Most countries measure success by the annual goods and services sold per year, otherwise known as GDP. This yardstick for prosperity has shaped a culture of consumerism that underpins environmental degradation. To restore the planet back to health, we must restore our identity from being consumers in an economy, to citizens of the earth.
Jacinda Ardern has recently been joined by Iceland and Scotland after releasing the world’s first wellbeing budget in May last year, with intentions to take a new approach to finances; measuring success on a range of social indicators beyond numbers. Pledging $1.9 billion to tackle mental health alone, the wellbeing budget focuses on four other key areas, including child poverty and domestic violence. “It’s about bringing kindness and empathy to governance,” Ardern told the panel at the World Economic Forum in Davos. “Our people are telling us that politics are not delivering and meeting their expectations. This is not woolly, it’s critical.”
“In the US, one in ten households rent storage space for their excess clutter.”
An Entrenched Problem
While its downsides are documented, GDP has remained the measure of success around the world, leading to a cycle of people needing to produce and consume goods and services to make a living. In this societal model, people are often labelled ‘consumers’ and we behave as such. In the US, one in ten households rent storage space for their excess clutter. A study published in the Journal of Industrial Ecology found that all this ‘stuff’ we buy, equates to 60% of our global greenhouse emissions and between 50-80% of total land, material and water use.
Many believe direct behaviours like driving cars are the problem, but four-fifths of the environmental impact of consumerism comes from factors in the supply chain. The distance our oranges travelled from California and the amount of water used to make a t-shirt are the real culprits‚ making our position as consumers a powerful one when it comes to reversing climate change. To shift the way we consume, we need to become aware of how our mentality has been influenced by advertising.
It’d be a challenge to find a corner of the world that isn’t home to some form of advertising. It’s become so prolific, we barely notice how significantly it influences not only our buying choices, but our view of ourselves and the world. We’re taught to value the new and perfect over the old and imperfect, or what’s convenient instead of what’s responsible. Everything from our appearance, to our food, needs to be perfect. Melbourne-based company Ozharvest for example, rescue thousands of tonnes of discarded ‘imperfect’ produce deemed unsalable by supermarkets. If our society began to value imperfect produce and imperfect people, perhaps food waste statistics and mental health would significantly improve too.
“We’re taught to value the new and perfect over the old and imperfect, what’s convenient instead of what’s responsible.”
A Simpler Time
Aside from food rescue, there are many other ways people are reclaiming this lost connection and respect for the natural world, adopting behaviours that reference an earlier time. Before consumerism and The Industrial Revolution, there were “cottage industries,” small scale businesses run mostly from people’s homes. As awareness is growing about the environmental impacts of mass production, many new businesses are emulating the old cottage industries, with terms like ‘small batch,’ and ‘handmade’ becoming increasingly appealing in the last decade. The ancient art of preserving and pickling also enjoyed a revival; a slower, arguably more gratifying activity than plucking a jar off a supermarket shelf.
Meanwhile, on a larger scale, companies like Patagonia are reflecting more sustainable values with a free repair service called Worn Wear, letting customers patch up a ripped sleeve and encouraging them to keep their purchases for a lifetime. Other brands are beginning to prioritise the longevity of the products they sell, taking people off the cycle of replacing and saving them time and money. Pittsburgh based company Leaf Shave for example, have re-engineered the plastic free razor, that charges a higher cost at the beginning, but replaces the blades for cents not dollars. Meanwhile, they share on their website “The other guys give you a cheap plastic handle to get you hooked on wasteful, over-engineered plastic cartridges forever.”
Along with a return to small production and repairing instead of replacing belongings, a foraged food movement has also gained traction in recent years in an effort to bring us closer to nature. In a town called Newrybar in the north east of Australia, chefs at Harvest restaurant offer an interactive dining experience every Wednesday, made up mostly of foraged goods like seaweed and saltbush. Running foraging workshops nearby in Byron Bay, Tessa Cookson shares the knowledge she learned growing up near Dingham’s Creek in New South Wales. “I have very limited memories of going grocery shopping at a supermarket,” she says of her early days foraging on her parent’s property. Her earliest foraging memory was harvesting wild plums in secret, or like something out of a period novel, collecting blackberries to make blackberry pie. “I just knew that food availability changed with the seasons and that food is all around us, if we look. Food wasn’t perfect and shiny. It had bumps and discolouration and came in all different sizes.”
