Problem 5 - The Trouble With Consumption

aerial image of New Orleans garbage dump

   This post is part of the serialization of the first chapter of the Original Green [Unlocking the Mystery of True Sustainability].

   The trouble with consumption is similar to the problem of growth: just as our economic health is measured by the yardstick of growth, the machine that drives that growth is consumption. We know we are all consumers, and we don’t give it a second thought.

   Our ancestors would likely have been horrified by the consumption paradigm. Probably half of the adages of their times had something to do with conserving instead of consuming: “Waste not, want not.” “A penny saved is a penny earned.” “A stitch in time saves nine.” “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” etc. And their stories of frugality and conservation that have filtered down to our day are nearly endless. Conservation allowed them to keep things going for a really long time: it allowed them to live in a sustainable fashion.

   Consumption, on the other hand, requires us to continue extracting things from the earth, fabricating them into useful things, then discarding those things when they have lost their usefulness to us, or when we have lost interest in them. Consumption is the path from resources to garbage. A nation of consumers produces a nation full of garbage. The tallest mountain within hundreds of miles of my home in South Beach is a trash heap.

   So what’s the alternative? What would an economy look like based primarily on conservation rather than consumption? Let’s try to imagine:

the Conserving Sustaining Economy: Manufacturing

wood-handle hand tools lying on stainless steel surface

   Some segments would clearly be smaller. If we built things to last rather than to be thrown away, the business of building appliances, cars, and even buildings with unwritten expiration dates would be much smaller.

   Planned obsolescence is a scheme invented by manufacturers to make things that are meant to wear out in a certain length of time so that you have to keep buying more stuff from the manufacturer. This idea has only been around since approximately 1925, which is a significant date discussed in detail later in this book, and which I believe is the beginning of the Great Decline.

   Before planned obsolescence, things were treasured because they lasted. Furniture that was well-built became family heirlooms, handed down for generations. Tools were used for an entire career, and then handed down to the next generation who treasured them as they worked with them, too. As a matter of fact, the value of a tool or furnishing derived in large part from its ability to endure.

   So a conserving economy would make a lot less stuff, because the stuff it made would last a lot longer. Wouldn’t that cost American jobs? News flash: Most manufacturing jobs departed from American shores a decade or two ago. So we would be buying fewer things from overseas if we were insisting that those things were made to last.

the Conserving Sustaining Economy: Maintenance & Repair

   There are other implications, as you might guess. If things were built to last, then they would occasionally need help along the way in the form of maintenance and repair. But maintenance and repair jobs are full of problems for big business. Whereas the manufacturing of widgets can be done in huge quantity with a manageable and fairly predictable flow of materials and labor, maintenance and repair jobs happen one at a time... or maybe ten at a time. You really can’t predict them that well. 

   And whereas manufacturing can be done anywhere and the products shipped globally (for now,) maintenance and repair jobs are much more commonly done near where the product is used. Who do you know that actually likes to ship something off to have it repaired? So maintenance and repair are much harder to outsource and offshore. And because these jobs don’t fit the big business paradigm very well, they are left to small businesses most of the time. So what’s wrong with enhancing a sector that supports small business and that is resistant to offshoring?

the Conserving Sustaining Economy: Life-Cycle Cost

   Things that last clearly cost more, but if you divide that cost over the much-expanded lifespan of the thing, then your cost per year is much less. We will examine the idea of Millennium Buildings in detail later in the book, but their essence is this: you may spend 50% more for a building that will last 1,000 years instead of lasting 100 years. But the cost per year of the 1,000-year building is only 15% of the cost per year of the 100-year building. And most buildings built today aren’t even meant to last 100 years!

the Conserving Sustaining Economy: Quality of Life

Piazza della Rotonda in Rome

   The transition from a consuming economy to a conserving economy will be expensive at first, but that should come as no surprise since the recovery from almost any mistake is costly at some point along the recovery path. But once the recovery has taken place, then our cost per year of maintaining our quality of life will be substantially less.

