Polina Silakova is one of our Emerging Fellows. She and our other Emerging Fellows will be posting throughout the year. Her first article discusses the intersection of societal norms, economic conditions, and the environment.
In the lead-up to the festive season, streets are dressed up in chic decorations, stores experiment with creative stands with sweets and gifts, and wherever we are, we can hardly escape from commercials, kindly offering to help us choose presents for our nearest and dearest. The hustle in the media and in the shops became an inseparable part of this special time and we can hardly imagine it to be otherwise. End of the year’s shopping boom is good for us and good for businesses, right?
At the same time, a different announcement nearly got lost in this busy media clutter. A world meteorological organisation reported 2016 results which show the record increase in global carbon dioxide level in the atmosphere (403.3 ppm for those who like figures) – a rate not seen for millions of years. The increase is largely attributed to human activities, including the burning of fossil fuels. Those fuels keep our homes warm (or cool), make (most of) our cars move, enable the production of all the things that we need (and the ones that we don’t really need), and help me write this post by powering my laptop with electricity.
Until now the price of most of these goods and services did not include full environmental costs and we only start considering this now, possibly too late and too slow. The Paris Agreement on Climate Change is the first attempt to address the issue at a big scale. With Syria recently having signed up the accord, all the countries in the world agreed to act collaboratively to limit the negative impact of human activities. The United States has become the only one leaving, as announced by Donald Trump earlier in 2017. Trump’s reasoning is that the terms of the agreement are bad for America’s economy (which is, by the way, the world’s second-largest emitter of carbon). In other words, if the United States commits to the accord, they will not be able to produce as much stuff as they do now, as profitably as currently.
The reason for Trump’s decision is in the short-term thinking and capitalistic values behind it. But he is not alone in prioritising the more tangible short-term outcomes over the more blurred future on the horizon. Generally, as recent research by the University of California suggests, human brains are “not wired for the future”. However, as with everything, there are exceptions and in another part of the world, we find a different story.
While Trump is trying to protect the production of new goods, Sweden introduced a 50% reduction in tax on repairing goods. This is the government’s attempt to rationalise new economic behaviour for people to revive their possessions, instead of buying new stuff; to create the new norms, as opposed to what developed countries are accustomed to. The initiative aims to cut carbon emissions from production, reduce waste and more generally, promote sustainable consumption. In other words, Sweden gives its citizens an additional, financial reason to take care of the planet. Sustainable values of responsible citizens are supported both by making this behaviour normal in society and by providing monetary rewards. And Swedes don’t seem to expect any negative economic outcomes from the new law.
The difference between the responses of these two countries to the wicked problems we face is in how much weight does the future have in the decisions we take today? The Brundtland Report in 1987 gave rise to the most influential definition of sustainable development. It states: “…development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. The difference between the Swedish and the American response is exactly in defining the needs of the present and in understanding the impact of today on the generations of the future.
While the governments of different countries may choose different actions in regard to these two components of sustainability, we are curious about whether we will see a more American or a more Swedish response from consumers in the future? We are not inviting you to re-gift your last year’s present or to carry a Christmas tree home on a bicycle. The problem is much more complex than that and the solution involves all three parties: government, businesses and consumers.
What role will we choose to play? What is the relationship between our values, societal norms, economic conditions and our buying behaviour? When will we start including full environmental costs in the price of the goods and services and when will we be ready to pay for it? Will it direct our choices between alternative goods? Or not?
© Polina Silakova 2018