I was having a discussion with some folks, and the conversation returned to what I consider to be problematic assumptions in the sustainability community regarding the nature of consumption. . . I tried to write something that explained my position carefully, but probably didn’t succeed too well. . .


I want to start with an exploration of “consumption,” because I think if we start with problematic assumptions, it is difficult to come to a different conclusion than the one we often come to.

Here are a three of what I consider to be problematic assumptions that often arise in these types of discussions:

* Consumption, production, and industry are inherently “bad” activities.
* It is better not to consume, and we must not give in to our temptations.
* We are destroying ourselves and the planet with our activities, and we need to do less to avoid destroying more.

Humans are generally social animals, and, at this point, it’s safe to say that we are also commercial animals.

Our highly complex society, has evolved to support tremendous numbers of beings, far more than would have ever been possible prior to agriculture.

This highly complex society has tremendous numbers of specialized roles that we all perform in order to maintain this complex agentless adaptive system.

In order to perform our roles and functions, we need food, clothing, shelter, and transportation. But, lest this become some kind of grim death march, I believe we also need to have avenues to share and express ourselves, through arts, entertainment, family, and community.

What has happened recently, is that we have realized that some of the things that we started doing, because they seemed like good ideas at the time, have shown themselves to be problematic. I.e.: pesticides and modern agriculture seemed, for a time, to be a panacea, enabling food security on a level never seen before on the planet. Now, we have realized that there are some dangers inherent in that approach, and technological change is occurring.

Change can be a bit slower than we’d like– Generally speaking, people of the “old order” who were raised believing a certain set of ideas retire, or (every once in a while) change their minds when confronted with new evidence.

We are in the midst of a major changeover. We are learning that many of our modern “conveniences” actually come with heavy tolls. Be they toxic, polluting, unsustainable, or driving the extinction of one or multiple species. This is, by human standards, quite new information.

But, the transition is slow, and we can say here, with Upton Sinclair: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on him not understanding it.” Entrenched destructive commercial behavior that provides the livelihoods for many people can only disappear by government regulation or by complete decimation by a disruptive competitor.

So we learn things, and try to make our lives and our processes a bit cleaner, tidier, and take much more of the complexity of the interactions of the natural world into account.

Now that we may have diffused some of the assumptions we make around “consumption” as inherently bad, perhaps we can look more clearly at “excessive” consumption:

It is correctly noted that people often perceive a hollowness in their lives, when they realize that they have been trying, in vain, to find joy or happiness in the acquisition of material goods.

However, a more general response might say that we perceive a certain hollowness in our lives when we are waiting for a better moment in the future for any reason, be it the anticipation of the feeling we will get after we get a new designer shirt, or the anticipation of the feeling we will get after we meet our “soul-mate.”

More broadly, waiting for a better moment in the future, or seeking a pleasurable state is actually a painful experience.

Generally speaking, it is radically uncertain what we are, and who we are, and why we exist. And, generally speaking, we have difficulty facing this radical uncertainty in the center of our beings.

We do know that we like feeling good, feeling secure, feeling cared for, and feeling special and important.

I would argue that it is in part our radical uncertainty about who, what, and why we are that causes us to feel like we need to distinguish ourselves from our fellow men and women.

In the attempt to distinguish ourselves, we are often willing to do things that will cause harm, either subtly or overtly, to our fellow beings.

Inside of ourselves, with this radical lack of objective information, we have difficulty being truly certain about anything, save for the fact that clearly *something* is happening. . . we EXIST.

Generally speaking, we can only see ourselves by the reflection we get from others. And, so it follows that, feeling confined to *this* particular life and existence, we would like to feel like it is a good one, a special one, a strong one. . . Otherwise, we face a certain deafening arbitrariness about the whole bizarre project.

If I am only me, why shouldn’t I try to make it a good me, a strong me, a special me? However, if we try to “better” ourselves at the expense of others, this is where our (as a globe) problems begin.

Inasmuch as fear of death enters our picture, consciously or unconsciously, we also may behave in ways that are an attempt to “better” ourselves at the expense of other.

The challenge, however, is that people generally will only stop making excessive consumption decisions after they realize that that is not helpful: that that is not bringing them what they were hoping for, which is a sense of lasting happiness and fulfillment.

I would argue, that this yearning for lasting happiness and fulfillment is driven largely by a fear of pain and death, and our tremendous uncertainty about who, what, and why we are.

Without holding ideas or concepts about who, what, and why we are, perhaps it is possible to see from a more inclusive perspective, a perspective outside of pleasure/pain that doesn’t have boundaries separating one being from another?

Looking from this wider perspective, that can objectify the entire thought structure, transcending the dualities of mind, we see that what we once considered our “inner reality” or our personhood is not a solid entity, but rather an evanescent bundling of thoughts.

In the absence of belief in the reality of our thought stream, separation from others is seen to be an illusion, and attempting to improve one’s own experience at the expense of another’s is no longer a plausible way to behave, and we are no longer waiting for a better moment than the present.

