Our relationship is in a crisis. Too much stress has built up, and I feel responsible. Unrealistic expectations led to exploitation and intolerable pressure. We have tried to numb it. After long years of denial, we tried to rationalize why we were doing what we were doing. We wanted to address the problems just a little later, and now that we see that it’s not working, we resort to fantasy.
Part of the problem is that we have increasingly denied that our relationship with Nature is actually a relationship. We have objectified Nature instead of giving it the rights to flourish. And now we realize that humanity is killing off non-human Nature just as efficiently as the asteroid that caused the last mass extinction. Besides being impoverished by the loss, humans will also have a rough ride. Just have a look at the latest IPCC report and consider that we are not heading towards 1.5C or 2C, but more than 3C of warming.
With similar thoughts in mind, I gave this talk last year in Budapest, Hungary.
I sometimes wonder why we are doing this. What do we really want for which we sacrifice so much?
For hundreds of years, humanity was a slave of production. People didn’t have enough. They had to put their energies into food production, the construction of buildings, and the manufacturing of goods. For a higher level of security and comfort, all the work they did looked reasonable. Accumulation was the order of the day.
Even my grandparents, they did everything to have more. Their struggle and the aspirations they had was the norm in the village, and the idealized work ethic of the country. And in fact, that gave my parents a head start in life: theirs was perhaps the first generation which didn’t really have to worry about famine, deadly infectious diseases or the forces of nature threatening the humans they loved. Just one more generation, and here I am, concerned about forces of humanity threatening the nature that I love.
In a matter of a few decades, everything has changed. Physical landscapes, daily worries and complete lifestyles. The way my grandparents lived was more similar to the life of the first Hungarians 1100 years ago than to my life – even though we knew each other very well. We could have achieved almost everything our ancestors were longing for. But that didn’t quite happen. Just when humanity could have escaped the slavery of production, we seem to have succumbed to the slavery of consumption.
Why do I say so? Because consumption takes up most of our time and attention. Consider three major ways how this happens.
First, compared to previous generations, we have a lot. Choosing, using and maintaining all these things takes up much time. There is such a variety of everything today that even the selection of products and services is difficult. Buying a computer or a flat or an insurance is a real hassle. Often we have to interact with dealers… Time consuming is a euphemism. It’s tiring.
In the use phase, consumption focuses our attention on given targets. When we change metro lines and see the ads on the wall, when we use our gadgets, our attention is directed to things that we do not fully control. You know this all too well. At the same time, we are losing connection with essential parts of life: in the artificial worlds built around ourselves we rarely see non-human creatures or even the stars, we are disconnected from birth and death and we are rarely prompted to reflect on meaning in this universe. More practical things fill the cognitive space.
We have to maintain the various things we have. If you have a large house, there will be many things to be done there. Normal housework can take several hours a week. Annoying administrative issues, such as talking to utility companies, is another vampire in terms of time and energy. Add to that that we also have to repair things: the small ones during the year, the large ones during the summer holidays, as many people do.
And this is not all. A second issue that makes us slaves of consumption is that even if we have a lot, we want more. But more consumption requires more money, which requires more work. This means that the slavery of consumption is very often a reason to not escape the slavery of production. Even if we could easily afford to work less, many of us don’t do that. Instead we stay in for just a little longer, as we often say to ourselves. Then after a few decades, we realize that time flew by. The most common regret of old people is that they worked too much. Can we learn from them?
A third issue that makes me talk about the slavery of consumption is that we keep each other in difficult conditions, sometimes close to slavery. We want cheap products. But products are often cheap because workers are underpaid, working conditions are bad, and environmental costs are not paid for. For this reason, many people will have poor jobs and nature will suffer. If you have a low salary and come out stressed from the workplace, you will want to be pleased at least as a consumer – so you will demand cheap products. The circle is closed.
More generally, our consumption has effects on others, while their consumption has effects on us. Take one example. Perhaps the deadliest killer in this country is air pollution, it kills ten times more people than traffic accidents. And the main reason for air pollution is that people heat with wood, waste and whatever they have, which pollutes villages and towns from October to April. Your smoke contributes to the death of many people around you and their smoke contributes to your death. This is a metaphor of how, through different types of consumption, we exploit each other. Through the consumption of various other goods and services, we regularly harm humans and other creatures elsewhere – and many of the problems we have can be traced back to their consumption.
Just a short glimpse at an average supermarket to show chains of exploitation. There are foodstuff there. Most of the sweet things are produced with palm oil, which destroys rainforests – and with that the home of native people there. Meat products that come from industrial style factory farms, which cause terrible suffering to chicken, pigs and cows, and alienates workers from animals. Then there are the fruits from the other end of the world: low wages there, high carbon footprint on the way. Then let’s jump to a shelf of cleaning products and personal care: most of these are tested on animals, which again causes unimaginable suffering to thousands of sentient beings. Half of these products are also poisonous in a way. Then there are the electronic gadgets, which contain minerals mined by children, actual slaves or people who are exploited, and these processes also create much pollution. There are clothes, produced in China or Bangladesh for peanuts. The ones produced from plastic then contaminate our waters with micro-fibers. It’s difficult to name a product that comes without serious problems.
