The word “consumerism” seems to imply that the act of consuming is the essence of our being, something more profound than what existentialism or Freudianism were hinting at. I understand that pushing a shopping cart and loading it with things that we decide all by ourselves to pick from the shelves can occasionally give us a sense of freedom. But enlightenment?
The word “consumerism”, according to Merriam-Webster, can mean two different things.
1) the promotion of the consumer’s interests
2) the theory that an increasing consumption of goods is economically desirable; also a preoccupation with and an inclination toward the buying of consumer goods
Limitless consumption is something we feel we are against. But being “anti” is hardly ever effective marketing. On the contrary, it creates negative atmosphere, which is exactly the kind of environment that makes people want to “go shopping“.
To be sure, the term “green consumerism” does yield over 90,000 search results on the big G, and it “refers to recycling, purchasing and using eco-friendly products that minimize damage to the environment.”
Minimize – not revert.
Of course, consumers can do a lot to help mother nature, or to improve the health of ecosystems. They can change en masse to using only recycled products, to plant a native tree or two for every pound of palm oil they consume.
All these actions are great, but they need an abundance of a resource we don’t have: time.
It seems unlikely that a variety of “consumerism”, the preoccupation with and inclination toward the buying of consumer goods, is a solution to anything.
From this perspective, collaborative consumption is merely a means to an end. What overshadows the cuddly warmth of the sharing economy is that we as a society have to lower overall consumption of resources or perish. We have to abolish the transformation of nature into products in order to halt the destruction that is inherent in the process.
If we approach the many creative ventures that we see today from this perspective, we need to ask a different set of questions and develop different benchmarks for start-ups in the collaborative economy.
Instead of asking “how quickly does shareholder value grow?” we ask “how many cars are taken off the road because of car sharing communities?”
We ask “How many power drills have not been produced every year because of tool sharing communities?”
We ask “How many apartments have not been built because of social co-housing communities?”
We ask “How many passenger miles have not been traveled because of car sharing communities?”
We ask “How many invaluable water resources have not been used up for cotton growth because of cloth swapping communities?”
Sure, such communities can still focus on their own growth (an inescapable side-effect of being funded by venture capital), but that growth has natural limits. When all cars and tools and things are shared, and all vacant bedrooms are filled, the sharing economy reaches a “steady-state” – something anathema to the conventional economic model.
The sharing economy carries in it the seed to overcome the suicidal model of infinite growth, because it serves communities rather than consumers. And for communities more goods and services doesn’t equate more happiness (as a community, they can’t be put down with Sponge Bob, cheeseburgers and prozac) . There is an optimum of how much of social life can be monetized and turned into services. Every sharing venture that wishes to be around for a long time in a community is heading for a steady state.
A cynic might say that we are consuming the same resources, whether we do it collaboratively or not, and that “community thinking” won’t get us out of our predicament. But there are some powerful effects of the sharing economy. People change their perspective: it’s much easier to consume less if you live in a subculture where that is the norm. They achieve radical reduction of excess capacity and waste through cooperation.
More importantly, these consequences don’t damage the sharing economy. It can handle a steady state. This fundamental difference with classic industrial capitalism that we see shining through is what gives me hope. When the sharing economy reaches its goals, it doesn’t make itself superfluous. When the old model (the one Thomas Piketty has gutted) realizes its full potential – maximum throughput of “resources”, full employment, – it will have destroyed itself and everything in its way. That is, this planet.
The theory is getting boring. We’ve heard it too often, the mantra of the finite planet, the appeal to something better than greed. The conspiracies that describe the powers pulling on us, and inflate them to mythical proportions.
- Share how and why we consume less. I created this Facebook Page, originally called “Do not consume”, later toned down to “Consume less”. The intention remains the same. The amount of junk that surrounds us is detrimental to everything.
- Reinforce each other in our ideas, and transforming the culture. We need this because we are vulnerable too, and some of us might need a replacement for the the piles of “stuff” that used to make us feel good about ourselves.
- Use (or build) those sharing economy services that have the best track record of long-term resource reduction. Look through the advertising.
Make it count.