At the beginning of this month, The Guardian published a thought-provoking piece titled Is Inequality Bad For The Environment? That inequality has devastating effects on everything from life expectancy to happiness to mental illness to levels of violence is a given – these are issues that have been discussed at length over the years. But as the debate around climate change heats up, perhaps now more than ever the environmental movement needs to turn the spotlight on what this article is highlighting – that the more unequal a society is, the more poorly it will perform across a wide range of environmental measures. More equal societies consume less, produce less waste and emit less carbon.
Status Anxiety & Consumption
As an organization that is asking people to borrow the stuff they need rather than consume things on an individual basis (through the Tool Library and Sharing Depot), what stands out for us here is the effect inequality has on consumption. Places that experience high levels of inequality also experience more consumption of cheaply made products that inevitably end up in landfills:
“In more unequal societies, there is a proliferation of products that are designed not to last, so as to allow greater profits to be made. Producing endless must-have new versions exploits the higher levels of emotional insecurity that living with great inequality generates.” (The Guardian).
Greater inequality is the key to increasing the cultural pressure to consume. The church of infinite economic growth disseminates its sermons through an endless stream of advertising designed to manipulate the most fundamental aspect of our nature: we are social creatures.
We pray at the alter of consumption not because we necessarily need or even want more stuff, but because in “economically unequal countries the pressure to buy items to keep up with your peers, with ‘people who count’, is enormous” (The Guardian). This is especially the case with status symbols: clothing, technology, cars. It comes as no surprise then that more unequal societies spend a higher proportion of their Gross Domestic Product on advertising (The Spirit Level, p. 228). Keep up with the Kardashians or risk your own obsolescence.
Buying Ourselves Away From Each Other
The Spirit Level, a book from 2009 that compiles extensive research on why equality is better for everyone, also touches on the link between perpetuating status anxiety and the desire to consume. The authors bring up a number of interesting studies that reveal our propensity towards consumerism is less a fundamental human material need driven by self-interest and more a reflection of how deeply social we are, using possessions to make ourselves look good in the eyes of our peers.
Importantly, they also point to the correlation between high levels of consumerism and the weakening of community life. In societies with greater inequality, people are taught to fend for themselves to get what they can. There is a reduction in people caring for one another and less mutuality in relationships. Mistrust and inequality reinforce each other and this results in corroded social relations (see pages 49-62 in the book).
As the messages swirl around us in a dizzying tornado of 3,000-5,000 advertisements a day, telling us we need this or that new shiny object to make ourselves appear thinner, more desirable, more attractive and more competent to our peers, the opposite effect is actually taking place. While our social nature makes us susceptible to the culture that tells us to keep up with the Kardashians, the very need behind that drive is sacrificed: community. We are effectively buying ourselves away from each other in pursuit of each other.
The irony of the situation is clear: we will never find what we are looking for pursuing an endless stream of crap. And we’ll kill the environment while we’re at it.
Rebuilding Our Relationship To Things – And Each Other
The good news is, there are cracks emerging in the current system – and these cracks are quickly turning into fissures wide enough to make room for something new. Let us provide a few examples:
The Minimalism documentary was trending on social media last year during Christmas. Is it not interesting that during the biggest consumerist holiday in our culture people were watching and posting their thoughts on a documentary about giving up the empty pursuit of things?
Pepsi was ripped a new one for featuring Keeping Up With The Kardashians star Kendal Jenner in a recent advertisement asking people to unite and ‘join the conversation’ about revolution. There is so much wrong with this ad it’s difficult to know where to start – but it’s interesting for the very reason that their marketing team applied the traditional techniques and it fell flatter than a can of pepsi sitting open on your counter over night: deploy a social influencer into a trending topic and inspire viewers to project their feelings onto the purchasing of a product. People united all right, but not in the way they were expecting. They had to pull the ad.
Recently, a video made about our projects here in Toronto with the Tool Library and Sharing Depot went viral. To date the video has had nearly 50,000 shares. Since that video, we have been contacted from people all. over. the. world requesting information on how to start their own community library of things. Our model was also recently recognized in the Transform TO action plan to confront the new realities of climate change in this city, a plan that the council recently voted yes on.
You might be thinking that these three examples appear unrelated – but stay with us.
Could it be that decades of overconsumption has left us feeling like a kid in a candy store whose voracious appetite for more has resulted in a stomach ache significant enough to turn our backs on the candy store entirely? Is it possible that shiny advertisements using social influencers – those ‘people who count’ as The Guardian article put it – are losing their grip on our collective psyches?
If we are buying things we don’t really need in pursuit of community but that community is never found – are accessible hubs where people collectively agree to share what they need with each other, regardless of social status, a natural evolution out of this conundrum? Consider this:
“Imagine a world where you have low-cost access to common, infrequently used products needed for business or pleasure — tools, toys, musical instruments, camping gear… the list is infinite. Imagine an economy that prioritizes sharing high-quality durable goods, wasting less, and encouraging cooperation. Imagine a close-knit community co-creating a sustainable future.”
This was written by one of the attendees of the 2nd Annual Lending Library Symposium, a gathering of folks involved in the lending library movement from people around the world hosted here in Toronto. We often emphasize the benefits of sharing goods as a way to reduce the environmental impact of unbridled mass consumption. But what if the bigger benefit lies in the ability of these sharing centres to create more equal societies, to create communities of people who are connected to each other in a more meaningful way than consumerism could ever provide?
If cities could make Libraries of Things as readily available and easily accessible as book libraries, what effect would that have on our lives? If the key to increasing the pressure to consume lies in generating status anxiety, is the key to blasting that status anxiety to smithereens a new economy that privileges access rather than ownership? When your neighbours use the same full set of camping gear as you do, there is no opportunity for jealousy to creep in.
We all deserve access to the things we need. Period. It’s time to organize. And it’s high time that the environmental movement prioritize this conversation about equality. We leave you with this, from The Spirit Level:
“Rather than assume we are stuck with levels of self-interested consumerism, individualism and materialism which must defeat any attempts to develop sustainable economic systems, we need to recognize that these are not fixed expressions of human nature. Instead they reflect the characteristics of the societies in which we find ourselves and which vary even from one rich market democracy to another. At the most fundamental level, what reducing inequality is about is shifting the balance from divisive, self-interested consumerism driven by status competition, towards a more socially integrated and affiliative society.” (p. 233)
This is a guest blog by @itsahashtaglife, who has been perfecting the art of online storytelling as a method to amplify the important messages of non-profits and charities in Toronto. She takes the tools and techniques of traditional digital media marketing and applies them to organizations working hard to shift our world into a new story – one that is more sustainable and supportive of people and the planet.