Reduced Consumption = Improved Environment

i-b5072422854b0a5ca8daabe9cadf6a03-Mt Trashmore.jpg

Landfills are leading consumption indicators. Their use is declining in the recession. The Washington Post reported over the weekend that the Loudon County landfill (that's in Northern Virginia) has seen a decrease of 30% in the past year; nearby Prince William's County has seen a 20% decrease. Loudon County's landfill was slated to close in 2012, filled to capacity by that time. Because of the decrease in consumption--fewer Circuit City boxes to throw away, fewer packages and old appliances, more saving and reuse--it will be open for an additional year and half.

In an extravagantly wasteful society that typically puts 254 million tons of unwanted stuff at the curb to be thrown away each year, landfill managers say they knew something was amiss in the economy when they saw trash levels start steadily dropping last year.

Most of that 254 million tons is paper and packaging (32.7 percent by weight); astonishingly, almost a quarter of it is organic waste--yard trimmings at 12.8 percent and food scraps at 12.5 percent by weight.

Not that I cheer the fact of the landfill, but certainly it's nice to see a clear example of the consumption-environment connection. Not that I cheer a diminished economy, but I do notice that one might develop economic trade based not on consumption alone but service, craft, quality, and exchange.

The need to reduce consumption may be one of the more basic truisms of ecological sustainability, even though it has been challenged by increasing patterns of consumption over the past half century. (Here is one of prior World's Fair posts on the matter.) The result is that no matter how much we recycle, we consumer more each year; no matter how much we preserve open space or wetlands or park space, we eat up more land elsewhere than before; no matter how simple it seems to say "consume less" we still have blog commenters who deride the very idea.

It isn't a new problem. It's only been exacerbated by post-war, later twentieth century trends in hyper-consumer capitalism. William Cronon's Changes in the Land, one of the most widely read works in environmental history--because it has been read as American history in general for the past quarter century, not just environmental history--is a story about new ways to live on the land introduced by colonists in New England between the 16th and 18th centuries. He notes in the conclusion that "Capitalism and ecological degradation went hand in hand." Since the varieties of capitalism have proliferated since that time, I'd write instead that, of late, consumption and ecological degradation go hand in hand. Mt. Trashmores everywhere can attest.

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Which just means that the current economic downturn buys us a little bit more time to transition to a sustainable economy.

And by the way, we don't just measure our economy based upon consumption, but rather on the exchange of goods and services. It just so happens that at the current point in time, the most efficient (in terms of human labor) way to get what we want is to consume non-renewable resources as well as simply throw away lots of stuff that would, in principle, be useful, but we find easier to just not bother. Obviously this is completely unsustainable and will fail. The only question is whether we can actively take charge and transition off of it ourselves, or be forced to by the failure of our resources and environment and potentially risk complete collapse of our civilization in the mean time.

By Jason Dick (not verified) on 16 Mar 2009 #permalink

What of Schumacher's "Buddhist Economics" (Small is Beautiful)? That gets at the point too.

By Wills Jacks (not verified) on 16 Mar 2009 #permalink

The essence of our economic engine is consumer debt. This drives bank profits through lending and economic growth through consumption. This is where we can fundamentally reform our economy, because this is what is broken. Banks have sought the low hanging fruit of consumer debt and driven enterprise toward this end. People can and should demand greater control over investment and lending. I can see the internet transform from an advertising sales medium to a site where individuals or groups of people seeking out lenders/investors thereby skipping the middle men (banks). We could then see investment for renewables increase, access to local farm grown goods increse, organic products in stores and consumer desires (less packaging, less waste due to shipping, and sustianable incomes for locally produced services and goods become a reality). However, we now spend trillions propping up dead institutions that have failed, possibly for fear we can't figure out how to manage our own affairs. Sad...

By Forthefuture (not verified) on 16 Mar 2009 #permalink

Sorry, that last link was to ANOTHER Mount Trashmore in Virginia. Who would have thought?

One solution in the long term (or even in the medium term) is limiting the population growth, towards a sustainable population. The number varies depending on what you would consider an ok (medium) standard of living, from a few hundreds of millions to a few billions, but less than the population we have now. If Earth's population keeps increasing, no matter how much we reduce consumption, the society is bound to go and the population will be reduced by wars, fammine etc.

The other sollution is expansion in space, where there is free almost unlimited energy (solar), and lots of materials that can be exploited without concern for environmental problems. But that would work only after big investments that would pay after a generation or so, and the world right now has problems with investments that pay off in a few years instead of right now, so small chance of that. Also, even if we have all the solar system for expansion and resources, the population still must stop expanding because it simply is not possible to keep a growing population with limited resources.

Hey, I recognize that sign! I grew up in Virginia Beach, VA and Mt. Trashmore is the highest point in the city. It's a big green hill and a great park area. We would always watch the fireworks there on the fourth of July.