Consume Less; Consume Green

Consumerism drives many unsustainable practices. By better educating consumers, we can slow the loss of endangered natural resources. Consumers in modern society, once made aware of trade-offs, can rationally make better choices. We can substitute wood from sustainably-harvested forests for more exotic natural hardwoods, and we can substitute synthetic materials for endangered ivory and other exotic materials. Information and awareness are two ingredients needed to help people make sustainable choices. Laws and regulations will help on the supply side and on the demand side.

But there is another kind of consumerism, that driven by fetishes of superstitious peoples brought up with the social attitudes from a more primitive time. Here we talk about such social phenomena as the shark fin fetish and  rhinoceros horn fetish of some Asian peoples. Educating people away from their fetishes may not be possible in time to save the resources they endanger. Such awareness is more difficult to achieve when forces of culture and tradition have dulled the ability to think outside one’s box. When we are immersed in our own cultural and religious traditions, it may be too easy to gloss over the unintended consequences of our actions. Peer pressure will often limit speaking of such things. Others outside such a culture may need to offer unsolicited critiques to identify clearly the damage being done by unintended consequences. That’s what friends are for.

Failing to influence bad practices through persuasion and awareness, we may need to consider interrupting the markets for these fetish goods. One sees a general model for these markets, ‘haves’ in one place creating a market for dangerously limited earth resources, and ‘have-nots’ in another place creating a local and destructive industry to supply the market. How can we interfere with instances of this model and eliminate trafficking in scarce earth resources.

On the supply side, the poorest of the poor are the peoples most often trying to earn a living via eco-destructive activities. The saddest part for them is that it is their own local environments that they are ruining for their children’s children. Hunger always produces such myopia. There have been some successes in helping such peoples recognize the fragility and importance of their local environments, and even in paying them to help protect it. The importance of such efforts is hard to overstate.

But when well-organized, well-financed, highly motivated raiders, facilitated by corrupt governments, enforce the supply-side, the situation admits no local cure. Thus we cannot avoid attacking the demand side as well, through creating awareness and providing information.

I try to place myself in the role of consumer in our model, to see how far we are today from being aware and informed. Of the items above, the only one I identify with is the hardwood market. This is the easiest case also. The object being trafficked is not addictive, not a consumable requiring regular replenishment, not an artifact of a personal tradition. Also hardwood is known to be amenable to management and farming. It is always smart to start modeling the simplest case.

As a consumer of hardwood, beauty, strength, and dimensional stability are the attributes driving my choice. My study desk is a table with a solid cherry top. It and another two cherry tables in the family room are from stores whose green policies were not published at the time of my purchase. One of them was an impulse purchase. Thus lack of information prevented a rational choice, and I yielded to my need for the items.

Six years ago, heightened green awareness guided me to purchase a solid cherry bed and mirror from a furniture maker in New England, chosen because of his design quality as well as his policy of sourcing wood only from approved renewable sources. More recently, I purchased a plank of cherry from a local hardwood supplier, to make shelving to match my desk top. Even with heightened awareness, limited information regarding some sources of hardwood kept me from making an informed choice.

Government regulation must help us here. Consumer green information for finished goods needs to appear on the item label, in online catalog and in store. This same information needs to be available for purchasers of raw materials. Until such time, small specialty retailers who are on the renewable forest bandwagon, and who offer a green factory process, are a good eco-choice, albeit likely more expensive. How much more we are willing to pay for green credentials is a tricky problem that will moderate our sustainability efforts until all non-documented wood has been cleared from the supply chain.

My other hardwood product is an acoustic guitar, made of koa, cedar, mahogany, and ebony. It was made perhaps 15 years ago. Being an import, its wood sources are highly questionable. But I bought it used, and secondary markets seem to me to be outside the scope of the problem. That probably should remain the market of choice for those with limited budgets until green source and process information is more readily available from mass producers. On a encouraging note, when researching American-crafted acoustic guitars, I did find luthier supply houses that voluntarily identify wood by its source.

Unlike the shark fin fetish peoples, my spouse and I have had no problem giving up endangered seafood sources, such as swordfish. Because cultural tradition was not involved, and because I was already sustainability-aware, such items had been off our table for many years. We avoid imported fish and mainly eat wild-caught salmon and halibut from the Pacific northwest, and occasionally Alaskan king crab and local oysters and mussels. Markets now identify the source of seafood on the labels. In restaurants, source information is usually not available to the diner, so we order items from a limited list of usually safe choices.

It is heartening now to read that Atlantic swordfish stocks have nearly returned to sustaining levels. That species may be back on our table in the future. But I have found that I can live a long happy life without consuming swordfish. The same should be true for the Chinese and their shark fins. At least only eat fins when the source can validate that the whole fish was processed into useful product.

The Environmental Defense Fund is an environmental NGO in pursuit of a healthy ecosystem. I look to EDF publications for information to guide my behavior as a consumer. The US and China are two of the biggest negative influences on our ecosystem in measures of resource consumption and commensurate eco-damage. EDF has developed a relationship with China, and is helping inform China regarding the programs designed by EDF initially to help the US lighten its environmental footprint. One must hope that shark fin soup will be a topic of discussion between them (other than over the dinner menu). That’s what friends are for.

Eventually, maybe we will eliminate the growing gaps between the world’s have and have nots and so lessen supply side willingness to subvert laws in pursuit of earning a living. First, population pressure must begin to ease, and that is a project of many generations duration, either by planning and education, or world catastrophe, which ever comes first. Until then, I’ll have the hot and sour soup, please.


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