“I think that is our deepest longing – to belong to each other and to belong to this larger community of life.”
The idea of foraging in the 21st century can seem unrealistic when “a bowlful of purslane takes [about 4-6 weeks] longer to harvest than it does to pick up a bag of salad greens at the supermarket.” But with this immense investment, Tessa says, comes great reward. “I feel a deep sense of satisfaction and gratitude with this slow process,” she shares. “Watching things grow around me is exciting, the hard work of gardening and harvesting.”
Reading Tessa’s words, reminds me of Indigenous author and botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer, who likens the act of gardening to an act of citizenship to the earth. “We are beings that are linked in reciprocity with the living world,” she says. “I think that is our deepest longing – to belong to each other and to belong to this larger community of life. For me this notion of tending the garden is a powerful way to belong.”
This care and reciprocity with nature is something characteristic of Indigenous culture. Coming from the Potawatomi Nation of the Mississippi River, Robin shares that while learning the language of her ancestors, she discovered that their language was made up of 70% verbs, contrary to the english language which is comprised of 70% nouns. In Potawatomi, the word for ‘bay’ is a verb that translates to “to be a bay.” Initially, Kimmerer admits to thinking it was crazy that water was a verb, until she had an “electric moment” realising, “of course it’s a verb, because water is alive, because the ducks on the water are alive, because I’m alive, because the fish are alive, because the world is alive.” If language shapes the way we view the world, then Potawatomi culture sees the whole world as alive; using terms like “someone flew into my cup” to describe a fly’s actions — a marked contrast to the western way of saying “something flew into my cup.”
“North America’s Lake Erie was the first lake to be granted the same rights as a human.”
Perhaps animating the living world through their language, is what also harbours a sense of responsibility to care for it. Through this lens, plants in themselves could be seen as citizens, with whom we share the planet. Kimmerer even describes the maples in her hometown of Syracuse New York this way, saying “our leading citizens here are maples, they far outnumber humans.” Far from being just a concept, a tangible movement towards granting legal rights to natural phenomena like rivers, lakes and trees has recently gained momentum around the world. On the 26th of February 2019 for example, North America’s Lake Erie was the first lake to be granted the same rights as a human, after its local residents drew up a “bill of rights” on behalf of the lake, protecting it from ecological destruction. If forests, oceans and the creatures living in them had rights as our fellow ‘citizens’ do, maybe we’d have less taste for destruction.
Animism is the belief held by many indigenous cultures, that all natural phenomena possess a spiritual essence. Through this lens of animism, I reflect on how I can step into this role as a fellow citizen to the natural world I’m apart of. Gardening and spending more time hiking comes to mind, but I’ve found that seeking more ways to reduce my environmental impact is in itself, a way to tune back in. Turning the lights off in my house for the evening, brings the silhouettes of the trees and the sound of cicadas to the foreground of my attention. Rather than being inconvenient, inviting in darkness for the sake of saving energy, I feel it connects me to the rhythms of the natural world, with its cycles of morning and night.
Riding a bike invites the scent of passing flowers into my days again, a pleasure I don’t get while driving. Eating locally means eating seasonally and — while it means you don’t get to eat mangoes year round — connects you to the season of the land you’re on. I feel part of the natural calendar, marked by the fruits I get to look forward to with each new cycle. In a world where I can get almost anything instantly gratified, slowing down and becoming conscious about my purchases not only provides nature with respite, but myself too. The things we’ve lost as a result of living in this manmade world; community, connection, movement, nature, security, a nutrient rich diet, are essential for our wellbeing. Advertising tells another story and it will continue to tell us what we need, until we as consumers, or reformed citizens of the earth, realise we can decide for ourselves.