If there is one great truth in American society it is this: you can buy your way out of almost anything. Other than a few things that will land you in jail even if you are rich (and let us be honest, there are no absolutes here - even if not universal, it is *possible* to buy your way out of almost anything), we tend to look for solutions that involve buying things.
- Having trouble with your marriage? Take a vacation! Pay a counselor!
- Don't want to eat pesticides? Buy organic food!
- Unhappy about contaminated water? Don't protest - buy bottled!
- Indebted? Buy a book about how to get out!
- Worried about Peak Oil? Look around at all the things there are to buy! Got a crosscut saw, a copy of Heinberg's book and a year's supply of dry milk yet?
- Worried about transportation costs from all that shopping you do? Buy a new urbanism house, close to stores!!! Then you can walk to shopping - problem solved.
- Don't want to give up driving and flying? We'll sell you some nice carbon offsets!!
And so on and so on - to every problem there is a purchaseable solution, available to them that can afford it. And some of it is true - living a low technology life, for example, requires some new tools, and those tools cost money. I own some of them, and I covet others, I have shelves full of books about the problem and the solutions, and I haven't missed the irony that those books take out trees and use energy in printing. I certainly have profited in the past from people buying the vegetables I grew, and I am writing a book that will take out some more trees, so I'm not innocent here. I don't think anyone is. But while we will always need to buy some things, the notion that we can purchase our way out of the problem keeps us from perceiving the real, root trouble we are in.
The thing about peak oil and climate change is that consumption is the problem, not the solution. Say it out loud. WHAT I BUY WARMS THE PLANET. MY SHOPPING DEPLETES WHAT FUTURE PEOPLE WILL HAVE. BUYING STUFF HURTS PEOPLE. The problem is that shopping also feels good. Now I'm not much of a regular shopper, but I know that heavy sense of pleasure you get when you wander into a bookstore as much as anyone. I've shopped for comfort, I've bought things and thought momentarily "this will make it better." I understand how much fun shopping is. And it is still the problem.
Because it turns out that all those solutions (and we knew this if we let ourselves think about it) come with problems of their own. 5% of all global warming gasses are produced by shipping stuff around the world - that's 1/20th of the stuff that's killing us comes just from getting those clothes you like from overseas. And that doesn't even count all the climate changing and oil depleting gasses produced in making the doohickey - whether an SUV or a solar panel, a stuffed polar bear (so that the kids can see what one looks like after they are extinct) or a six pack, all of them warm up the planet when they are made, when they transported, when you go shopping to get them, when you bring them home and dispose of the wrapper, and when eventually the thing ends up in the landfill emitting methane gasses. Shopping is itself the root problem, and even if you buy better products, more sustainable things - ultimately at the root, we have to buy less of them. Much, much, much less.
That means not having the right product all the time. I just did something rather embarassing. I violated my buy-nothing year to buy some (very cheap, on sale) waterproof garden shoes. I justified this by noting that I wreck a pair of sneakers every year, and if I had these shoes, I would be able to cut down on the number of sneakers I buy. And yet, that basic assumption "I must always have the specialized, right item, the perfect tool or I won't be able to manage" is nonsense. I could take off my shoes, or wear my sneakers with more holes.
You know it. I know it. I cooked fabulous meals when I owned four pots, two knives and a whisk that my Mom and Step-Mom picked up at yardsales. I cook fabulous meals now in a kitchen stuffed with pots. Do my cast iron dutch ovens do a better job than a big old tomato can would? Almost certainly. Could I cook a good dinner for my children in an old tomato can? Yup - that's what billions of very poor people all over the world cook in.
Would I like a James Handwasher for doing laundry - absolutely. Do I need one? Of course I don't - I did laundry in my bathtub for years in college when I couldn't spare the quarters for the machines, and I could do it again. Of course I would like the right tool for the job, and sometimes the right tool is worth it, but we absolutely must get over the notion that the process of preparing is the process of purchasing a totally different infrastructure.
We cannot purchase our way out of contaminated water - first of all, the bottled is often just as contaminated or more so. Second, all that does is reduce the cancer risk of those rich enough to avoid the problem - and the reality of our future is that that will be fewer and fewer of us. Not only is this unethical, but it comes back to haunt us later - what if our kids can't afford bottled water. Will we watch them die of cancer because we were too lazy to clean up our messes, or avoid making them in the first place?
We cannot offset the carbon we keep putting into the atmosphere - among other things, we cannot use temporary solutions (like sequestering carbon in trees and soils) to substitute for permanent release of materials into the atmosphere. And more importantly, any offsetting we do must be for the carbon we have *already* released - for the future, we must radically cut what we put into the atmosphere. We can't do that by trading, or pretending that planting some trees somewhere saves us - all we can do is not buy the stuff, not burn the carbon, not take the trip, not use the toaster.
We are told over and over that the correct way to save money is to spend it, the correct way to adapt is to buy and make new, better stuff. And sometimes that is even true. But our automatic, instinctive fantasy that *things* will save us, that our wealth can buy an escape is wrong, and it is doing us a very real harm - not just by warming the planet, but by perpetuating a false form of reason.