'The planet needs us to consume less': How we can move to a post-consumer society

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Hello, Earthlings! This is our weekly newsletter on all things environmental, where we highlight trends and solutions that are moving us to a more sustainable world. (Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Thursday.)

This week:

  • 'The planet needs us to consume less': How we can move to a post-consumer society
  • Celebrating Black Birders Week
  • Why a photo of a cut-down tree on Vancouver Island went viral

'The planet needs us to consume less': How we can move to a post-consumer society

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When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the global economy plummeted. But the world also noticed something else: cleaner air, the re-emergence of wildlife and a large drop in carbon emissions. Despite the short pause in retail activity over the past year, global consumption of natural resources has been increasing for decades. In his new book, The Day the World Stops Shopping, Vancouver author J.M. MacKinnon explores how sustainable consumption could benefit the environment and add to quality of life without causing mass unemployment or economic hardship. He writes about people who buy and earn less, so they have more time for learning, building relationships and being close to nature. He also profiles some business owners in Japan whose companies span generations, and where continuity as well as worker and customer satisfaction are valued over market growth.

Alice Hopton spoke to MacKinnon, a longtime environmental writer, who said he wrote the book after realizing “that all of the things I was writing about had their roots in consumption.” 

What was your aim with this book? 

The main question I wanted to answer was, how do we move past this dilemma we're in as consumers, whereby it really seems like the planet needs us to consume less, but any time we do that, we see it play out disastrously in the economy. 

Did you feel like the pandemic was your imagination coming to life?

It was so extraordinary. I was nearly done a book about the world stopping shopping and all of a sudden the world stopped shopping. And it reinforced everything I had found up to that point — from the very clear fact that, yes, if we stop shopping, there are dire economic consequences that have to be taken very seriously, through to changes in the way we behave, changes in the way corporations sell products to us, changes in the environment. All of those things that I'd been looking at played out in front of my eyes. 

Now that COVID-19 case counts are coming down, there is talk of “revenge shopping.”

History tells us that's probably where things are going. But I do think a lot of people are going to feel uneasy about it. Some of us feel completely despairing about it.

It's important to understand where [the idea of revenge shopping] comes from because it's very strongly encouraged — political leaders and business leaders call for a consumer-driven recovery from these downturns. We are much more deeply immersed in values of materialism and consumerism than I think most of us realize.

We really have to start talking about how we structure our lives and society so we can start to develop the skills of living in a different way.

The book describes people who are developing those skills.

Yeah, people who turn towards voluntary simplicity and who have persisted in it for a long time. Most of those people are deeply satisfied with how they're living. 

Rather than building their values around materialism, possessions, income, status and image, they really do invest their time and energy into strong relationships with people they care about, the development of their skills and expertise and spending time in the natural world.

What effect could embracing more green products and energy have? 

Certainly, clean, green technologies and energy are important in reducing the impact of our consumption, but they are undermined by the scale of our consumption. 

Besides buying less, what can we, as consumers, do?

As consumers, we can actively ask of the companies we buy from that they move towards selling less and making better. 

There are specific things that we can do that will discourage planned obsolescence. France has made planned obsolescence illegal. We can ask for lifespan labelling on the products we buy. 

True cost accounting [which includes the environmental toll in the “cost” of any product], I think, is really one of the critical levers that we can make use of. 

This puts the social and ecological crises of the manufacture of products into the price of the product, and doing so changes everything.

Alice Hopton

This interview was conducted via Zoom. It has been edited and condensed.

Reader feedback

It's June and the outdoors are beckoning. To celebrate the warmer weather, we want to hear about your gardens — specifically, what are you doing differently this year? Are you growing new vegetables? Planting with pollinators in mind? Letting the lawn get shaggy?

Let us know!

Write us at whatonearth@cbc.ca.

Old issues of What on Earth? are right here.

There's also a radio show and podcast! A million species are at risk of extinction. Climate change is making things worse. This week, What on Earth host Laura Lynch looks at how scientists are using big data and new tech to keep biodiversity intact. What on Earth airs Sunday at 12:30 p.m., 1 p.m. in Newfoundland. Subscribe on your favourite podcast app or hear it on demand at CBC Listen.


The Big Picture: Celebrating Black Birders Week

Last May, Christian Cooper was birdwatching in his favourite spot in New York's Central Park when he noticed a dog off its leash. He asked its owner, Amy Cooper, to abide by the park's rules and put it on a leash. What happened instead is that she called police and lied by saying “an African American man” was “threatening” her. The encounter attracted worldwide attention — and out of it was born Black Birders Week, calling attention to Black people who happen to be birders.

