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Strategic Consumption: How to Change the World with What You Buy

Alex Steffen, WorldChanging
…the whole time that phrase kept rattling around in my head, “Buy a better future.”

It stuck in my craw, and here’s why: You can’t.

You cannot buy a better future, at least not the sort of bright green future we talk about here at Worldchanging. That sort of future — a sustainable one, a future that itself has a future — is not available for purchase: It doesn’t yet exist. You can’t find it on shelves, and you can’t even order it up custom, no matter how much money you’re willing to spend.

You can be heroic in your efforts, but at the moment it’s essentially impossible to live a North American consumer lifestyle and do no harm. You can buy only organic food, recycled products, and natural fibers and you won’t get there. You can even trade your car for a hybrid, harvest your rainwater and only run your CFLs off your backyard wind turbine, and you still won’t get there, both because the waste associated with consumerism is so massive and because the systems outside your direct control upon which you depend — from your local roads to your nation’s army to the design of the assembly lines used to build your car, rain barrel and windmill — are still profoundly unsustainable. You quite literally cannot shop your way to a one-planet footprint. The best you can do is nudge the market in that direction.

The reality is that only massive systemic changes offer us the chance to avoid the catastrophes looming ahead. Stuffed animals with recycled filler and natural exfoliating creams are not really leveraging much change in the system. Indeed, the vast majority of the green products around us are, at best, a form of advertisement for the idea that we should live sustainably, a sort of shopping therapy for the ecologically guilty.

… the glut of green shopping opportunities is overshadowing the most basic message of all, which is that the most sustainable product is the one you never bought in the first place.

So, should we give up on trying to spend our money in ways that could do some good? Absolutely not, but we need to start getting better at buying in ways that make an impact. We need to begin to practice strategic consumption.

What makes consumption strategic? Multiplied leverage.

The ideal is to buy products that not only do their job more sustainably, but send market signals back through the economy that are likely to result in more meaningful systemic changes.

If we want to see these changes, we should pursue five strategies, listed in order of increasing importance…
(26 March 2007)

Sustaining Change from the Middle Ground

James Biggar and Michael M’Gonigle, Alternatives
…appeals for changes in individual behaviour, such as the Liberals’ One Tonne Challenge and the endless “Ten Things you Can Do” lists, seem pretty lame, even to advocates. After all, how many times can a dutiful bicyclist be squeezed into the curb by a lumbering SUV before she feels there is no point to her action?

To individualize responsibility for global crises is disempowering in the face of systemic roadblocks to meaningful change. We admonish people to ride a chronically under-funded bus service and then leave them waiting at the stop in the rain as the infrequent and over-crowded bus rumbles past. We encourage homeowners to buy energy efficient light bulbs, and then subsidize production of Alberta’s oil sands.

Telling people to be good individual consumers is not enough when our collective decisions defeat their contributions to solving our problems. Worse, this approach displaces a more meaningful role for people as engaged citizens and active democrats.
(March? 2007)

APPLE leader inspires others to help planet

Laura Brown, The Union (Nevada County, California)
A Nevada City woman transformed her life by trading in her SUV for a motorcycle, replacing all the lightbulbs in her house with energy-efficient bulbs, taking in a roommate, cutting down on meat consumption and saying goodbye to her cell phone.

“These are really easy, manageable changes that make a difference. That’s all we ask of people,” Reinette Senum said as she talked from the steps of Nevada City’s United Methodist Church at the top of Broad Street.

Senum is the brain child behind APPLE, the Alliance for a Post-Petroleum Local Economy, a grassroots group cncerned about high-priced and limited supplies of fuel, global warming and how investments in our local economy can make Nevada County more prosperous and less reliant on big corporations.

APPLE’s town hall meetings have drawn standing-room-only crowds that come to learn how to put extra cash in their wallets while leaving a smaller ecological footprint on the planet.

Experts in many fields have spoken at APPLE meetings and given practical guidelines for buying locally produced goods, riding a bicycle or sharing a car to get to work, or switching to more energy saving lightbulbs.

…She set about to make a change and began organizing the Town Hall Institute’s Peak Oil Conference in May 2005. The response was more than she bargained for when a crowd of 200 people attended the event.

