Kareiva: Consumption, Competitiveness and Conformity

May 28, 2013

Can the human traits of competitiveness and conformity be forces for environmental change? Can they save this shark from becoming shark fin soup? Photo: Kydd Pollock

Dasgupta, P.S., P.R. Ehrlich. 2013. Pervasive externalities at the population, consumption, and environment nexus. Science 2013 Apr 19; 340(6130):324-8 doi: 10.1126/science.1224664

I give a lot of public talks about the future of conservation and always do my best to paint an optimistic vision.

Inevitably, someone in the audience raises their hand and says, isn’t the real problem consumption and aren’t we doomed to an environmental collapse because of our patterns of ever-expanding consumption? I always admit consumption is a big issue, emphasizing it is not that we consume, but what we consume, and I warn about that preaching about consumption can be a turn-off. But I have not been able to frame a really strong answer.

In a recent article, Partha Dasgupta and Paul Ehrlich give me the seeds of a stronger argument.

They emphasize that two of the strongest universal human traits are competitiveness and conformity. We conform because we strive to find ways to relate to one another — after all we are a tribal species. And competitive consumption has been noted in almost all societies — rich and poor.

It is just that as wealth accumulates, the global impact of competitive consumption also grows. All true. But those same traits can also provide the momentum for change and improvement. Just think of the students at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada, who chided Chinese couples to not serve shark fin soup at their weddings (a traditional symbol of prosperity) with the poster campaign that labeled shark fin soup as “so 80’s.”

In their first years, these students got pledges from 38 couples, which amounts to 4,300 bowls of soup not served and between 200 and 400 sharks saved in one city in one year. I remain convinced that preaching some sort of monastic non-consumptive return to a paleolithic lifestyle just makes conservationists look totally out of touch.

But whereas competitiveness and conformity are seen by Ehrlich and Dasgupta at the nexus of the consumption-environment meltdown, I see these very human traits as a potential force of change. Conformity and competitiveness can be forces for green consumption if we can get the “cool kids” to tout their green habits as an indication of hipness and attractiveness.

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