More stuff isn’t less stuff

March 17, 2022 by Joshua
in Tips

Hosting a successful podcast on sustainability, I get a lot of requests or suggestions to bring on as guests people who sell more things, claiming they reduce waste relative to something more wasteful: compostable straws, jewelry from ocean plastic, clothes you can trace to the cotton farm, etc.

Selling more isn’t selling less. If you make a polluting system more efficient, you pollute more efficiently, even if you make your part less polluting. Since Watt’s steam engine and before, when we’ve made some part more efficient, we’ve increased overall waste. We’re more efficient than ever and polluting more than ever. Uber was supposed to lower traffic but increased it. Transistors keep getting smaller and more efficient but computers pollute more than ever. Your compostable straws will lead to more waste.

If you want to reduce waste, instead of making new clothes, find a way to lower Zara and H&M’s sales. Change the system. Don’t make a polluting system more efficient. If you don’t understand systems, learn about systems. I recommend Thinking in Systems and Limits to Growth. The trend I’m talking about becomes clear as day, as do effective (not necessarily easy or profitable) strategies, especially changing the values and goals of the system.

I suspect that if we stopped all manufacture and sales of new clothes, America would have no problem clothing all its citizens for at least a decade, just with what people already own and what stores have in stock. We don’t need more. Having less would probably make us happier, healthier, richer, and less needy.

I guess it’s in the nature of our system that a lot of the suggestions are for businesses that promote themselves as sustainable. Occasionally one seems like it would decrease our pattern of lowering Earth’s ability to sustain life. Overwhelmingly, they reduce how much they pollute relative to the incumbents, but rarely if ever do I see them changing the system they agree is the problem.

I hope I don’t come off as snarky or unsupportive of their intent, but I don’t see them understanding the problem. Making a polluting system more efficient may lower pollution in one part of the system, but you end up polluting more efficiently overall, meaning more pollution with less effort. We are more efficient than ever and polluting more than ever with less effort.

For example, selling clothes where you can trace each item’s source to an organic cotton farm, jewelry made out of ocean plastic, or used gems to replace new ones sound like they’re trying to address waste, but I think they’re just trying to make successful businesses with an idea that sounds appealing without thinking it through.

With clothes, for example, if your goal is to stop pollution from fashion, it seems to me reducing H&M and other fast fashion production and sales will help more than creating more clothes. You may think your model will show them how to produce more sustainably, but figuring out a way to boycott them or change culture to avoid them would work better. It wouldn’t be fun and it’s not obvious how you could earn a living doing it, but role models like MLK, Mandela, Malcolm X, and Gandhi figured these things out.

I’m not going to stop entrepreneurs from trying to make a buck, but if you genuinely believe you want to make our culture more sustainable by changing an industry, consider how you can reduce sales of other companies or reduce consumption overall.

An example: Elon Musk is just ending up today’s Robert Moses, whose highways permeating New York City created more traffic, congestion, and pollution, not less. Musk is creating more traffic, congestion, and pollution too. Even if any one electric car polluted less than any one gasoline-powered car, Musk’s goal is to sell more cars.

If you want to reduce pollution from cars, remove highways from cites (I suggest starting with the Cross Bronx Expressway to get everyone on your side) and remove car access to cities (among other strategies for fewer cars). Yes, there are challenges of the people who use them, but all solvable in ways for mutual benefit for all. If you want to lessen ocean plastic, figure out ways to plug oil wells or change culture to reduce demand for plastic of any kind.

More stuff is not less stuff. Less stuff is less stuff.

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