When seen from this perspective, available to each of us, a certain kind of ease of being arises, that allows us to work together quite a bit more easily.

So: Let’s transform consumption to processes that are clean, so that we can purge the “inherent badness” that underlies our assumptions about what it means to consume.

Next: Let’s realize that we cannot meet our non-material needs with material goods.

After that: Let’s realize that our fear of unknowing and our fear of death lead to our inability to see others as fundamentally not separate from what we are. Seeing this lack of separation as a reality, we may come to know that we don’t exist quite the way we thought we did, and we can see that attempting to improve one’s own experience at the expense of another’s is not appropriate. Most importantly, we are no longer waiting for a better moment than the present.

Finally: Let’s work together to make this a more pleasant place for everyone.

And we don’t have to work on these in any particular order, either. . .

I saw this article today in the Rolling Stone magazine– speaking about scientist Lowell Wood, and his ideas about simulating a volcanic eruption over the North Pole with sulfur ash. This would be done in order to stabilize the rising temperature there. He thinks we can grow the polar ice cap this way, and create a whole-earth thermostat.

At first blush, it seems problematic, as it does nothing to alter the rising CO2 levels, it only effects temperature. And, if I understand correctly, the ocean is suffering in part because of increased CO2 concentrations outside of temperature (is this correct?) Not to mention, any side-effects of the sulfur.

However, if some kind of kooky scheme such as this were necessary to avert a 20 foot rise in sea level, would it be a good strategy?

Perhaps something like this would work well in concert with an aggressive 30-year transition to renewables?

If a massive engineering enterprise (albeit distributed and haphazard) was what got us to this point- is it reasonable to consider that a massive engineering enterprise would aid in getting us out of this dilemma?

Somehow it’s easier to be comfortable with the idea of a distributed uncontrollable engineering project (our fossil fuel era) wrecking things, as it represents the choices of billions of agents, each acting alone in a dance of infrastructural mega-complexity.

However, if we did a massive planet scale geoengineering project, it would just be a few people making a decision that would effect the whole globe. It’s a strange new concept.

Must see to believe.

You must watch the video.

Trust me.

Environmental sustainability guides touting sustainability often suggest that we don’t need products, just the services they provide.

This, in fact, I see as quite accurate- we don’t actually need to own *anything* in fact.

I was marveling at this the other day– with the resources that we have at our fingertips for liquidating the assets that we do have, we can start to create our own service economy before design catches up with us.

Let me give an example:

I needed to help a friend out by acting as a photographer at his event. I’ve got a medium format film camera, and a large format film camera; both of these cameras are quite cumbersome, and pricey to operate on a per-shot basis. What I needed for this event was a nice digital slr camera, with which I could shoot hundreds of photos. I investigated what it would cost to rent such a camera at a camera store for an afternoon and evening.

With the required lenses and flash, it was $200 for one day’s use! I could scarcely believe it. With this same camera selling used on craigslist for $900, I decided I was much better off buying one, using it at the event, and, a few days afterward, selling it for the same or more than I bought it for.

Craigslist is pretty unique, in that I can post an ad that is seen by thousands of people, make a transaction, and nobody gets a cut but me. So it’s well suited to this purpose.

After conducting this camera transaction successfully, I glanced around my room and saw all of this stuff lying around in a totally new light- books– every book has a very specific dollar value on amazon marketplace, a chair and bookshelf– these would be great craigslist items. . . I can imagine a future where we actually put a price-tag on everything we own, and people can browse our inventory– if they think they’d like to buy anything we “own” for more than we’re asking for it, the transaction can take place. . . resources are not stagnating in one place for a long time this way. . .

In an economic infrastructure where assets are radically liquid, all products, by their nature, become services.

So, one direction we can push, for creating a sustainable culture, is to create a culture very comfortable with buying and selling items on a very short-term basis.

In practice, it is very similar to renting, save for that there is no formalized insurance policy if you break the item in question.

It’s a decentralized lending library for everything in existence.

The next better step, for the complete transformation to a products as services, will involve things built to support the kind of handling that all of these items would get, being handed from person to person, and be built such that product take-back was a revenue stream, rather than a expense and a nuisance.

Recycled, recyclable, rebuildable, reparable, rentable, resellable, and compostable. Let’s call it R6C. . .

The Incredible Hulk

The Obama-Coburn transparency-in-spending database bill aims to create “a searchable database of government contracts, grants, insurance, loans and financial assistance, worth $2.5 trillion last year.”

Ironically, this revolutionary bi-partisan government transparency bill was apparently blocked by being placed on indefinite “secret hold” by a senator who didn’t like its provisions, and wanted to remain anonymous.

“Under Senate rules, unless the senator who placed the hold decides to lift it, the bill will not be brought up for a vote.”

Article here:

Well, according to an anonymous spokesperson, the story at TPMmuckraker says that the unidentified secret holder may end up being none other than favorite of the internets, Senator Ted “Tubes” Stevens.

I guess he didn’t like the idea that someone would peek under the hood of his “truck” (which is definitely ok to load up with all kinds of heavy earmarks) with their all-seeing tubes.