Matt Chat — Confessions of an addicted consumer: Update #3, the Guilt edition
The last few months have been weird — we’ve had the joys of life returning to a state of almost normality, with social events, clubbing, concerts and travel once again back on the cards. And it’s felt great — I for one have embraced weekends away with friends, being in the office, visiting clients, a Steps concert (yep, you read that right), regular dinners and drinks out and of course dating once again — it’s felt good to reclaim my life back.
But niggling in the background is the omnipresent undertone of nervousness stemming from the daily COVID case counts, doom and gloom stories and fear of getting sick or worst of all getting a loved one sick. And if navigating COVID wasn’t enough, the palpable roar of climate concern which has fed into our everyday narratives pre and post COP26 is quite frankly exhaustingly anxiety inducing. It’s on billboards, making headline news, is peppered in every business report you read and has become as normal a conversation topic as the weather, or indeed the big ‘rona.
As a sustainability professional, this is objectively great, the more coverage the better and the more people on the case the more likely we are to change things for the better… but I can’t help but also feel a tinge of angst about just how messy the world is right now and just how fragile we really are.
From a sustainability perspective too, I think it’s also made people more selfish when it comes to their actions (myself included). I was recently at a workshop where two guest speakers were flown in for their 20 minute cameos — ironically the topic of discussion was sustainability… and don’t get me wrong they knocked it out the park. But it shocked me seeing this kind of flagrant disregard to their carbon footprint. And I’m no better in the last few months alone I’ve flown to Berlin to see friends, gone to Miami for a wedding and bought a car to get around more easily. I’ve also noticed a trend of colleagues and peers overindulging on gifts for friends and family — ‘it’s been so long’ or ‘I deserve it’ being the flimsy justification And I think it boils down to one thing… having fasted for so long on IRL social engagements, travel and family/friend time when an opportunity arises we’ve been clawing with both hands to make it happen. We’ve been deprived of normality and are seeking to get it back at every possible opportunity. The problem is, this inevitably means consumption.
Now without lambasting myself too heavily, Miami was for my mum’s wedding, I flew economy and it had been in the diary for a year or more … Berlin was offset, a number of Christmas gifts I’ve bought this year have been bought as experiences — dinners out, day trips or something lower impacting like a plant. But I’m at the more conscientious end of the spectrum, what about those people who give a lot less of a sh*t about their impact on the planet? This is a question which is both rhetorical but also obvious, not a lot, and thus highlights a key issue for leading in the sustainability field. The messages surrounding COP26 were frequently nihilistic and often blamed each of us for our part in destroying the world, guilted us into changing our behaviours, to buy better and to live less impactfully. But we are all individual beings — driven by our own wants, needs and desires — we generally see only our actions and view them as inconsequential, not of concern to the wider global community we’re a part of, or indeed the fate of our home. And my fear is this kind of messaging serves only to polarise people, driving them further away from the end goal and creating even worse and more destructive behaviours in the process.
This reality is something one can’t dwell on for too long without cueing a large existential crisis — but I think it does create a key reflection point for anyone working or leading in sustainability. Over time deprivation is the source of greed, selfishness and overconsumption — to impose heavy handed restrictions on people’s lifestyles or livelihoods in the pursuit of ‘net zero’ won’t magically rebalance our atmospheric carbon deposits, rid the world of our excessive consumption habits or repopulate our overfished seas. We need to take people on the journey not impose it, educate them not school them, and lead not dictate — change is scary and we can feel and see the world changing around us. But what’s scarier is feeling out of control and powerless and I think if we’re not careful governments and organisations are going to disenfranchise people from meeting their climate obligations before the hard work has even really begun. My personal mission is to work on all of the above, lead by example but also not beat myself up for being human every once in a while. After all, it has been quite the year.