Rapport 2/94 - Steps towards sustainable consumption - Homo Consumens � Man as Consumer
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The Future in Our Hands
Framtiden i v�re hender (FIVH)

Homo Consumens � Man as Consumer

The Future in Our Hands (FIVH) is a broad-based movement for change with more than 21,000 members in Norway and about 3,000 affiliated members abroad. The movement was founded in 1974 by a small group of Norwegians under the initiative of Erik Dammann. The overall goal of the organization is "to work for global justice, ecological balance and a solution to the problem of world poverty, so as to make it possible for everyone on Earth to enjoy a dignified human existence". The organizational structure consists of a loose-knit network of local chapters organized around an Information Centre and Secretariat in Oslo, a national bi-monthly magazine, Folkevett ("Common Sense"), with a readership of about 60,000, and ad-hoc work- and action-groups. The Information Centre has an annual budget of about US $ 1 million and a staff of 20, plus volunteers. There are at present ca. 30 local chapters and 10 national groups, or centres, abroad. FIVH also administers its own Development Fund with a current annural turnover of about US $ 3 million.

Turning Points

We have reached a stage in history were the "expanding system" is largely outdated, not only threatening ecological limits to growth, but equally man's "inner limits". Once basic needs are satisfied and over-consumption sets in, the welfare effect of even greater consumption seems dubious, and in many cases, negative. Social indicators (such as suicide, violence, drug abuse, mental illness, alcoholism etc.) in many Western countries tend to show that, above a certain level, social welfare does not continue to grow at the same rate as the economy expands. In fact "the Norwegian experience" shows that welfare, as measured against the above indicators, is lower today than in 1960, despite the fact that GNP and private consumption have tripled during this period. This must be a distressing experience for welfare planners. But there is no reason for alarm - quite the contrary. For what would our chances of shaping a sustainable society be if people were happy with consumption, and even happier with over-consumption? The "inner limits to growth" may well turn out to be a decisive strategic element in the attempt to reconstitute an economy for the 21st century, and it is a major goal for FIVH to contribute actively to this process.

The growth system has proved its deadly ineffeciency measured by ecological and long-term social standards. But in the short term, its ability to produce - and to a lesser degree distribute - wealth, will probably overrule other impeding factors. There will be massive economic growth in large parts of the world, and this expansion will be fueled primarily by coal, oil and gas. As the rest of the world is taking over the production and consumption habits of the richer nations of the North, our role should be to seek modes of sustainable change. The situation calls upon the affluent to fully grasp the meaning of John Maynard Keynes' insight as to the role of private greed in stimulating public wealth and the common good: "For some time still we have to pretend that evil is good and good is evil". The time has come for us to stop "pretending".

The Problem

The modern market economy, with a relatively large public sector and a relatively free flow of capital, goods, services and manpower is an immensly complicated organism. But it is not mechanical in the sense that it is easily governable - or totally ungovernable. For there are individual people everywhere in the system. We are the consumers, we are the producers of goods, we are the citizens who elect the politicians. We are also capable of reshaping our patterns of production and consumption in the course of only a few months whenever we deem it necessary to mobilize for war. But can the reality of the danger of excessive materialism be brought home before it is to late?

Our goal is to try to combine the forces of reason, morality and potent self-interest so as to break out of the vicious circle. For this to happen we need a closer look at the workings of "the growth machine" where so many agents are only "behaving rationally".

The Growth Spiral

Starting with people's psychological needs, one revolution of the spiral brings us through a sequence of interdependent stages We have organized our wage interests in labor unions and professional organizations which systematically promote our rights, particularly those leading to wage increases and shorter working hours. With every rise in salary, our employers see it as a matter of course to try to counteract extra costs by a variety of means: New technology, restructuring into bigger units, differential work conditions to spur productivity, more advertising, reduced product durability, planned obsolence, concentration of production facilities in urban areas, etc., etc. All these strategies have proved very efficient in increasing people's "needs" for more goods and services, largely because of centralization in urban areas (which reduces self-sufficiency), more psychologically effective marketing technologies, and so forth.

And parallell to this cycle runs an even more potent one. Productivity growth builds the basis for increased wages, which means greater purchasing power (so that we can afford to buy less and less durable products and thus avoid the horrors of obsolence). But productivity growth also results in less work, so we need new activity (i.e. "economic growth") so as to further employ our increasingly efficient workers. This is then followed by rising manpower costs, which in turn sets off another self-confirming circle. The more expensive every working hour becomes, the greater the need for efficient machines, which in turn makes it possible to increase wages even more.

And since these psycho-techno-economical processes tend to create more problems than they solve, we also need increased public income to finance people's growing needs for psychiatrist, psychologists, doctors, social workers etc. So everyone - citizen, politician, employer and employee - behaves rationally, forming a constant reciprocal confirmation of the natural "reasonableness" of one's own role.


