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A close-up of the Beehive Collective's 'True Cost of Coal,' which depicts what the world was like before the mass production and consumption of energy, and what it might be like afterwards. (Beehivecollective.org)

How the Rich Ruin the Environment

The solution? Curb overconsumption and overwork.

BY Alyssa Battistoni

The global wealthy may consume far more than the rest, but global consumption can’t be leveled out by bringing everyone up to even Western median levels; consumption in rich nations, even at relatively low levels of income, has to decline if we’re to achieve some measure of global equality.

Excerpted with permission from Jacobin magazine.

Environmentalists have long lectured Americans about overuse of natural resources. By now, the talking points on overconsumption are familiar: 5 percent of the world’s population uses 25 percent of its resources, and emits about the same percentage of its greenhouse gases; if the whole world lived like Americans, we’d need four planets, or maybe five. We eat too much meat, drive too many miles, live in houses that are too big and too far apart, shop too much for stuff we don’t need. When it comes to climate change, it’s even worse than the numbers suggest: Western nations outsource a huge percentage of emissions to the places that increasingly produce our goods.

Such international disparities have, of course, long presented a challenge to those concerned with both domestic and global justice: How to acknowledge that America’s poor are wealthier than most of the world without simply concluding that they’re part of the problem? But while discussions of consumption tends to focus on a universal “we,” as epitomized by the famous Pogo Earth Day cartoon—“we have met the enemy, and he is us”—it’s important to look more closely within the rich world rather than simply heaping scorn on national averages.

Depictions of American consumerism tend to focus on the likes of Walmart and McDonald’s, suggesting that blame lies with the ravenous, grasping masses. Meanwhile it’s trendy for the wealthy to appear virtuous as they drive Priuses, live in homes that tout “green design,” and eat organic kale. But whether you “care about the environment,” believe in climate change, or agonize over your coffee’s origins doesn’t matter as much as your tax bracket and the consumption habits that go with it.

Consumption doesn’t correspond perfectly to income—in large part because of public programs like SNAP that supplement low-income households—but the two are closely linked. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the carbon footprint of the top quintile is over three times that of the bottom. Even in relatively egalitarian Canada, the top income decile has a mobility footprint nine times that of the lowest, a consumer goods footprint four times greater, and an overall ecological footprint two-and-a-half times larger. Air travel is frequently pegged as one of the most rapidly growing sources of carbon emissions, but it’s not simply because budget airlines have “democratized the skies”–rather, flying has truly exploded among the hyper-mobile affluent. Thus in Western Europe, the transportation footprint of the top income earners is 250 percent of that of the poor. And global carbon emissions are particularly uneven: the top five hundred million people by income, comprising about 8 percent of global population, are responsible for 50 percent of all emissions. It’s a truly global elite, with high emitters present in all countries of the world.

But that doesn’t mean America is off the hook altogether. The global wealthy may consume far more than the rest, but global consumption can’t be leveled out by bringing everyone up to even Western median levels; consumption in rich nations, even at relatively low levels of income, has to decline if we’re to achieve some measure of global equality.

For those in rich countries, this sounds suspiciously close to an argument for austerity: We’ve been profligate, and now the bill is coming due. That may be easily reconciled with more ascetic strains of environmentalism and anti-consumerist Left currents. But for those who aren’t bothered by decadent consumption so much as by the fact that so few are able to enjoy it—and who are wary of recalling Soviet bread lines—the prospect of limiting consumption is deeply worrisome.

It’s hard to talk about consumption without a whiff of moralizing disapproval, as if there was something inherently wrong with having nice things. So the condemnations of consumer culture that once occupied social critics have largely fallen out of fashion, seen as too Puritan, too patronizing, too snobbish—and maybe even too boring. We get it already.

But it’s important to distinguish between different types of consumption. For all the resonances in the rhetoric of anti-consumerist environmentalism and austerity, reducing public consumption would actually be an environmental disaster. Reductions in public goods tend to produce increases in private consumption: People drive cars instead of taking the bus, move to a house with a yard instead of going to the park, buy books and home entertainment systems instead of going to libraries and museums, drink bottled water instead of tap—if they can afford to. Those who can’t just have to go without.

