06/16/2014 08:45 am ET Updated Aug 16, 2014

Individual Material Consumption, Guilt and the Crisis in Global Sustainability

A key question as we make the long transition to a sustainable and renewable economy and culture is the role of individual responsibility and personal lifestyle. In the end, our individual behavior as "consumers" adds up to the crisis of sustainability, but the causes of this crisis are far from simple. First, there are many people in dire poverty that would love to have the problem of overconsumption. Second, there are a number of choices that may seem individual, but in fact are highly constrained by the production and infrastructure systems available to us. For most of us, getting back to the land and living at one with nature is not a real option. Our livelihoods and lifestyles are found in cities. Nevertheless, we will need to "become the change we wish to see" (to paraphrase Mahatma Gandhi). Individual choice will influence political, institutional and economic systems, and those systems in turn will influence individual choice and behavior. Sustainability requires individual and systems level change and both are highly interdependent. So how do we stimulate this change?

The leading edge of the dialogue about the global sustainability crisis is climate policy. In U.S. politics, concern about global warming has become a political fault line. Polling indicates that independent voters understand the reality of climate science, but climate science deniers dominate the right wing-base that controls many Republican primary races. Those that do not see a climate crisis, tend to also disbelieve the global sustainability crisis.

On the environmental side of the divide, we see a diverse coalition, but a constant thread in the discussion is that our environmental problems can only be solved when we put ourselves on a consumption diet and stop our super-sized, resource intensive lifestyles. A second but related thread views the problem of extreme poverty in the world as a direct result of overconsumption in the developed world. We should therefore feel guilty when we consume, and if we would only consume less, the world's poor would get to consume more and the sustainability crisis would go away.

For some environmentalists, the sustainability crisis is defined as a moral issue, particularly when it is combined with the growing degree of income inequality here in the United States. To be clear, I am not about to argue for the superficial, unexamined, conspicuous consumption lifestyle of the rich and famous glamorized by "reality" TV. I am only asking that people take a hard look at the interconnection between the economic, political, energy and environmental systems that we depend on. Put simply, while today's version of economic development damages the environment, when economic growth ends, working poor people are the first to lose their jobs and they and their families suffer. Rich people have plenty to buffer them from the impacts of economic contraction but those without wealth have no margin for error. Our economic and political systems are dependent on economic growth. But economic growth can be decoupled from environmental destruction. The answer is not to reduce consumption, but change it. The individual behavior change we need for sustainability is different patterns of consumption, not reduced consumption.

Some consumption requires material goods -- particularly food, clothing, shelter, and transportation. The production, consumption and disposal of those material goods are based on a series of unsustainable processes:

  • One-time use of natural resources such as fossil fuels.
  • Planned obsolescence of cars, electronics, and clothing.
  • The use of toxic substances in production.
  • Thoughtless, destructive waste management.
  • Polluting production processes.

At the same time, an increasing number of our occupations and a greater proportion of wealth are now generated in less resource intensive occupations: web design, communications, finance, education, research, health care, hospitality, events management, social service delivery, and so on. Fewer of us work in factories and farms making things. Some of these production functions have been exported to the developing world, but many more of them have been automated and require less human labor than they once needed. Farming, construction, manufacturing, and even shipping and distribution are increasingly automated. This automation requires energy, but if energy could be renewable, and production and consumption could become less destructive, it is possible to imagine a larger economy with a smaller impact on the planet's interconnected ecosystems.

While we can imagine it, that doesn't mean we know how to do it. The emerging field of sustainability management is at the center of an effort to learn how to add the physical dimensions of sustainability to routine organizational management. The objectives of sustainability management are a response to the unsustainability of today's economy. These goals include:

  • Reduced use of nonrenewable energy and materials in production.
  • Efforts to reuse and recycle the materials that are used in production.
  • Reductions in the volume and toxicity of waste from production and consumption.

The key question is how do we get from here to there? How do we make the transition to a renewable, sustainable economy? I know that trying to make people guilty for consumption is a losing strategy. No one wants to sit alone in a cold dark place, hungry and bored. A positive vision of a sustainable lifestyle includes entertainment, education, creativity, exciting ideas, stimulating social interactions, healthy and flavorful food and drink, exploration and fun. While we need to pay attention to the environmental impact of our lifestyle, we need to understand that it will take a long time to develop sustainable consumption and economic growth.

We do not yet understand the planet's physical and natural systems enough to understand all of the impacts we have on them. We can't develop truly sustainable lifestyles until we develop a better understanding of the planet.

As we gain the knowledge needed to assess the environmental impacts of our economic life, and develop the technologies needed for renewable production, we must also develop the public policies and organizational management practices needed to put this knowledge to work. Our government, nonprofit and for-profit organizations need to learn how to incorporate sustainability factors into routine and strategic decisions and actions. This will be a long and painstaking process. Similar to the change from an agricultural based economy to an industrial one, the sustainability economy will be the end result of the post-industrial era that is now underway. Left on its own, this process will develop slowly and we will continue to damage ecosystems and change our climate. That is why we need to do all we can to accelerate the rate of change.

While technology and organizations must evolve, so must culture, norms and values. At the foundation of the transition we will need the idea of a sustainable lifestyle to be one that is not built on an artificial and irrelevant sense of moral superiority, but on the exciting and rewarding benefits it brings. I don't pretend to know what shape that might take, but I think it will involve active, engaged social interaction, experiential and virtual learning, and reduced emphasis on conspicuous consumption. Today, the popular media often defines the "good life" as many homes, fancy cars, lavish parties, and wealth without work. I suspect the appeal of that lifestyle will never disappear. But it can be made to look ridiculous and out of step.

I would not understate the impact of social change, and evolving social norms. Racial equality, gender equality, gay rights and global multiculturalism are growing forces in American life. A rich, but less resource intensive lifestyle could follow a similar path. The way people live can change quickly in response to new technologies, ideas and even images.

There is a great Mel Brooks -- Carl Reiner comedy improvisation called the "2,000 Year Old Man." Brooks' unforgettable 2,000 Year Old Man has an all-purpose explanation for all of history: "It all comes down to fear." While fear will always will be a great motivator, as will its close relation, guilt; in a crowded, complex and interconnected global society, resort to fear can be dangerous and destabilizing. Fear that our children will inherit a dying planet is inescapable, so Brooks has a point. But in my view, a positive view of the benefits of a renewable economy is a more sound political strategy than promoting fear of following our current path. A sustainable, urban lifestyle may well be emerging with smaller personal spaces, more frequent use of public spaces, bikes, parks, high-tech media, and constant attention to one's environmental footprint. We don't know if it can compete with the dream of a 4,000 square foot climate controlled suburban home, SUVs, speedboats and a lifestyle of relentless luxury. But we can hope.