Widespread Sustainable Consumerism is More Vital Than Taking Individual Actions

Perhaps no one knows better than I do what it means to take individual responsibility for my environmental impact.  For those of you familiar with my blog, you know that for the past three months, I have been trying to live 100% environmentally sustainably within urban Pittsburgh.  A formidable task, indeed.

In Robin Shreeve’s provocative article, “Whose Responsibility is Sustainable Consumerism?”, she champions the youngest generation’s recognition that the responsibility for our actions lies with us individually, not mainly with corporations.  Three months ago, I would have toasted to her conclusion.  (Of course, I then believed we don’t need corporations whatsoever and we could live without them and be sustainable.)  Today, however, my reaction to Robin’s article is different.  I’m inclined to deeply disagree.

During the sustainable living experiment called the Sust Enable Film Project (which concludes by midnight today), I would argue that I succeeded in living sustainably less than a dozen days of the 3-month project.  Does this fact disappoint me?  At first, it did.  But I will tell you why my experiment failed.

There are systems in the United States–for getting food, for getting rid of our trash, for flushing away our body wastes–that collectively (and historically), we have all agreed to adopt and abide by.  They seem(ed) like the best solutions for problems we all face, and as a society (through the government) wereinforce these systems.  This was clear to me every time I flushed a public toilet, and another huge chunk was subtracted from my sustainable water use for the day.  This became even clearer when I learned that many sustainable living methods–such as dumpster diving, squatting, and building a composting toilet–are outright illegal in many towns.

Doing something illegal (like dumpster diving) if it seems right to you… that’s one thing.  Civil disobedience: often harmless, functional, and a true expression of freedom.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  But going hungry because the society-subverting alternatives are more difficult, demanding or have greater consequences than the unsustainable, mainstream options?

That is unacceptable.  That is downright dangerous to the individual.  I’ll take environmental unsustainability any day over risking my own immediate health.  Do I think that environmental sustainability is intimately tied up with the health of an individual and a society?  Absolutely!  Do I think that this fact practically manifests in our world today?  Unfortunately… no.  That’s what Sust Enable has taught me.  Such risks to self and sanity define what it’s like to try to live truly sustainably in the U.S. in 2008.  

I sincerely doubt whether any product produced for the U.S. mass market today is produced sustainably.  Even William McDonough and Michael Braungart, the authors of Cradle 2 Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, admit that their optimistic scheme for a world in which there is no waste (a constant cycle of “biological” and “technical” nutrients) is not actually realistic in terms of the knowledge available in 2008.  One of their prototypes–the very book Cradle 2 Cradle, which is printed on a unique form of plastic instead of paper–can only theoretically become a “technical” nutrient after its lifecycle.  Today, it cannot even be recycled, say the authors.

I have experienced first hand the challenges of trying to live not only “off the grid,” but “out of the system,” in which I spend as close as possible to zero U.S. dollars in my sustainable living quest.  Frankly, the “out of the system” solutions I propose cannot be employed in the average person’s life to 100% fulfillment of needs.  The hypothesis I tested–that it is possible, easy and even fun to live 100% sustainably in the United States–has been proven wrong.

Granted, my idea of what “sustainability” means has morphed dramatically since the inception of Sust Enable.  I couldn’t even tell you in precise detail what I think a world of sustainable commodity production and exchange would look like.  Stepping out of the Sust Enable project and back into the real world, my entire perspective is much like a kaleidoscope: while I am keen to incorporate other’s views into my own, I’m left muddled and struggling to understand them all!  What IS the impact of one person making radical changes?  What’s the point in taking action that may be environmentally sustainable, but that personally sinks you into depression, hunger, fatigue, or suffering?

At the end of this epic journey, there are only a few things I can say with some confidence.  Here they are.

I can never be an island.  My actions are never only mine.  I live within a context, of millions of people making millions of choices about what they value every single day.  Without that context, that network of mutual aid… I would die.  This how a society operates.  It is the role of each of us, equally, to craft the society we want.

It is functionally impossible to live environmentally sustainably today in the United States because corporations do not yet serve (and the population does not demand loudly enough) sustainable business practices.  Corporations, as they currently exist by law, will always see only the immediate, short-term profitability.  We need to tell them that we–and they–need to begin looking at the priceless importance of having the systems that provide our needs sustainable in the long term.

The corporation may always be a devastatingly pathological and powerful entity–and maybe one day we will learn to purge such innately harmful human inventions from our homes and lives.  In the meantime, there are alternatives to having your needs met through buying and spending with corporations: community resource programs, neighbors, the corporation’s waste streams, and what Mother Nature naturally provides for us.  

But… in the U.S., we have one of the biggest free-market economies in the entire world.  To simply ignore the presence, and influence, of our current method of exchanging goods is ridiculous (sorry, anarchists.)  On the other hand, to let it proceed, “business as usual” is suicide.  

The solution lies between.  Don’t fault consumers for wanting to, yet being unable to, purchase sustainable goods… we anti-consumers are doing all we can to innovate a way without corporations at all.  If we can send a message to corporations that we won’t have them–at all–if they cannot provide for us in the manner we (and our grandchildren’s children, and threatened cultures and species) demand, then I’m fairly confident that corporations can be flexible.  They can be innovative, they can advance humanity, and they can be profoundly destructive… surely corporations can dream up some plans to meet the next great industrial challenge.

photos: screen shots from Sust Enable
graphic: “Sustainable Development,” by Johann Dreo, under a Creative Commons 2.0 license

Written by carolinesavery

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