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Consumer Society No Longer Serves Our Needs

Insights + Opinion

My parents were born in Vancouver—dad in 1909, mom in 1911—and married during the Great Depression. It was a difficult time that shaped their values and outlook, which they drummed into my sisters and me.

"Save some for tomorrow," they often scolded. "Share; don't be greedy." "Help others when they need it because one day you might need to ask for their help." "Live within your means." Their most important was, "You must work hard for the necessities in life, but don't run after money as if having fancy clothes or big cars make you a better or more important person." I think of my parents often during the frenzy of pre- and post-Christmas shopping.


We moved to Ontario after the Second World War. We were destitute. (As Canadians of Japanese descent, we had been treated as enemy aliens and lost everything, including all rights as Canadian citizens). I needed a coat for the cold eastern winter, so my parents purchased a new one—a big expense for farm laborers. Unfortunately, I was 11 and going through a growth spurt and quickly outgrew the coat, so it was passed on to my twin sister, Marcia. She wore it for longer but also outgrew it and gave it to our younger sister, Aiko. My parents boasted that the coat was so well made, "it went through three children." It's been a long time since I've heard durability as a positive attribute of a product. In today's fashion-obsessed world, how many children would accept hand-me-downs from siblings?

How did "throw-away," "disposable" and "planned obsolescence" become part of product design and marketing? It was deliberate. Wars are effective at getting economies moving, and the Second World War pulled America out of the Great Depression. By 1945, the American economy was blazing as victory approached.

But how can a war-based economy continue in peacetime? One way is to continue hostilities or their threat. The global costs of armaments and defense still dwarf spending for health care and education. Another way to transform a wartime economy to peacetime is consumption. Adam Smith, the father of modern economics, wrote in 1776, "Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production."

Seized upon by the Council of Economic Advisers to the president under Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s, consumption was promoted as the engine of the economy. Retailing analyst Victor Lebow famously proclaimed in 1955: "Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction and our ego satisfaction in consumption. We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced and discarded at an ever-increasing rate."

Now, we are no longer defined by our societal roles (parents, churchgoers, teachers, doctors, plumbers, etc.) or political status (voters) but as "customers," "shoppers" or "consumers." The media remind us daily of how well we're supporting continued economic growth, using the Dow Jones average, S&P Index, price of gold and dollar's value.

But where is the indication of our real status—Earthlings—animals whose very survival and well-being depend on the state of our home, planet Earth? Do we think we can survive without the other animals and plants that share the biosphere? And does our health not reflect the condition of air, water and soil that sustain all life? It's as if they matter only in terms of how much it will cost to maintain or protect them.

Nature, increasingly under pressure from the need for constant economic growth, is often used to spread the consumption message. Nature has long been exploited in commercials—the lean movement of lions or tigers in car ads, the cuteness of parrots or mice, the strength of crocodiles, etc. But now animals are portrayed to actively recruit consumers. I'm especially nauseated by the shot of a penguin offering a stone to a potential mate being denigrated by another penguin offering a fancy diamond necklace.

How can we have serious discussions about the ecological costs and limits to growth or the need to degrow economies when consumption is seen as the very reason the economy and society exist?

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Protestors marched outside the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey on Monday, August 26, during the MTV Video and Music Awards to bring attention to the water crisis currently gripping the city. Karla Ann Cote / NurPhoto / Getty Images

By Will Sarni

It is far too easy to view scarcity and poor quality of water as issues solely affecting emerging economies. While the images of women and children fetching water in Africa and a lack of access to water in India are deeply disturbing, this is not the complete picture.

The city of Flint, Michigan, where dangerous levels of pollutants contaminated the municipal water supply, is a case in point — as is, more recently, the city of Newark, New Jersey.

The Past is No Longer a Guide to the Future

We get ever closer to "day zeros" — the point at when municipal water supplies are switched off — and tragedies such as Flint. These are not isolated stories. Instead they are becoming routine, and the public sector and civil society are scrambling to address them. We are seeing "day zeros" in South Africa, India, Australia and elsewhere, and we are now detecting lead contamination in drinking water in cities across the U.S.

"Day zero" is the result of water planning by looking in the rear-view mirror. The past is no longer a guide to the future; water demand has outstripped supplies because we are tied to business-as-usual planning practices and water prices, and this goes hand-in-hand with the inability of the public sector to factor the impacts of climate change into long-term water planning. Lead in drinking water is the result of lead pipe service lines that have not been replaced and in many cases only recently identified by utilities, governments and customers. An estimated 22 million people in the US are potentially using lead water service lines. This aging infrastructure won't repair or replace itself.

One of the most troubling aspects of the global water crisis is that those least able to afford access to water are also the ones who pay a disproportionately high percentage of their income for it. A report by WaterAid revealed that a standard water bill in developed countries is as little as 0.1 percent of the income of someone earning the minimum wage, while in a country like Madagascar a person reliant on a tanker truck for their water supply would spend as much as 45 percent of their daily income on water to get just the recommended daily minimum supply. In Mozambique, families relying on black-market vendors will spend up to 100 times as much on water as those reached by government-subsidized water supplies.

Finally, we need to understand that the discussion of a projected gap between supply and demand is misleading. There is no gap, only poor choices around allocation. The wealthy will have access to water, and the poor will pay more for water of questionable quality. From Flint residents using bottled water and paying high water utility rates, to the poor in South Africa waiting in line for their allocation of water — inequity is everywhere.

Water Inequity Requires Global Action — Now.

These troubling scenarios beg the obvious question: What to do? We do know that ongoing reports on the 'water crisis' are not going to catalyze action to address water scarcity, poor quality, access and affordability. Ensuring the human right to water feels distant at times.

We need to mobilize an ecosystem of stakeholders to be fully engaged in developing and scaling solutions. The public sector, private sector, NGOs, entrepreneurs, investors, academics and civil society must all be engaged in solving water scarcity and quality problems. Each stakeholder brings unique skills, scale and speed of impact (for example, entrepreneurs are fast but lack scale, while conversely the public sector is slow but has scale).

We also urgently need to change how we talk about water. We consistently talk about droughts happening across the globe — but what we are really dealing with is an overallocation of water due to business-as-usual practices and the impacts of climate change.

We need to democratize access to water data and actionable information. Imagine providing anyone with a smartphone the ability to know, on a real-time basis, the quality of their drinking water and actions to secure safe water. Putting this information in the hands of civil society instead or solely relying on centralized regulatory agencies and utilities will change public policies.

Will Sarni is the founder and CEO of Water Foundry.

Note: This post also appears on the World Economic Forum.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Circle of Blue.

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