Have you ever taken stock of how much ‘stuff’ you buy each month?
If you live a comfortable lifestyle in Australia, you’d probably be surprised at the amount you buy without even realising it. And while a lot of the time we might try to be aware of how we are consuming, with Christmas approaching we can easily start making excuses to let it all go by the wayside and just go nuts.
According to the World Wildlife Fund Australia (WWF), if everyone in the world consumed as much as Australia does, we would need over three planets to sustain us. Australia is not the only culprit, but as one of the wealthier countries in the world, surely we have an obligation to work on this.
WWF’s 2012 Living Planet Report ranks Australia as seventh on the list of countries with the biggest ecological footprint. That means that we are part of the problem. A really big problem. The report also says that the last few decades have been warmer than normal and that if emissions continue to rise – as is estimated – regions of the Earth will rise above a 2°C increase. In 1995 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recommended that global temperature not rise further than that, as if it did we would start to see impacts on food production, water supply and ecosystems and possibly suffer irreversible damage to the planet. Many would say we are already starting to see those effects. Most of us know that we need to bring our ecological footprint down, but how?
Cath James, environment project officer for the Justice and International Mission Unit of the Uniting Church in Victoria and Tasmania, says that it’s not as simple as just buying less ‘stuff’ – although that is part of it. Cath said that one troubling part of the problem is to do with our culture. We in the West have trouble picturing an alternate future of consuming less, even though most of us recognise that there is a problem.
“We’re caught in this cycle at the moment of economic growth,” she said.
Even though we know there are limits, we can’t seem to get off this treadmill because we don’t really know another way of getting out.”
Cath explained that, unlike in the 1950s where things were built to last 20 years or more, nowadays products are designed to last a limited lifetime so that we are forced to replace them. It’s a vicious cycle, and it has changed our way of thinking about how we consume.
“We expect cheap goods because we think that these kind of goods aren’t going to last as long,” she said.
“It’s a way of getting you to purchase more ‘things’ rather than getting you to go to the coffee shop.”
She continued, adding that, “We know what to do about it, but what to do about it is too extreme a change.”
The effects of this ‘consumer class’ are not just dire for the planet; its people, too, are suffering. The demand for cheaper and cheaper goods means that many of the people involved in the supply chain for most things we buy are working in unsafe conditions and receiving an unfair wage. Our demand leaves people in vulnerable situations with few options. We recently heard about the effects of this in April this year when the Rana Plaza building collapsed in Bangladesh, killing 1,133 people and injuring many more. The Rana Plaza housed clothing manufacturing for many of the brands we buy here, among other things. The collapse highlighted the unsafe working conditions many people face and the true cost of our cheap fashion.Many more tragedies like this go by largely unnoticed here in Australia.
While this economic system is so deeply engrained in us, it is possible to change it. In 2009, the Uniting Church in Australia adopted the statement, An Economy of Life at its National Assembly. It outlines much of the damage that our current economy, and the consumer class, has done to our planet and its people. It states that more than a third of the people living in developing countries are living in extreme poverty, and that during the 20th century, almost half of our forests were lost to logging. Those who are vulnerable are often exploited in an effort to further productivity, and those of us in the West are more disconnected than we ever have been, with increases in illnesses such as depression, diabetes, obesity, drug dependence and loneliness.
There is, however, hope. An Economy of Life states: “As Jesus challenged the empire of Rome by exposing those who benefited from an unjust system and calling them to a different way of being in the world, so too must we understand who has a stake in maintaining the systems of injustice and violence in our world and how we ourselves might be complicit.”
Rev Elenie Poulos, national director of UnitingJustice Australia, believes that it is possible to live out this example. Speaking at the Annual Synod meeting for the Uniting Church in WA, held in September this year, she said that, “It will take huge effort, over a long period of time, to change the way we manage God’s household on Earth. But it is possible.
“God’s economy of life grows in and out of the community,” she said. “We are relational beings.
“God’s economy of life sets justice at the heart of the household. In God’s household, everyone is provided with enough to meet their needs.”
While most people think more ‘stuff’ will make them happy, Cath James explained that our level of happiness can actually peak with having much less than we think we need.
“The level of happiness is not correlated to wealth at all,” she said. “It’s connected to other things.”
Humans do have a desire for more, but Cath says that it’s how we channel that desire that can make the difference. She says that it is possible to redirect our desire for more ‘stuff’ in a different, healthier way – into better relationships and positive activities. Cath herself channelled this as she and her family made the decision to share ownership of a car with another couple. She said the experience forced her not only to make relationships with people in the community, but to make those relationships work.
“Because we were sharing a car we had to put effort into making that relationship work,” she said. “By doing without, you make yourself more vulnerable, but you give yourself a reason to do things differently. You force yourself into a more co-operative way of living.”
While she said this approach can make life a bit more complicated, “It’s also rewarding because you’re not stuck in this isolated existence.
“When you decide to do that you actually create a need for community connection,” she said.
When thinking about buying something, Cath says to ask yourself if it is something you really need or are you just trying to keep up with the Jones? Is it something you will really cherish? If not, you probably don’t need to buy it, remembering that if you do, it may get thrown out or break in six months time, ending up in landfill.
“Being aware of what our values are helps us in the judgements that we make,” she said. “If you’re on your deathbed, what would you value? It’s not going to be that t-shirt you bought for $4.”