Why the "Peak Stuff" Message May Be a Dangerous Distraction: The Future is What We Make of It

too much stuff photodavidd/CC BY 2.0

From collaborative consumption and the sharing economy to the delicious notion that plenitude economics may let us work less, play more and stop screwing the planet, there are tantalizing hints around that consumers may finally be learning the value of enough.

But we should be careful not to get carried away.

The world continues to lurch from talk of a recovery to fears of another recession and back again, and consequently there will be pressure on policy makers and corporations alike to harness any and every means possible to kick start our faltering economy. As recent news that greenhouse gases have shot through the roof shows, the old way of doing things will not go down without a fight.

That's the message that Tim Jackson picks up in The Guardian in an interesting piece on the dangers of focusing on 'peak stuff'. It would be nice, he says, to believe that humankind has moved beyond material consumption and can indeed create real-world wealth without the emissions and resource depletion that usually go with it, but that thesis remains largely untested:

It's comforting to believe that we've weaned ourselves from an addiction to material stuff. But historical analysis shows that any declines in UK material consumption are mostly rather small: a matter of a few per cent over a decade or so. In many cases, these numbers are smaller than the margins of statistical error in the measures themselves. And, when you factor in increasing carbon intensity in import partners such as China, they disappear altogether.

We should never assume that a greener, leaner economy is going to emerge without a concerted effort to make it happen. Historical narratives about the dated, 20th Century nature of extractive economy may be useful in framing clean tech, sane economics and a focus on real-world wealth as the tide of the future. But the future doesn't happen unaided.

From activists opposing tar sands pipelines through visionaries building iconic solar bridges and corporations investing in large-scale clean tech to neighbors learning to share more, people around the world are actively building the future we want to see. They're not waiting for it to happen to them.

Now imagine what would happen if governments really got on board...

Tags: Activism | Consumerism | Economics


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