How is it possible to get off this merry-go-round - without getting seriously injured in the attempt? FIVH works through on-going contact with the press, radio and TV, our bi-monthly magazine Folkevett, lobbying and direct-action campaigns and work-groups at the local level in Norway and abroad. In addition, so as to strenghten the basis for our activity, we have also initiated a program for research and documentaion. The aim is to find out how the need for economic expansion can be undermined - without creating insoluble problems in the short term. In this we cooperate with several other research centres and environmental groups. We are now in the process of describing realistic transitions from a growing, non-sustainable economy to a workable scheme for the next century. In doing so we try to respond to what appears to be a key feature of current politics, namely that many politicians are aware of the problems of growth - but are unable to see how short term problems can be solved without growth. The challenge thus arises to connect short-term feasibility with long-term sustainability. We have attacked this task with a three-pronged-strategy:

The Logic of Unsustainable Consumption

"Sustainable growth" has become a key concept for many politicians, first and foremost Norway's current Prime Minister and head of the U.N. Commission on Sustainable De-velopment, Gro Harlem Brundtland. Our studies indicate, however, that this notion of sustainability has relatively little effect when it comes to private consumption. For every extra unit of purchasing power we manage to grab hold of, the level of consumption tilts towards luxury goods and services, most notably air and car travel. Thus the richest one fifth of Norwegians travel, on the average, four times more by plane and twice as much by car than the other four-fifths. As long as there is an increase in purchasing power it is difficult to make people abstain from what they want, particularly if comparable income groups already have it.

Stabilizing or reducing purchasing power, and leveling wage differences are, therefore, important stepping stones towards sustainability.

But is there acceptance for such sacrifices? Our strategy is to try to undermine the need for increased wages. We have recently conducted several studies which demonstrate the interrelationship between personal welfare and alternative modes of distribution and consumption. To illustrate the potential of consumption patterns which are sustainable, let us begin with the alternative of car sharing.

Car sharing is at present being practised on an organised basis by about 7,000 Europeans. Studies indicate that this reduces the use of cars by about 50% among persons who owned their own vehicle before joining the scheme. And there was no significant change among non-owners. (It seems that this group replaced former habits of borrowing from friends and car rental by car sharing). In short: These studies indicate that a normal city household in Norway can reduce its income needs by at least US $ 3,000-4,000 per year, without any notable reduction in welfare or comfort. But in order to transform this reduction into environmental benefits, it is also necessary to find ways to try to "pry" wage-earners away from income in order to avoid it being spent on new luxury goods.

This leads logically to the question of unemployment: If we make it easier to manage with a 10% income reduction, households can more easily accept the idea of reduced working hours, and if this can be obtained, we are then paving the way for work-sharing. So the crux of the matter, politically speaking, then becomes a search for mechanisms by which we can redistribute working hours, income and leisure time.

Several studies have been carried out in order to ascertain the willingness of full-time employees in Norway to reduce working hours (by 20%) and wages (by 3-7%). An average of 50-62% (slightly higher among women than men) answered "yes", on the condition that the "sacrifice" could reduce the number of idle hands. So our strategy now is (as it becomes more and more evident that economic growth in an already highly efficient economy cannot solve the unemployment problem) to link reduced purchasing power with more leisure time and the need for jobs. If this equation can be reasonable solved in theory, the political potential for realizing it in practice seems quite promising.

But then, at the next turn of the spiral, we are confronted by the question of business opportunity in a non-growing market. We are already in a situation of so-called "free- factor flow". Ruthless competition will force inefficient, debt-ridden, and labour-intensive companies out of business, and a non-expanding market will make competition even fiercer. Companies will expand, even if the market does not! So there will be fewer and bigger companies employing less people, and these will increasingly be linked with international capital and international interests. This trend can hardly be stopped, even though it can be slowed down through non-membership in the European Union (EU), obstinance in the execution of GATT-provisions, and other "contrary" actions. An aggressive international capitalism will, however, probably maintain hegemony for the next decade or so.

With the increasing effects of international competition being felt in the Norwegian economy, there will be additional factors working for cost reduction, primarily on wages, for the simple reason that Norway Inc. is very expensive to run. Even with a GNP of more than US$ 100 billion - that is US $ 27,000 per capita - there are huge deficits in our national budget. So in order to remain relatively competitive (in sectors other than oil, gas and fish), we will probably be forced to cut public spending. This in turn gives rise to a need for alternative solutions as to how public expenditure can be more effectively employed.

If it can be demonstrated in this regard that costs can be cut substantially - through job sharing (which reduces the costs of unemployment and related ills), through lower salary demands (based on lower income needs), and if the prospect of a "leisure-time society" can be made more attractive - then we have a chance of moving towards a society which in specific and realizable ways IS more sustainable.

It is on the basis of this logic and the above-mentioned methods that we are trying to enhance the reliability of our own platform by promoting a path to sustainability which is both politically relevant and practically feasible. Through information aimed at achieving concrete effects, we promote solutions which can be put into immediate effect by our own members and other activists, so as to achieve macro political, economic and social change in and through meaningful and effective grass-roots participation.

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