How Materialism Could Save the Planet

Alexander Barnstone - Philosophy and Culture


In Richard Denniss’ 2017 book Curing Affluenza the Chief Economist of the Australian institute argues something that, on first look, seems very strange. He argues that we need to revert back to materialism. That we exist not in an age of materialism, but rather in one of consumerism. But, in making this distinction, Denniss is able to show how crucial differences between materialism and consumerism could be the difference between sustainability and excessive detritus. A reversion to materialism, he argues, could be the key to ameliorating the environmental problems we face today. So, paradoxically, could advocating for materialism help us save the material world?

He defines consumerism as the epoch in which individuals find satisfaction through the act of purchasing. That it is not the items purchased that hold value to people in as much as it is the process of acquisition that does. This phenomenon - a sort of material solace acquired through the process of buying - is a major contributing factor to the wastefulness of contemporary society.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics the population of Australia grew by 22% between 1997 and 2012. Across that same time span waste generation increased by a whopping 145%. That is a trajectory incompatible with nature.

In 2009-10 the Australian economy generated roughly 53.7 million tonnes of waste. 24.9 million, just under half of the total amount, became landfill.

The environmental impacts of detritus extend in many directions, including contributing to climate change. Roughly 58% of all waste created is biodegradable, organic waste. Most of this waste ends up in dumpsites or landfills. The decomposition of this waste carbon dioxide and methane is released into the atmosphere contributing to global warming and climate change. In the Pacific islands region methane emissions from solid waste disposal systems account for 1.7% of the total emissions in the region.

Inorganic waste, on the other hand, predominantly contributes to climate change during manufacturing. The excess of products produced and sold, often used rarely if at all, plays a major factor in contributing to climate change.

Take, for example, fast fashion. The ever-shifting nature of trend chasing companies such as Zara and Gap contribute immense amounts to emissions every year. It is estimated that there are 20 new articles of clothing manufactured per person every single year. Garments are worn less and less before the next item is purchased. The more infrequently clothing is worn, and the faster individuals are to purchase replacements, the more emissions created through the process of manufacturing.

Textile production is one of the most polluting industries in the world. It produces 1.2 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent (CO2e) per year, which is more emissions than international flights and maritime shipping. Large portions of this manufacturing occur in countries like India and China which rely on coal fired power plants. Roughly 5% of total global emissions come from the fashion industry.

Consumerism is unsustainable. To cap emissions and mitigate the damages of climate change shopping needs to be revolutionised.

For this, Denniss’ notion of materialism becomes crucial. He argues that materialism, distinct from consumerism, is the love of the things you own. The Chief Economist argues that we need to find value in the items we own again, and hold them close to us. That by affording higher value to the things we do decide to buy we will be more likely to use them, maintain them, and not search for replacements. Materialism for Denniss offers itself as a cultural value that can help address the environmental damages caused by fast fashion and excessive waste by reducing individuals’ frequency of purchasing.

Widespread adoption of this type of materialism would drastically shift the demand of society. Making companies move away from quick, excessive production to focusing on making valuable, high quality and durable items that will be appreciated for years.

As society begins to consider viable ways in which to mitigate climate disaster, reducing emissions is key. Relearning to love a few things, valuing them and cherishing their material, rather than loving the experience of buying new ones, is an important cultural paradigm shift that will help mitigate the waste problem.

Written by Alexi Barnstone

Alexi Barnstone is a current Honours student at the University of Sydney studying political philosophy.  Having graduated majoring in psychology and philosophy, his fascination with climate change centres around how the human condition and government will be altered in the years to come.

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