And while having stuff doesn’t make you a miserable soulless materialist, as some of the shriller anti-consumerist rhetoric would suggest, it doesn’t necessarily make you happier, either. Rather, the “status treadmill” frequently does the opposite: fueling anxiety, inadequacy and debt under the banner of democracy and freedom. 

We need to explicitly shift toward working less—to reorient the consumption-leisure tradeoff towards the latter on a social level—and share the work that remains more evenly. The sociologist Juliet Schor says we could work four-hour days without any decline in the standard of living; similarly, the New Economics Foundation proposes we could get by on a 21-hour workweek. Meanwhile, David Rosnick and Mark Weisbrot suggest that the U.S. could cut energy consumption by 20 percent by shifting to a schedule more like Western Europe’s, with 35-hour workweeks and six weeks of vacation—certainly not a panacea, but hardly impoverishing for a start. In a study of industrialized nations over the past fifty years, Schor, Kyle Knight and Gene Rosa find that shorter working hours are correlated with smaller ecological footprints.

While making people work shitty jobs to “earn” a living has always been spiteful, it’s now starting to seem suicidal. So perhaps it’s time to reclaim job-killing environmentalism, this time not as a project that demonizes workers, or even work—but rather, as one that rejects work done for its own sake. Instead of stigmatizing, criminalizing, and imprisoning the unemployed and “non-industrious poor,” perhaps we should see them, as David Graeber suggests, as the “pioneers of a new economic order”—one where we all work and consume less, and have more time for other pursuits.

In fact, addressing environmental issues suggests the need not only for new kinds of jobs but for new approaches to work altogether. No work or human activity, however removed from “the land,” is without environmental impact—but some work is less material-intensive than others. An ecologically viable future will rely on many kinds of work that are typically undervalued, or not considered work at all—caring for people and ecosystems; building communities; learning and educating. This emphatically doesn’t mean we should all become artisans engaged in small-scale production; to the contrary, there are dangers in romanticizing supposedly “natural” and unalienated forms of labor. Rejecting fast food in favor of gardening and canning, for example, might just reinstitute a toilsome regime for women; acknowledging the problems of certain maximalist projects can’t mean ceding liberatory goals. But done right, a reevaluation of work from an ecological perspective could elevate the unpaid work of making a social, livable world.

Proposals to shorten the workweek are often defended on the basis of giving people more time for what they will—to spend time with friends, family, and loved ones, start a band, write a novel, cook a meal, and so on. But calling those activities “leisure” diminishes their importance in making a life with less stuff a worthwhile and fulfilling one. Likewise, the word “leisure” doesn’t credit the fact that strong communities are as important for surviving natural disasters as strong seawalls. If we’re paying people to build the latter, shouldn’t we also pay them to build the former?

We need to think seriously and expansively about these kinds of work and value—and about the real costs that “sustainability” will impose on individuals and communities. And we need to recognize that this is a truly collective project—that individualized, atomized systems of work and reward are increasingly untenable in the face of the interdependent tangle in which we’re enmeshed.

How might we do that? To begin with, by divorcing income from conventional notions of production, and by instituting a social wage in the form of universal basic income. Basic income won’t, in and of itself, solve environmental problems; it won’t replace coal plants with solar panels or ease pressure on depleted aquifers. If instituted as a justification for cuts to other social programs, it would be disastrous both socially and environmentally; robust public services are necessary if we’re to live on less. But it marks a critical starting point in rethinking the relationship between labor, production and consumption, without which environmental hand-wringing will go nowhere.

More pragmatically, in providing an alternative to dependence on destructive industries and removing the threat of job blackmail from communities desperate for livelihoods, it makes change a real option, giving workers and communities more power to demand protections against environmental harms. It can start to reorient social focus away from an eternal game of consumption catch-up toward the good life.

