Saturday, October 28, 2023

Consumption All the Way Down

Anthropogenic change on Earth is occurring on a scale never seen before. Mounting evidence shows that humans are pushing the planet beyond its systems capacities due to growth of production, consumption, and population. To understand Earth’s systems, and to develop a framework for how we might better live within their capacity, scientists have engaged in ongoing research on Earth system boundaries. That work attempts to “quantify safe and just Earth system boundaries (ESBs) for climate, the biosphere, water and nutrient cycles, and aerosols at global and subglobal scales[.]” To live more comfortably within these boundaries, and to therefore maintain the security of Earth’s functional systems, consumption must be both improved and decreased.

The answer to the question of what constitutes the “good life” in the Anthropocene is a highly personal one. At the same time, the ways that question is answered, and the behaviors it drives, have global implications. While enormous market forces and global actors spur consumption of all kinds, many breaches of planetary boundaries are attributable to individual choices regarding resource consumption. Matching the global nature of the Earth system boundary problem with the individualized nature of the consumption practices of billions means there will be many disagreements about how to restrict and control boundary breaches.

The mismatch in scale makes tackling consumption and its impacts on the planet particularly daunting. That is especially true when considering the myriad collective action problems that arise when thinking about what level of government could and should tackle consumption in its various forms. What follows here is perhaps best considered a thought experiment into dividing responsibility for bringing consumption within supportable levels. It is intended to acknowledge the complexity of the question and the need for multiscalar action while also preserving some amount of choice in how needed limits are met. And it is, of course, just one of many needed pieces in a complex puzzle. Most crucially, perhaps, it acknowledges but does not otherwise engage with the issue that economic health in the United States and many other countries relies on consumer spending and consumption. But it makes the case that planetary systems limits should drive decisions about how and what consumption occurs.

Allocating individual responsibility for part of a collective harm is not new to environmental law. For the past fifty years in the United States, some of the major environmental statutes, including the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, have attempted to allocate individualized responsibility for environmental harm to varying degrees. For instance, the Clean Air Act establishes national limits on certain air pollutants, and devolves responsibility to the states to come within those limits. That can be done within the state as a whole, or by separating the state into Air Quality Control Regions (AQCRs) that must individually come into alignment. Using a different mechanism, the Clean Water Act uses the Total Maximum Daily Load process to negotiate and allocate individual limits on pollutants entering contaminated water bodies.

What if we used similar mechanisms to match consumption to Earth’s systems capacities? Starting with an international maximum level of consumption driven by system boundaries, that number could be translated into jurisdiction-specific limits for individual countries, states, local governments, and even individuals depending on their contribution to the problem—crucially, calculated not only by what activities are occurring within that country but also by its share of responsibility for the demand for products, manufacturing, and waste disposal need.

Using the United States as an example, the federal government could develop a cooperative federalism model similar to the environmental statutes mentioned above by translating national limits into consumption quotas for states. While consumption may not share the same geographic and atmospheric patterns as air or water pollution patterns, states could also be broken into Earth System Boundary Control Areas (ESBCAs) that allow for more fine-tuning when it comes to setting limits. In that scenario, states would be responsible for ensuring that the ESBCAs come into alignment with the national standard. That kind of substate organization could operate as a form of regional planning that does not exist in most parts of the United States.

Similarly, state and substate actors in the United States could take the initiative on consumption in this framework. States that choose to tackle the problem could use the share of consumption allocated to them as a jumping off point for their own controls, even without a national scheme in place. If market leader states like California were to take on such a project, it could serve as a nudge for falling within these new parameters as well as impose new product requirements on national markets, and therefore potentially reduce consumptive uses in other states as well.

            For the many states in the United States that are unlikely to take on questions of consumption, local governments may also be able to play a role. Data that generates useful consumption limits for substate entities would give local governments a goal to work toward in places where they may be the only level of government willing to take on such questions. These local governments can be expected to be vulnerable to state preemption, depending on what kinds of initiatives they pursue. They may also, however, present an interesting test case for the federal government supporting environmental initiatives through data, financial incentives and direct funding. Finally, individuals could use consumption limits to guide their own behaviors, in the absence of government action.

            Using a quota-based approach to bringing consumption within planetary boundaries raises as many questions as it answers. There are questions about how to what it would mean to translate systems boundaries into actionable numbers, how to calculate shares of the problem, who gets to decide how compliance will be attained, what consumption-related measures would be appropriate, and countless others. But the proposal could be useful in offering a way through current inaction on consumption. By incorporating limits as well as flexibility in attaining them, it may offer a toehold on a daunting problem. And in the United States, as in other places, political realities suggest offering as many toeholds to as many actors as possible. If “the American lifestyle is not up for negotiations” at a high level, what the American lifestyle means, requires, and allows must be interrogated by those living it. Bringing in solutions that force that interrogation about living within planetary system limits while helping to preserve individual choice can perhaps drive forward conversation about consumption.

-- Sarah Fox

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