   Why didn’t I say “standard of living” rather than “quality of life”? Because the “standard of living” yardstick is what you use to measure the vigor of a consuming economy. Standard of living is the measure of how many things we have, and how big they are. It’s a measure of what we are consuming. Quality of life, on the other hand, is the measure of how good your life is, not how big it is. A great meal instead of a super-sized meal. A conserving economy will necessarily have a lower standard of living because it doesn’t consume as much as a consuming economy... it doesn’t need to. As a matter of fact, a conserving economy might even look like it’s in recession about half the time, but at the same time be a much more stable and delightful economy to live and work within. This is because recessions are signs of sickness in a consuming economy. But if they have any meaning at all in a conserving economy, they might even be construed as signs of health, because if your life is really good, then you need less additional stuff... and so you’re buying less, but enjoying more.

the Conserving Sustaining Economy: Finance

   Some segments of our current economy would clearly be less necessary in a conserving economy. Chief among these is the loan side of the finance sector, because when you need to spend less money to have a particular quality of life, then you don’t need to borrow as much. But what’s wrong with less debt, other than fewer loan officer jobs?

   The flip side of the finance sector is the investment side: if your cost of living is reduced because your life-cycle costs go way down because of owning things that last, then you likely have more money to invest. And so we need more brokers and investment consultants.

the Conserving Sustaining Economy: Innovation

   Another beneficiary of a conserving economy would likely be innovation. Here’s why: When people are stretched to their limits maintaining their standard of living, their efforts are consumed with things pertaining to financial survival. They have little time for pursuing great ideas. But when they are freed from wall-to-wall survival demands, then they have time and energy that may be used for thinking “what if...?”

   My own experience follows this track. Soon after architecture school, we decided to build what was intended to be a self-sufficient homestead. For a short while, our debt was low, so we had time to think about a better world. Our contribution was going to be a house on one acre that heated and cooled itself, and that fed our little family. The heating and cooling innovations included several items, including a system I called “cool tubes.”

Mouzon Residence in Gurley, Alabama

   Here’s an image of the house. Unfortunately, the finance sector didn’t know what to do with us. The appraisers (we went through several of them) were so flummoxed by the idea of a house with no heat pump that their appraisals were ridiculously low ($25/square foot,) even though our passive system would save thousands in utility costs. And so we had to take two years building most of it ourselves to save on labor, and we got as many credit cards as we could to buy the materials to finish the job.

   As you might imagine, when a house is partially financed on credit cards, its owners must struggle mightily for several years. Nearly every moment was spent surviving. And I became completely invisible in the arena of innovation.

   When the tax law changes of 1986 finally had their full impact on my employer, my job was downsized and I hung out my shingle in 1991 with the early 1990s recession in full swing. Several more years of survival mode ensued as I worked to build a business from the ground up. And I continued to be completely invisible to anyone interested in architecture or place-making innovation because I wasn’t contributing any innovations. We were merely surviving; nothing more.

   Finally, however, we began to achieve a small measure of success towards the end of the 1990s. And that opened a small window of available time within the demands of keeping a small business afloat. The initiatives were tiny at first. We began the Mooresville Collection of homes designed for New Urbanist neighborhoods in 1996. Our Catalog of the Most-Loved Places began humbly at first, with the photographing of a few lesser-known Alabama towns in 1997. The window opened a bit wider to include symposia at the Seaside Institute beginning in 1999, which led to the close relationships we enjoy to this day with many notable New Urbanists.

   Our move to Miami Beach in 2003 was the culmination of years of house downsizing from 3,000 square feet to our current 747 square feet. And the early initiatives opened the door to high-value work we have enjoyed in recent years whereby I can work 7-10 days a month to pay the bills and spend the rest of my time writing books and working on new initiatives. Some of these include the Katrina Cottages initiative; Andrés Duany and I laid out the core principles on the Saturday after the hurricane, and we have worked to foster the movement since. Today, we’re working on far too many cool initiatives to list here. Our primary initiative, the Original Green, would have been impossible to advance in financial survival mode.

   But a small window of uncommitted time can lead to small innovations, which leads to greater value of one’s time, which leads to a bigger window for more innovation. All of this is made harder in a consuming economy, but easier in a conserving economy.

the Conserving Sustaining Economy in Practice

   And a conserving economy isn’t just theory... Wanda and I are living it already. Our standard of living has shrunk notably over the past few years. Our new home is only a quarter of the size of our first one. We now have one car rather than two. We ride a bike to the grocery store. By the consuming economy standards of bigger and more, we must have fallen upon hard times. We must be failures.

   But the conserving economy standards of quality of life tell a completely different story. We moved to paradise, otherwise known as South Beach. We don’t have to fight traffic. We are healthier because we walk and bike everywhere. I could go on for pages, listing numerous ways our quality of life has gone up, but it’s so good it would be embarrassing. Let’s just say that we consider ourselves to be extremely fortunate for a quality of life that is far beyond what we ever deserved, even though many measures of our standard of living are reduced.

~ Steve Mouzon

© The Guild Foundation 2013