Sustainable Unsustainability

Quick: Rick Moranis and environmental regulations. Connect the dots.

Need help? It starts with the new Greendex survey of consumer behavior and attitudes by the National Geographic Society, which found that Indians and Chinese have the smallest environmental footprint but feel the most guilty about their consumption choices. Americans, predictably, consume the least sustainably and the most guilt-free. You can insert your favorite symbol of XXL American consumption here. . .

. . . but the general trend holds true for developed countries in general — greater impact, less guilt. Sorry, Canada.

The study also highlights how folks in those fast-developing economies feel the least empowered to have an impact on the environment. My question is, is the survey asking the right question? That is, is our emphasis on consumer choices misplaced?

I am all for conscious consumption and responsible choices. However, our personal choices are seriously limited by the infrastructure we build, the regulations we pass, and the legal incentives we create. Whether we go for the shade-grown organic at the local free trade coffee shop is frosting. Good frosting. Delicious frosting. Important frosting! But frosting.

This got me thinking about how deeply we’ve managed to shift the idea of environmentalism toward personal choices and away from collective ones in the U.S.:

We make unsustainability pretty. 

Consumption in the U.S. evolved concurrent with the mechanisms to manage that consumption. I’ll call it sustainable unsustainability: with the exception of traffic jams, we’re really good at keeping our impacts out of sight and out of mind, no blackouts or piles of trash in the street to remind us of our no-less-real impacts. Here’s where Rick Moranis comes in — our pretty overconsumption puts us smack in the middle of a Little Shop of Horrors scenario, where Seymor figures out ways to manage the growing appetite of his cute little alien plant, until the day he’s hacking up the dentist and fighting for his own life.

Not so in India. Here, consumer culture descended full-grown and tentacled, and utterly absent the mechanisms to manage its day-to-day impacts. Walking around, the ground is littered with foil wrappers for betel nuts and snack mix, which a decade ago would have been wrapped in a betel leaf or a cone of newspaper. The amount of trash that people are generating, and the durability of that trash, has totally overshot the systems for dealing with that trash.

Yes, people consume here, often with a level of conspicuousness that borders on the giddy. But the fact that it’s a lot harder to sweep things under the rug is a daily reminder that no, things are not OK in Bangalore, or on Planet Earth. This, in turn, creates an opportunity to build support for ground rules to regulate consumption.

Green is a tribal affiliation.

There’s nothing natural or inevitable about the fact that caring about the environment is a political statement. blame the think globally, act locally narrative – the very emphasis on personal choices in the first place – as much as I blame our dramatically polarized culture. (For a fascinating tale of how our consumption choices, neighborhoods, and political attitudes come in red and blue straightjackets, visit Bill Bishop’s incredible Big Sort.) Thinking back to Greendex, I’m going to bet that huge swaths of the U.S. are ideologically incapable of admitting to themselves or others that they felt guilty about their environmental impact — that’s what the NPR-listening latte-sippers do.

In my experience, tree-hugging weirdos are considered tree-hugging weirdos to some degree or another the world over, but the idea that giving a damn about the planet is a partisan statement is not so entrenched elsewhere.

We’ve already built our future.

Cities are ecosystems. We’ve built a feedback loop on big cars, highways, and big houses. When Americans contemplate transit, for example, most of them see no immediate value for themselves because, let’s face it, we’ve built a set of hard, cold, facts on the ground that makes it very difficult for transit to provide value. Building something different seems big, expensive, scary, and (most importantly) like we’re backtracking.

Not so in Asia, where the future is being built today, and where nothing has settled into “normal.” In India, McKinsey predicts the urban population will nearly double, from 340 million today to 590 million in 2030. The urban environment that is built to house them is what is going to determine the sustainability of their “choices” as much as our urban environment constrains ours.

Obviously, developing countries, at least their elected leaders, are pretty keen on protect their citizens’ right (?) to consume.  (See: Rio+20.) However, the Greendex suggests a fluidity of environmental attitudes that could be channeled toward building cities where sustainability is the path of least resistance, not a lifestyle statement. I’d like to think we can (must) do the same in the U.S., too, but I don’t think the road there is one that travels through personal guilt.


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