how much of the world it takes to support one’s lifestyle — the quiz graphically illustrates just how far most of us are from a just and sustainable level. (For more detail on the concept of the footprint, go to http://www.rprogress.org/programs/sustainability/ef/.)

The reality is that, even in progressive circles where people are generally aware of the severity of the problem, many people have not taken these questions seriously. As “sacrifices” go, that simple list of actions concerning cars is trivial, yet I know many people who think of themselves as politically progressive but have not considered any of them (perhaps beyond looking at the gas mileage figures when they buy a car).

Left/radical/progressive politics is always a process of destruction and creation. We are arguing that certain systems (capitalism, imperialism) have to be destroyed, while at the same time we struggle to articulate and, where possible, create the alternatives. In that process, each of us will have different contributions to make, depending on background, temperament, circumstance, and constantly changing contingencies. Some people try to create change by creating viable alternatives to a high-energy, high-consumption life. Others who are engaged in traditional political organizing may see these kinds of day-to-day choices as less important. But we all need to confront the choices. Humans have well-developed rationalization skills; we are gifted at finding ways of convincing ourselves of the irrefutable truth of what we want to believe. Those of us actively engaged with movements for social justice have a responsibility to resist that.

No matter how many times I emphasize that I am not arguing that there is a magic formula we can use to set an appropriate level of consumption, some will assert that is really my goal. Often people tell me, “Oh, you just think everyone should live like you do.” That is not my contention (if for no other reason that I have not yet reached a level of consumption that meets this golden-rule standard).

I think the motivation behind such a seemingly deliberate misreading often is fear. As members of an affluent culture, the vast majority of us have become used to living with the creature comforts of that affluence, at whatever level we live, and we typically like it. In many cases, we have become lazy (I certainly can see that in my own life). And knowing that the affluence is based on the unsustainable exploitation of natural resources and the unjust exploitation of vulnerable people in other parts of the world (as well as less privileged classes at home) can be difficult to live with. One coping mechanism is to ignore it. For the political reasons already outlined, I think that is a bad choice.

But there also is a personal cost to ignoring these difficult issues. It is my experience that when I have wrestled with these kinds of questions (such as becoming vegetarian, for both moral and ecological reasons; or giving up a car; or in general reducing my participation in the mall-based culture of consumption), I have benefited immensely, both from the process of coming to the decision and the ramifications of the decision. I like life as a vegetarian better than as a meat-eater. I am a happier and healthier person because I routinely ride a bicycle to work. I feel liberated in not buying things that people all around me clamor to buy.

But those decisions don’t get me off the hook. Although I don’t eat meat, I still eat dairy products, and I struggle daily with that decision. The honorable example set by a friend who is vegan reminds me of the question. Although I don’t own a car, I ride in one more often than I need to. I often rent or borrow a car from a friend to travel for political events, but I also sometimes use those vehicles for personal trips that are purely a matter of convenience. A friend who walks virtually everywhere reminds me of how I fall short in this area. Although I stay away from the mall, I still eat out (a wasteful way to eat, given the way in which food is prepared and discarded in contemporary restaurants) more than I need to. A friend who grows and cooks much of his own food reminds me of that failure of mine.

I could produce a long list of my own choices that create such conflict in me every day, and with that a list of people I know who do better than me in the struggle to consume less. Their examples force me to face my own shortcomings. But I am grateful for them and what they freely offer — the gift of making me uncomfortable, for it is that sense of being uncomfortable with my choices that pushes me to struggle with these issues.

At some point, the entire culture is going to have to face these questions. For politically progressive people, it is crucial that we not shy away from those questions now. There need be no imposition of right answers, but there needs to be an honest conversation, with a willingness to engage in self-criticism and be accountable to others. Such conversations will often be difficult and sometimes quite painful — as are conversations about how well white people are living true to anti-racist principles, or how well men are living true to feminist principles. Their difficulty does not give us the right to ignore the issues.

After reading an article of mine about the American empire, a woman wrote to me recently and said that she could see the importance of the underlying question about our consumption. She asked me a simple question: If I want to be part of a movement for global justice, do I have to give up my house?

By the tone and content of her email, I assumed she was a middle-class person with a comfortable house that was bigger than she needed, a house that wouldn’t meet the golden-rule test. To be part of the movement against U.S. imperialism and for global justice, do folks have to give up these houses?

In the short term, the answer is no. There is much political work to be done, and running out today to sell off the bigger-than-needed house likely isn’t the answer. But one has to acknowledge that if there is to be global justice, we can’t live in these big houses indefinitely.

Some might say: That’s easy for you to say — you probably don’t live in a house. That’s true; I live in a one-bedroom apartment and don’t have to worry about giving up my house. But if I am to be honest, I have to worry about giving up my apartment. If I am serious about striving to live at a level that could be applied to all the people of the world and be sustainable, my one-bedroom apartment — though admittedly rather dumpy — is a luxury. I have my own refrigerator, which sits there gobbling up electricity all day. I take a hot shower every morning. When the Texas heat becomes uncomfortable, I can switch on the air conditioning. Most of the people of the world do not have those things, and it’s not at all clear we could live sustainably if everyone in the world had a separate apartment with those luxuries.

We all are implicated. We all have to struggle. It won’t be easy for any of us. It can be hard even to imagine how we as a species are going to find our way out of this mess.

But the only thing worse than struggling with it is to abandon the struggle. Then not only will we have failed in our moral obligation to the rest of life on the planet, but we will have failed ourselves.