The incident in 2020 affected 39-year-old Shey Smith, who lives in Brampton, Ont., in two ways. First, he was shocked by the woman's reaction. Second, he realized, “Black people watch birds!”

“I started looking into birding and got hooked,” Smith said in an email to CBC. “Whether it was watching hummingbirds glide into flowers to sip on nectar growing up in Jamaica or looking at red-tailed hawks soaring from my condo balcony, I think I've always been fascinated by birds without realizing it.”

While he said he does get a few strange looks if he's birdwatching outside his neighbourhood, he noted that most people are quite friendly and chat with him or even point out birds they've seen. 

Smith (pictured below, along with some of his photographs) shares some of his finds as @suburbirder on Twitter and Instagram, and said the most powerful thing about Black Birders Week is the feeling of representation. “You have no idea the impact that representation has until you see people you identify with doing things you thought you had no business being involved in.”

Black Birders Week is part of a larger network called Black in X, which began in the U.S. and aims to promote the work of Black scientists in various fields with dedicated weeks. Smith hopes this continues “to break down stereotypes and prejudices others have about Black people and what spaces we have a place in, especially in regards to STEM.”

Nicole Mortillaro

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Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

  • A study published this week in Nature Climate Change found that 37 per cent of worldwide heat deaths every year are attributable to global warming. The researchers emphasized that the toll does not include deaths related to other extreme weather, like storms, flooding and drought.

  • The New York Times has created a highly visual feature that looks at how “wildlife crossings” built over and under highways in the U.S. have benefitted a wide range of animals.

  • Fishermen off the coast of Yemen recently made a highly profitable discovery when they found a large amount of whale vomit — better known as ambergris — on a dead sperm whale. Ambergris is prized for its use in expensive perfume, which is why this particular find is estimated to be worth $1.5 million US.

Why a photo of a cut-down tree on Vancouver Island went viral

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Last week, a photo taken by Lorna Beecroft of Nanaimo went viral on social media, garnering more than 15,000 shares on Twitter and 18,000 on Facebook. The photo (see above) was of a massive spruce log being hauled down a highway on Vancouver Island. 

Beecroft says she snapped the photo because she was stunned to see a tree that large cut down.

“It was actually rather mind-boggling … it was so incongruous,” said Beecroft. “I have never seen a tree that big on a truck. It could be 1,000 years old.”

The photo touched a nerve globally during a week in which more than 127 people were arrested trying to protect ancient trees near the Fairy Creek watershed on Vancouver Island. Demonstrators have massed near Port Renfrew to try to stop Teal-Jones logging operations. The RCMP have moved in to enforce a court injunction and remove protesters who impede legal logging in the area.

Beecroft said that after posting the photo, she received messages decrying the loss of old growth trees from as far away as Japan, Denmark and Germany.

B.C. officials confirmed late last week that the tree Beecroft photographed was cut on north Vancouver Island in 2020, months before new rules were introduced to protect giant trees.

In an emailed response to CBC News, a spokesperson for the B.C. Ministry of Forests said the tree Beecroft photographed was cut between March and mid-August of last year and then transported by Western Forest Products “a month before the Special Tree Protection Regulation came into effect on Sept. 11, of 2020.”

“Government brought in this regulation to protect exceptionally large trees of all species throughout the province, and today, a tree of this size might well be illegal to harvest under the regulation, and fines of up to $100,000 could be imposed if it was,” the email said.

On Friday evening, Western Forest Products issued a statement over Twitter saying it did not harvest or transport the log and will be sharing a report on the matter with the province.

Beecroft said she's no “hippie nut,” as she's been labelled by some people online. She used to work in the logging industry in the B.C. Interior and said she supports logging, but feels ancient giant trees need protection.

“Especially right now, with people fighting to make sure we don't log off these old growth trees, holy cow, this is a tree like the ones they are fighting for and it's driving down the road right now,” said Beecroft. “It's like watching someone shoot the last dodo. We can't do this.”

John Kendall, a registered professional forester with Khowutzun Freegro TreeShelters, said the lumber alone that could be produced from the tree is valuable, but there's more to it than that.

“It is about 45 cubic metres and worth about $30,000, timber-wise,” he said. “But the other values are priceless.”

It turns out that the massive log will be milled in Port Alberni and turned into guitar parts at Acoustic Woods Ltd., a small, family-owned sawmill that produces musical instrument parts. Ed Dicks of Acoustic Woods said the log will create about 3,000 guitar soundboards.

“We don't even like those logs,” Dicks said. “They're too big for us to handle. But when we buy the logs, we don't necessarily get to see and choose what we're buying.”

When she learned what the majestic log was destined for, Beecroft said she was pleased that at least it will be used to make something “really wonderful.”

Yvette Brend

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