We can’t buy our way out of climate change
It’s December and big city streets are filled with Christmas. Lights, songs, trees, bags, decorated stores and advertisements. Today’s Christmas in many modern cities is a capitalist celebration, a season that even in Finland brought 810 million euros of extra retail sales in 2020, on top of the monthly average. According to Tulli Finnish people also ordered 8,5 million euros worth of “joulunviettoesineitä”, meaning Christmas decorations etc from abroad. Then there is of course the trees and lights and an endless list of other things we “need” to celebrate Christmas, oh and don’t forget fireworks for New years. (Tilastokeskus, 2021)
Christmas presents have been a tradition for hundreds of years, but definitely not in the scale of today. A trend that has grown fast in the last 100 years or so, giving and receiving multiple gifts is now what almost defines Christmas for a lot of people. Toy booklets are sent to homes so that the ones too young to read can point out what they want in pictures. Black Friday timed just perfectly so that people can start gift shopping with a bang but also have time to continue for a whole month, finding new deals and things they need before the holiday is actually here. All of this is driven by a mix of social pressure, personal desire, status signalling and advertisements disguised as something to boost personal well-being, when in fact we all know the goal is mainly to fatten the pockets of shareholders and corporations.
Christmas is for sure the climax of our consumer habits, but all of this is going on all year round too. Advertisements from Instagram to our bus stops feed us with images of what we could be or feel if only we had that new phone or that dress or if we used that specific plant milk. This then creates the idea that in order to find happiness or comfort or political change, we need to buy more stuff.
In reality, a range of studies have shown that once a person’s needs are met, extra consumption does not increase their well-being. Actually today for a growing number of people it has started to do the exact opposite. Climate anxiety is a real and growing problem with especially young people and buying anything new always comes with an environmental price tag.
Despite all the talk and fear about climate change, not much change has been yet seen in our consuming habits as a whole. According to CDP Carbon Majors Report 2017, 100 companies are responsible for well over half of the emissions of the whole world. This fact alone can make it seem like an impossible problem to tackle, but the simple truth is that in the end the ones using those companies products and the oil they offer is us. Companies exist to make a profit and pleasing consumers is what does just that, so in the end, it kind of is up to us individuals to make the change. By us, I of course mean people living in rich countries and communities. As we have all heard by now, while it is us in the rich countries creating most of the problem, the rest of the world gets most of the effects.
But do not worry, even if in the end individuals are the ones making the choices, we can’t solely be blamed for our overconsumption. Companies for sure have a huge interest in making you buy more stuff because if they don’t they go bankrupt. This is what has created the trend of greenwashing in our growingly aware society. Organic cotton, recycled plastic and metal straws all might seem like a green choice, but in reality, they are just newly produced stuff that most likely you could go without buying completely.
The rising supply of all things green has also created the idea that your money is your vote. By buying green things you are committing to the cause and helping spread the word. We are led to believe that growing our economy just in the right direction, whether that’s with buying green tech or wearing sustainably-made clothing, is how we stop climate change. The harsh reality is that capitalist growth will always counteract the work being done to decrease emissions.
Over the past 40 years, global emissions have skyrocketed despite expansions in renewable energy and more energy efficient technologies. One might argue that growth leads to new sustainable innovations, but it also leads to more use of fossil fuels. Just a 1% growth in GDP leads to a 0.5 to 0.8% increase in carbon emissions. And if we continue to grow at 3 percent per year, by 2043, the global economy will be two times larger than it is now, which means energy consumption will be larger and the transition to a zero-carbon world will be that much harder too. (Resilience, 2019)
In conclusion – even with all the great sustainable innovations, one thing has got to change completely, and that is our consuming habits.
Tilastokeskus, Joulu tilastojen valossa 2021 https://www.stat.fi/tup/tilastokirjasto/joulu-tilastojen-valossa.html
CDP Carbon Majors Report 2017 https://b8f65cb373b1b7b15feb-c70d8ead6ced550b4d987d7c03fcdd1d.ssl.cf3.rackcdn.com/cms/reports/documents/000/002/327/original/Carbon-Majors-Report-2017.pdf?1499691240
Resilience, A Green New Deal Must Not Be Tied to Economic Growth, 2019 https://www.resilience.org/stories/2019-03-12/a-green-new-deal-must-not-be-tied-to-economic-growth/