Rain Forests, Intelligent Consumption

By Thomas Worthley-Assistant Extension Professor, Forestry Stewardship

LeopoldRecently an article on the environmental information website Environmental News Network caught my attention because it advocated the slowing of tropical deforestation as a key action to “significantly cut the amount of heat-trapping carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere”. As a professional forester, I am always heartened when forest resources are recognized for their global environmental importance. But I know it’s an easy position for me to advocate – this change will require someone else, somewhere else to modify their life and livlihood.

We’ve Met The Enemy & He Is Us – Pogo

The web article goes on to describe the tremendous amount of carbon released each year into the atmosphere by tropical deforestation and how it compares to the amounts released by fossil fuel consumption. By slowing or arresting the rate of deforestation, these areas would be able to “soak up vast amounts of carbon dioxide” instead. That’s simply wonderful, of course, and I readily agree that yes, they should stop clearing and burning tropical rain forests, for myriad reasons. It is an easy position to adopt, here in my comfy Connecticut office, not only because of my affinity for forests, but also because adopting such a position involves no particular action or behavior change for me. Creating this change will require someone different, somewhere else to modify their daily activities and how they make their living. The economic, social, environmental and cultural policies of other countries will require alteration to achieve this global environmental benefit. My daily work, diet, travel and entertainment routine, or even that of anyone else I know won’t likely be affected.

But herein lies a conundrum…tropical rainforests are being cleared for some reason, and there are obviously strong economic incentives for it to be taking place…but trace these motives back to their underlying source and I suspect we’ll find a dirty little secret: the impetus for such activities originate in the daily consumption patterns of millions of Americans and other citizens of wealthy, developed nations. The same case can be made wherever natural resources are threatened or over-used. And yes, natural resources and ecosystems globally ARE being threatened and over-used. According to the Millenium Ecosystem Assessment approximately 60% of global ecosystem services the authors evaluated are being degraded or used unsustainably. From global climate change to fresh water supplies to fishery stocks to biodiversity, worldwide declines are recognized as resulting from human activity, demand and consumption.

Back in 1928 Aldo Leopold wrote, “A public which lives in wooden houses should be careful about [criticizing] wasteful lumbermen until it has learned how its own arbitrary demands help cause the waste it decries…forest conservation depends as much on intelligent consumption as the intelligent production of lumber.” Substitute any product and the natural resource from which it derives and the comment remains valid. In a 1999 essay, Doug MacCleery states how most people are disconnected from any direct role in the management of land, yet we all remain resource consumers. Few people connect their resource consumption, from pumping gas to eating broccoli, to what must be done on the land to make it possible. Adopting an environmental “ethic” is easy and relatively painless for most of us because it imposes the primary burden to act on someone else.

Urbanized populations depend on products and services from forests, fields and other natural areas and demand them in ever-increasing quantities from an ever-shrinking natural resource base. Skilled resource producers such as ranchers, fishermen, loggers and farmers find themselves the subject of negative publicity, arbitrary regulation, and disrespect from the very population that benefits from the products they produce. But in our consumer-driven economy would anyone dare suggest that consumption be regulated? Or that we heap scorn upon those who have acquired an abundance of material wealth? Hardly. According to Boston College Professor Juliet Schor in, “The New Politics of Consumption”, it is difficult to make an ethical argument that people in the world’s richest country need “more” while the disparity of the world’s resource use is so vast and while strong evidence exists that we are consuming beyond the capacity of the earth to provide. Yet it seems that there are always some new status goods and a corresponding competition among the population to acquire them, often on credit, and whether we truly need them or not. The associated stress, pressure on resources and absence of real satisfaction make such behavior truly unsustainable, but it is considered “normal” in our society.

When average people are asked to examine how they would prefer to spend their time, three common themes often emerge. They wish to spend more time with friends or family, or more time outdoors (with “nature”), and more time doing something creative. Yet when more time becomes available people usually opt to spend it on more “work”, paid or otherwise, in the constant pursuit of “more”. In our society it is considered normal to work more and longer, regardless of how much stuff we have, seemingly programmed to always want newer, bigger and better.

In their respective writings both Leopold and MacCleery advocate a personal consumption ethic to accompany an environmental ethic. MacCleery states, “Any ethical or moral foundation for ecological sustainability is weak indeed unless there is a corresponding focus on the consumption side of the natural resource equation.” This philosophy is apparent in one of the key environmental themes recently announced in 2008 by then-Connecticut Environmental Protection Commissioner Gina McCarthy called it the “Pogo” theme, after the classic Walt Kelly cartoon character whose famous line was: “We have met the enemy and he is us!”, the initiative acknowledges how our daily choices have an impact on our lives and planet, and provides information about actions towns, businesses and individuals can take to operate in a more sustainable way and reduce environmental impacts.

A National Network for Sustainable Living Education has recently become established, through the USDA National Institute for Food and Agriculture, and the Association of Natural Resource Extension Professionals (ANREP). This network of interested educators from land-grant institutions around the country, including UCONN, has been working to assemble curriculum materials, create a database of publications and construct an informational web site on the topic. The Sustainable Living Project is described as ethics-based education, where participants are encouraged to examine their personal environmental, social and economic values in light of factual data and a reflection on their individual behavior patterns. An individual ethical foundation for developing a sustainable lifestyle thus evolves that is, “deeply satisfying, fulfilling and appealing, because it is environmentally, socially and economically responsible.”

So how do we change “normal” to “deeply satisfying, fulfilling and appealing as well as environmentally responsible?” According to author Bill McKibben, in a 2008 National Geographic article “A Deeper Shade of Green”, more “stuff” is not making us happier, and yet as a society we can’t seem break out of a cycle that simply offers more stuff as our only goal. McKibben makes the case that people are really seeking more community and meaningful contact with fellow human beings. Juliet Schor states that changes must take place at the individual level, each person examining their own personal values. They may all be correct. Individuals examining personal values, establishing an ethical basis for sustainable living, and trying to adopt behavior changes accordingly can derive immense support from a like-minded group or community of folks who are doing the same thing. They learn from each other and obtain positive reinforcement, even when the rest of the world seems to be going the other way. There is strength in numbers and a group of people working together to explore sustainable lifestyles may attract others who may be seeking a more sustainable way of life. The very essence of sustainability is first about the capability of our environment to provide what is demanded of it. It is also about minimizing the use of finite resources (e,g oil and minerals), re-using such resources and directing their limited use to enhancing and optimizing the function of renewable systems. As we come to understand this basic concept, then each of us will begin to look at consumer goods according to whether items can be re-used, recycled or repaired, and whether we can reduce our personal impact by simply refusing to buy items that are wasteful, over-packaged, or not built to last.

In these days of an apparently shrinking economy perhaps people will realize that they are simply overstressed and overburdened by the constant pursuit of more stuff, that they have had enough of cheap foreign junk, and can begin to seek personal satisfaction in other ways. I tend to bristle at being described as a “consumer” or as “human capital” in some economic equation. I prefer to think of myself as a citizen and a contributor, and maybe at times a customer. Perhaps our society can collectively begin to understand that we are tired of being regarded only as consumers, as though it is our role to gobble up the resources of the planet just to enrich others. Perhaps we can realize that true satisfaction comes in creative, spiritual, social and other ways. If that is the case, and our economy evolves to a more sustainable level, maybe there is nothing essentially wrong with that.