It admittedly won’t do much to curb the upper bounds of consumption, at least not right away. But it might point in that direction. Environmentalists like to point to World War II for evidence that people will accept restrictions on consumption for the sake of a shared cause, but the so-called Greatest Generation didn’t exactly accept rations with a patriotic grin. What that experience does demonstrate, however, is that while people don’t like limiting consumption under any circumstances, what they really don’t like is cutting back if everyone else isn’t doing the same. That sentiment is typically mobilized in service of anti-welfare politics: why should I have to work if someone else just gets a check? But during the war, it went the other way: More than 60 percent of the population supported capping incomes at $25,000 a year, a relatively paltry $315,000 today.

Of course, the post-work future has long been over the horizon; to propose it as a solution to such time-sensitive problems may seem wildly, even irresponsibly utopian. The revolution might happen in time to avoid environmental catastrophe, but we probably shouldn’t count on it, though some African climate activists have put basic income grants, financed by wealthy nations’ payment of ecological debt, at the centerpiece of their demands.

Even the United States presents some interesting opportunities. One prominent alternative to a straight carbon tax or cap-and-trade system is a policy known as tax-and-dividend, in which the proceeds from a carbon tax would be distributed unconditionally to all citizens–similar to the oil dividend paid to every Alaskan resident. It’s defended as a compensatory mechanism for the higher energy prices that would result from a carbon tax; in more bluntly political terms, it functions as a bribe to garner support for a tax that would otherwise be unpopular. There are plenty of criticisms to be leveled against the plan as currently designed, particularly if it’s considered a stand-alone climate solution—individual dividends won’t maintain levees, support public transportation systems, or build affordable urban housing. But it’s also a potential wedge into new obligations and relationships: the first suggestion of an unconditional guaranteed income, financed mostly by a tax on the environmentally destructive consumption habits of the wealthy. It’s an assertion of public ownership of the atmosphere and the staking of a new claim to public resources.

Viewed as a bulwark linking unconditional livelihood provision to environmental sustainability, it could be the beginning of a much larger project of ensuring decent standards of living for all regardless of productive input, while reclaiming environmental commons from the false yet persistent narrative of tragedy.

That may seem overly hopeful about dim prospects. To be sure, it must be emphasized that this is meant as a suggestion for a general direction rather than a precise solution. While we can draw ideas from past efforts to cope with environmental problems, there are no real precedents for what we now face. We’re going to have to figure some of this out as we go—which is another argument in basic income’s favor. Addressing environmental problems will entail significant and widespread changes, yet without a commitment to unconditional social provision, talk of resilience, flexibility, and adaptation are all too easily collapsed into justifications of perpetual precarity.

Observing the protests outside the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009, reflecting on the apparent tension between the recognition of limits cautioned by those claiming “there is no planet B” and the limitlessness implied by chants of “everything for everyone,” Michael Hardt suggested the need to “develop a politics of the common that both recognizes the real limits of the earth and fosters our unlimited creative capacities—building unlimited worlds on our limited earth.” Virginia Woolf might seem an odd place to turn in response, but her essay A Room of One’s Own, while best known as a classic piece of feminist polemic, could serve just as well as a manifesto for such a politics. In it, she reflects on the “instinct for possession, the rage for acquisition” which keeps “the stockbroker and the great barrister going indoors to make money and more money and more money when it is a fact that five hundred pounds a year will keep one alive in the sunshine.” With that five hundred pounds, she wrote, came the freedom to think and write as she pleased. We should add a few more things to the list—universal healthcare, a bus pass—but figuring out what it takes to keep all seven-billion-plus people on the planet alive in the sunshine will be the fundamental task of the twenty-first century.

The post-work future is often characterized as a vision of a post-scarcity society. But the dream of freedom from waged labor and self-realization beyond work suddenly looks less like utopia than necessity.

Finding ways to live luxuriously but also lightly, adequately but not ascetically, won’t always be easy. But perhaps in the post-post-scarcity society, somewhere between fears of generalized scarcity and dreams of generalized decadence, we can have the things we never managed to have in the time of supposed abundance: enough for everyone, and time for what we will.

In These Times is proud to feature content from Jacobin, a print quarterly that offers radical perspectives on politics and economics. Support Jacobin and buy a four-issue subscription for just $19. 

Alyssa Battistoni is an editor at Jacobin. Her work has appeared in Salon and Mother Jones, among other venues.

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