Spend, spend, spend

Question: What is the best way to help the environment and, at the same time, save money?

Answer: Stop buying stuff.

We in the UK (and the US, Australia, Canada, Europe and many other places) live in a consumer society. We buy stuff. We are encouraged to buy stuff… not just by manufacturers, but by the governments that we elect.

The UK Government website (gov.uk) list one of their policies as being ‘Achieving Strong and Sustainable Economic Growth‘, stating

To make sure the UK can succeed in the global economy, we are taking action to stimulate economic growth while supporting people who work hard and want to get on in life.

Even in the most abundant space, eventually you reach a limit and can't produce any more!

Even in the most abundant space, eventually you reach a limit and can’t produce any more!

Well, maybe I’m being stupid here, but I think that continuous growth is simply not sustainable. As an ecologist, I know that natural systems have a ‘carrying capacity’ for any given species and ecosystem. Growth occurs until the carrying capacity is reached, then there is sometimes a bit of an overshoot, but eventually if nothing else changes, an equilibrium is reached and numbers remain steady. Since our world does not have infinite resources, then infinite growth is not possible* and any government that claims it is (in whatever context) must be lying.

However, many governments continue to present continued economic growth as a panacea that will cure all our woes. And how do they wish to deliver this? By getting you and me to spend money: to buy ever bigger houses, to replace our mobile phone as soon as a more advanced model becomes available, to follow fashion, to feel we can only be happy with the biggest TV, trendiest trainers and latest computer. Of course, much of the ‘stuff’ that we buy comes from overseas (why do you think China has been experiencing unprecedented growth in recent years?), but some of the money (especially linked to things like construction) goes to companies based in our own country… and if this increases then, hey presto! economic GROWTH and, apparently, universal happiness.

But it’s simply not true. First, apart from the media telling you that we need economic growth, do you really see a great benefit for YOU? And, perhaps more importantly, do you see any great benefit for the planet and the other people living on it? We continue to use up finite resources (and they really are finite, let nobody tell you otherwise) in a drive toward this nebulous thing called growth.

Of course we can do things like recycling, but a demand for more and more stuff means we have to expend energy to produce it, whether from new materials or from recycled ones; plus, if we buy from overseas we have to meet the environmental costs of transportation. The more I write about it, the more like nonsense it seems.

So, what are we to do? Well the answer is in your own hands – stop buying so much. Environmentalists used to talk about the three Rs: reduce, reuse, recycle. These days how about reduce, repair, revamp… and learn to treasure your possessions. Buy items that are good quality and can be mended if they break… reject the throw-away society and our governments and corporations telling us to spend, spend, spend our money. Instead, how about a bit of civil disobedience? Lets

SPEND more time growing things
SPEND more on good quality items that won’t need replacing
and
SPEND your leisure time being creative

-oOo-

* Malthus had something to say about this… Google him if you’re not familiar with his “Limits to Growth” work

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12 Comments

  1. Linda

     /  July 23, 2013

    Even money-broker Tullet Prebon (listed on the London Stock Exchange and a constituent of the FTSE 250) believes we are headed towards a ‘perfect storm’ and the end of growth. From a report they published earlier this year: ‘The economy is a surplus energy equation, not a monetary one, and growth in output (and in the global population) since the Industrial Revolution has resulted from the harnessing of ever-greater quantities of energy. But the critical relationship between energy production and the energy cost of extraction is now deteriorating so rapidly that the economy as we have known it for more than two centuries is beginning to unravel.’

    Reply
  2. One of the core tragedies of our consumer culture, is that shopping has become our society’s default leisure pursuit.

    Reply
  3. Filipa

     /  July 23, 2013

    I’m also ecologist, so I do understand what you mean 🙂 The good thing is that many people are leaving behind consumerism and starting their own permaculture/sustainable farming projects. Surely it’s not the great majority of the people, but it’s for sure a great start! 🙂

    In Portugal, many people are currently buying land due to the economic crisis. I know many perceive the crisis as a bad thing, but I actually have mixed feelings about it. While I know many people are in a difficult economic situation right now – some in extreme poverty – the crisis has been helping a lot the permaculture movement in Portugal (which is huge now!), and as you can imagine: less money, less of buying needless stuff (even though EVERYONE seems to have an i-phone)…. anyway, great article! 🙂

    Reply
    • Thanks Filipa… it’s interesting that in countries we perceive to be poor, people often have easier access to land, and thus to a source of food than in western countries. I really hope that in Portugal, and elsewhere, this crisis does help the balance to shift and and many more people will have a different sort of life (even if that does involve i-phones!)

      Reply
  4. gary finch

     /  July 23, 2013

    Hmmmm, a couple of points to ponder – consider Mollisons ‘hiearchy of resource use’ and see money in the light of a resource which may degrade if not used – the question is about how we spend it – also holmgren talks about the 5 R’s – with ‘Refuse’ being the first to be considered and ‘Repair’ being the fourth (but i like revamp) – he also has encouraged ‘permies’ to get out of debt, avoid credit and to reduce the amount of tax you have to pay – it is a fact that there are some items that cannot be grown in our climate and some that keep other populations out of poverty eg i would miss coffee a lot but try to apply the ‘ethics’ when purchasing it- as a medium of exchange money is useful here because i don’t have anything that i could easily or usefully exchange with the growers – spending to create for others is another alternative that permies could consider

    Reply
    • Oh, I don’t condone buying nothing, it’s all that ‘stuff’ that I have an issue with!

      Reply
      • gary finch

         /  July 23, 2013

        Have to agree with that – stuff and it’s seemingly inherant need to keep ‘improving’ Does anyone out there actually use all of the abilities that an i-phone has? Or a basic laptop come to that? Was at a festival last week and was struck by how many people seemed to have a ‘tablet’ for taking photo’s etc

        Reply
        • I’m very happy with my 10+ year old mobile phone – it allows me to do everything I want, i.e. make/receive phone calls and send/receive texts. I didn’t even buy it – my dad passed it on to me because it was too small for his disabled hands to use and he’d been given it when he took on a new phone contract. All in all the government probably don’t like people like me – I’m such a poor consumer!

          Reply
  5. One of the reasons we escaped to France was to get away from this buying culture that has sucked in so many people – it is nowhere near as prevalent here in rural Normandy plus we get the chance to grow far more stuff and rear our own animals. Being some-one who totally hates shopping helps too 😉 Thanks for a great post.

    Reply
    • I do agree that living in a more rural area seems to mean there is less exposure to the pressure to buy – I certainly notice the difference when I go and visit a big city from here in west Wales. We also have the opportunity to connect directly with lots of the producers (food and other things) who we buy from, which feel much more sustainable.

      Reply

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