And yes, many of us are quite privileged and have fewer issues as workers. But there are effects we cannot get away from, such as the loss of local green areas, deteriorating security or global climate change. And come on, how does it feel to live in such an unequal society? And how does it feel to see how nature vanishes in front of our eyes? It’s like water evaporating from a hot surface: the boundaries retreat, the big blocks disintegrate, and finally we forget that it ever existed. That is how nature disappears.
The small consumer decisions unite into bulldozers, concrete and plastic. We leave behind haze and trash. And a much warmer planet, with all its problems ranging from heat waves to mass migration. All this is aggravated by our choice of more consumption instead of better goals for ourselves and the society.
Is this inevitable? Or perhaps the consumer society is nearing its end? If we stay, why? If we leave, how?
When discussing this a few weeks ago at a public event, the moderator asked the common question: Will people at one point realize that we should avoid the negative consequences or a looming disaster? Even though having knowledge about the chains of negative consequences is very important, I don’t think this is the right question to ask if we want people to believe in a different future and to make steps towards it. The right question, in my view, is whether there is an alternative path that is much more attractive than the current one. Is there a future that is cool enough to be desired?
And I think the answer is yes. This is a life in which there are fewer things to worry about, but more time to relax, to be with others, and to pursue our passions. For some people the choice is already there: my brother has just reduced his working time to 4 days a week at an IT company here in Budapest, and accordingly he gets 80% of his original salary, which is still enough. That gives him 3-day weekends every week. Isn’t that cool? Almost everyone else could do the same at his company because they all earn well. As a side effect, these people would consume less, which would improve the outlook for nature.
This is a life in which the old, eternal desires are more fulfilled – because the basic needs of people have not changed together with the technological environment. Imagine a world in which more and more people stop competing for money. That was in a sense useful in the old days of absolute scarcity, which meant that humans together had less than what they needed. But that time is gone. Now that we have enough collectively, it is not higher productivity that we should achieve through competition, but better sharing that we should achieve through cooperation. To put it more bluntly, the problem with the rat race is that even if you win, you are still a rat. How about being a wise man, instead? Or at least a cute chimp?
There are all these different fields of life where this kind of thinking has already become popular. Minimalist running shoes, calisthenics with minimal equipment, meditation with only one mind. Go for those, they take you forward. And connect this kind of thinking with the field you spend most time in, to have the largest positive impact.
Of course, there will be trade-offs. No one should ever believe that flying to distant locations is correctly priced today. Science says that you should add at least 100 euros per ton of carbon to the price of each ticket, which would significantly cut air travel. Don’t get me wrong, I am all for mind-broadening journeys, but not the one week vacations at the other end of the world because that is simply unsustainable. Sometimes the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes. But more importantly, this change of lifestyle will not be a sacrifice, it will be liberation. If you don’t want that much, you will have all means to accomplish what you want. The promise of freedom is not in more consumption any more as it has been advertised for so long, from now on it’s in less consumption.
As for the collective change, you can be discouraged and say that unless others think so too, it will be futile. This is wrong. Wrong because your life will be different: you will have more clarity and find your directions easier. Wrong because if, for instance, you don’t produce plastic waste, then there will be that much less plastic waste on this planet. And wrong because change is non-linear: nobody knows when the new ethic of minimalism will become mainstream.
There are studies showing that children with fewer toys are more creative, have more focused attention, take greater care of the things they have, and have a higher level of satisfaction when they are without toys. They also go out from the buildings more – which, by the way, is not a particularly big feat because western children spend less time outside than prisoners – but still very important for their connection with other humans and non-humans. If all these things are true for kids, why would we think it is not true for the rest of us?
I see no reason. My vision is limited, but if you don’t see a reason either, then let’s create this new norm of minimalism in our societies. Apart from helping nature, this might well be the key to not fall from the slavery of production into the slavery of consumption. If you want to be free:
Have less, share more. Want less, live more. Have fun, but take care of others.
And be thankful. As I am for your attention. Thank you.
Miklós was invited by the Earth Law Center to write this post. Get involved today.
More about the author
Miklós Antal is an ecological economist at the University of Leeds. He writes and talks about post-growth economics: see a recent commentary on the feasibility of post-growth strategies, an essay on how we work, and a TEDx talk on going beyond consumption growth. He also studies electricity system transitions and environmental communication. See his research papers here. Contact Miklós on Twitter @Miklos_Antal or by email: antalmi[at]gmail.com