Eighteen months later, a number of spinoffs were born, including Community Gardens, The Clean Power Co-operative of Nevada County, Peak Moment Television, Nevada City CarShare, and PowerUpNC.

“What APPLE has become is the mother ship,” Senum said.

It’s not surprising that a movement as energetic as this one is being led by Senum, who grew up in Lake of the Pines. She’s been rallying crowds since her days as a Miner mascot at Nevada Union, back in the 1980s.

At 18, she cared for her ailing adoptive mother and still remembers the last words her mother spoke before she died. “If there is something you want to do in life, do it now,” she said. Those words were Senum’s springboard into the world and have driven her ever since.

In 1994, Senum, then 27, became the first woman to cross Alaska alone. A video, film, slideshow and storytelling presentation of that adventure will be presented on April Fool’s Day as a fundraiser for the organization she and Kelly Casterson founded called PowerUp-NC.

After several years of studying film making in Los Angeles, Senum returned to her home town. She rolled up her sleeves and got to work on APPLE a few years later.
(26 March 2007)

Organic Gardens vs. Chem-Fed Lawns

Enrique Gili, Inter Press Service
SAN DIEGO, United States, Mar 27 (IPS/IFEJ) – Sandalistas are on the march here to create a homegrown organic food movement, encouraging gardeners to tear up their lawns for healthier, more natural alternatives.

In doing so, they’re advocating the re-greening of the urban landscape for the sake of food security and social justice.

About 400 people attended a recent conference titled “Cultivating Justice” under the aegis of “Food Not Lawns”, a grassroots organisation that combines gardening with political action. On a sunny Saturday, the guerilla gardening wing of the social justice movement broke bread with foodies to network and share information with other like-minded people who are concerned not just with what people eat, but how they go about procuring food.

The participants belong a growing demographic of Californians dubbed “cultural creatives” who are focused on putting progressive ideals into action not only through social change but by dedicating themselves to healing the planet. Many believe the road to ecological restoration begins with changing their own personal habits.
(28 March 2007)
Also posted at Common Dreams.

Related: Some young Lawns-to-Gardens activists on YouTube talking, playing guitars, looking at their gardens, etc.

Less carbon, more community building

Bill McKibben, Christian Science Monitor
America’s polluting push for ‘more’ has left us with less of what really matters.
(28 March 2007)
Another piece by McKibben on Happiness and the deep economy (and global warming and peak oil).

The Transition to Renewable Energy

Martin Zehr, OpEdNews
It leaves open the options of Unity 08, the Greens and any others who hold the potential for a comprehensive package of recommendations to enact. An independent candidate needs to have defined supporters that endorse the proposal for a national package in order to coordinate the strategy to enact legislation in Congress. ..

The agenda includes the following:
A. Establish the highest percentages for renewable energy production and alternative transportation systems that require the introduction of alternative energies in a twenty year period;
B. Economic compensation packages that address workers impacted by the transition ;
C. Monitoring systems to evaluate the changes in greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere ;
D. Incentives for the development of alternatives to petroleum-based products ; “Petroleum is also the raw material for many chemical products, including solvents, fertilizers, pesticides, and plastics; the 16% not used for energy production is converted into these other materials.”
E. Reduction in the production of single-user modes of transportation , increase in public investment in mass transit operated with renewable energy ;
F. Transition of investment of public utility companies in solar and wind technology, decreasing proportion of energy provided by coal, nuclear and oil ;
G. Establishment of stakeholder boards for oversight and review , Public Utilities Commissions elected by energy users and represented by qualified advocates including environmental, residential, municipal, and rural;
H. Congressional budgetary commitments through carbon taxes that transition from military expenditures to energy conversion research and development, implementing Swenson’s Law :” To avoid deprivation resulting from the exhaustion of non-renewable resources, humanity must employ conservation and renewable resource substitutes sufficient to match depletion.”
I. Establishment of Green Building codes;
J. Revamping of commercial railroad system and increasing mileage of track- increase requirement for piggy-backing of trailers across states; ..
(23 Mar 2007)