Conservation or Consumption?

There have been no posts on the Environmental Warrior blog for over a year because I had decided to take some time away from blogging, social media, the internet and the virtual world. Towards the end of last year, I felt I was spending too much time online, and that I was in danger of living my entire life through a screen. I started to crave the solid, the tangible, and the real, and I felt drawn more towards exploring the physical world around me. That yearning for a life more substantial became a year-long hiatus away from my computer.

Many things have happened over that past year that have caused me to re-think my approach to conservation and sustainability. I thought I had developed sound strategies for navigating an often confusing, contradictory world. But the more I delved into and explored different fields of thought, the more I realized I needed to expand my original way of thinking. Over the last year I have experienced a profound shift in perspective. These new discoveries are changing the way I think about, and interpret, the world I live in. It seems I am now at a crossroads in my personal philosophy.

Delving into new fields of thought

I discovered the work of economist Michael Hudson, and I realized that economic theory is not so boring after all! Hudson says neo-classical economics is a corruption of real classical economics, and its predatory and parasitic approach to resource extraction and managing the global economy is destroying people and the environment.

In Killing the Host: How Financial Parasites and Debt Bondage Destroy the Global Economy, Hudson says that only the real economy (of production and consumption), not the FIRE sector (finance, insurance, real estate), can create true wealth*.

*Of course, true wealth can never be measured in monetary terms. What I am talking about is the wealth of a nation – think the Norway Sovereign Wealth Fund – wealth created from the country’s responsible and long-term management of its natural resources, including minerals (oil and gas), fisheries and forests – and wealth that is set aside for future generations, for a time when these natural resources are gone. Compare that to Australia’s effort. We have wasted our iron ore resources, and we should be global leaders in solar energy research and development. Sigh…

Yet politicians, industry and big business have convinced the public that without the big banks, we cannot have a strong economy. This is simply not true, and I highly recommend his work if you wish to learn more.

If the real economy is based on creating wealth through the making, selling and buying of consumer products, how does this fit in with the Environmental Warrior ethos?

How does the current minimalist trend to buy and consume less to conserve precious resources impact this real economy of production and consumption?

What would we do with our hands, our time, our ideas and our minds if we did not create things?

Making new discoveries about sustainability

I finally read Ecological Intelligence by Daniel Goleman and discovered that plastic was less energy-intensive to produce than glass and, depending on where you are in the world, sometimes it is better to buy products from overseas than from local suppliers.

That was a surprise to me, because I, and other sustainability-simplicity-minimalist writers, have always stressed the importance of opting for glass containers over plastic ones, and buying local to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

I realized my ideas on sustainability may have been wrong or, at the very least, misinformed. Manufacturing, buying and consuming products is fine. It is no accident that metals extracted from the ground can be used to build steel bridges, or that sand is the main ingredient in glass, or that plant fibres can be woven into fabrics for clothing.

This is part of the human experience. We are creators of that experience – we build the world around us.

What we create from raw materials sourced from the Earth is not the problem. The issue is that we have not been able to use resources sustainably, in a way that enables the Earth to replenish them at the same rate we use them, or to safely and efficiently process the waste generated from the activities we engage in that are part of our human experience.

Online overload

In September 2016 I launched a marine conservation initiative Seafood Free September. The project was a year in the making, and it took months to design the site, and to research, write and edit the content, before I felt it was ready to be birthed into the world.

I had planned to extensively promote the campaign online but I was not prepared for the level of commitment and the demanding schedule required to run a successful social media campaign.

I had genuine interest in the project and connected with many like-minded souls concerned about the ocean, who took the pledge to avoid seafood for thirty days.

By the end of September, I was suffering from information overload and realized I did not want to be spending so much time online. I felt my mind being drawn into the virtual world in a way that made me uncomfortable. I had also been dealing with some health issues for the six months prior to launching the project and I was exhausted. I had been thinking about ditching social media for a while. I began to seriously question my interaction with, and relationship to, technology.

During the last few months of 2016, I spent very little time online, which was incredibly liberating, and strangely enough, I felt more connected to life than ever.

I began searching for answers to my questions and was intuitively drawn to reading books documenting the problems around our interactions with technology, because I needed to justify or confirm what I had been feeling and experiencing.

The dark side of the internet

In The Internet Is Not the Answer, Andrew Keen argues that what the internet has really done, under the guise of creating freedom and a false sense of identity for its users, has concentrated power and money into the hands of a few major corporations, or digital monopolies, widening the gap of inequality between rich and poor.

In The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr explores the potential long-term detrimental consequences of prolonged, excessive internet use on our minds, brains, psyches, and nervous systems. He argues that excessive internet use promotes and encourages pointless, unproductive distraction.

I came across an online article (source unknown) where the author said real change does not happen through a computer, but in the real world. I began thinking about how, over the past eight years of using social media, I had not achieved much at all, except for experiencing a series of temporary, fleeting and ephemeral moments. Don’t get me wrong, I met some great people, made some interesting connections and had some wonderful experiences, but I also had some not-so-wonderful ones too. I experienced both the positive and negative aspects of social media.

The bottom line was that I craved real flesh-and-blood interactions, and concrete change.

I wasn’t sure if I could get the message of Seafood Free September out into the public using social media, where I wanted it to be, to create effective, sustained change. Was social media the right avenue for it? If not, what was?

Our collective obsession with technology

In October 2016, I saw a documentary called Death by Design. I was in tears within the first five minutes of the film.

There are serious environmental and social impacts associated with the electronic devices we use that must be acknowledged.

Computers require rare earth minerals and toxic heavy metals to run, and the extraction of these substances have contaminated groundwater in many parts of the world.

The toxic substances used in computers are extremely dangerous to people. I was not aware of the documented cases of death from various types of cancers that are linked to the use of these substances in the devices manufactured by major electronics companies.

After seeing the film and acknowledging these realities, and knowing I needed to replace the old laptop I had been using since 2009, I decided to purchase a second-hand laptop (and recycle the old one).

I am still using my old clam-shell mobile phone, even though it is falling apart and being held together by masking tape. I don’t want to have to replace it yet, only because an issue of great importance to me is the link between coltan mining and the destruction of mountain gorilla habitat.

Finding the right balance between conservation and consumption

The irony that I am writing this on a computer, to publish it on a blog, where it will likely be shared on social media, is not lost on me.

I acknowledge there are real benefits to technology, but are our devices and online lives worth the environmental destruction, the death and the endless distraction they cause?

Technological innovation must be tempered with the ability to discern correctly, the ability to feel compassionately, and the ethical compass to know right from wrong.

It is important that we create a ‘right relationship’ with technology and ensure our usage of electronic devices does not blunt our capacity to think clearly, or prevent us from forming meaningful relationships with others, where we connect and communicate on a human level.

We must understand that we are all part of the production and consumption economy, the real economy that gives flesh-and-blood people an economic livelihood and a means of survival, but that over-consumption is a serious problem in a world of more than seven billion people.

The environment and humanity are suffering the consequences of our over-consumption and our digital addiction. We must acknowledge that we share the Earth with other species, and we must honour and respect their existence, and their right to live free, happy lives. If we must re-imagine and re-invent what it means to be human, so we can all not only co-exist, but thrive, then that is what we must do.

I hope to be able to re-configure my relationship with technology, but I think it will take some time.

© 2017 Environmental Warrior
Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

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