The transformation of the consumer gives rise to two phenomena that bear directly on the question of how consumption has become a barrier to tackling climate change—wasteful consumption and green consumerism.
The idea that in affluent countries much of our consumption behaviour is driven by an urge for 'self-completion' rather than any real material need is reinforced by the evidence on wasteful consumption, that is, spending on goods and services that we do not in fact consume.21 If our desire knows no bounds, our capacity to use things is nevertheless limited: there is only so much we can eat, wear and watch, and a house has only so many rooms that can be usefully occupied. The difference between what we buy and what we use is waste.
A study of the extent of wasteful consumption in Australia revealed that virtually all households admit to wasting money by buying things they never use—food, clothes, shoes, CDs, books, exercise bikes, cosmetics, kitchen appliances, and much more. They admit to spending a total of $10.5 billion every year on goods they do not use, an average of $1200 for each household, more than total government spending on universities or roads. These numbers do not account for spending on houses that are too big, holiday homes that are not used and automobiles that rarely leave the garage. If they did, the figures would probably double.
The problem of wasteful consumption will worsen. The study revealed that richer households waste more than households with low and moderate incomes. That is to be expected. When asked if they feel guilty about buying things they do not use, wealthy people are less likely than poorer people to express remorse. (Close to half of people in low-income households say they feel 'very guilty' compared to around 30 per cent of those in high-income households.) In addition, despite two decades of environmental education, young people are both more likely to engage in wasteful consumption and less likely to feel guilty about it.
In the case of greenhouse pollution, wasteful consumption is related to the idea of 'luxury emissions', those emissions associated with consumption above a subsistence level. According to some, the moral status of a tonne of luxury emissions is not the same as a tonne of emissions that allows someone to survive. The difference between luxury and subsistence emissions is not the same as the economist's idea of the diminishing contribution of each extra tonne of emissions to our wellbeing as we become richer. It is a qualitative rather than a quantitative difference. As ethicist James Garvey has written: 22
Not all emissions have the same moral standing. Some emissions have more or different value, even if the quantity of emissions is just the same. The emissions resulting from an African farmer's efforts to feed his family are not on a par with the emissions resulting from an American dermatologist's efforts to get to Vegas for the weekend.
What can we say about the moral standing of emissions associated with the purchase of consumer goods that are not consumed but simply thrown away? While the American dermatologist's
Vegas emissions may have some form of moral standing because they at least impart some benefit to him, the emissions from wasteful consumption—including those associated with houses with unused rooms and holiday homes that are not visited— must have 'negative' moral standing because they are emitted for no benefit yet cause damage to others. While persuasive, these arguments neglect the purpose of modern consumption whose benefits often lie in the act of acquisition and ownership, rather than the act of consuming. Shopping confers psychic benefits. From a utilitarian point of view, the philosophical standpoint of free-market economics, that is enough. But who would want to have to explain the psychic benefits of shopping to the African farmer who must struggle to feed his family?
The truth is that US consumers, who currently account for around 23 tonnes of CO2 equivalent each year, could live reasonably comfortable, healthy and safe lives with emissions of a quarter or a fifth of that amount even without any change in the way energy is supplied. French emissions stand at nine tonnes per person. In 1970 air travel by passengers from affluent countries was 10—20 per cent of current levels. Were we miserable then? Would our quality of life collapse if we were required to return to those levels, so that travelling by plane was restricted to essential journeys? Of course not, yet the psychological resistance to such a change would be almost insuperable.
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