Making Newton Sustainable

This is an evolving story in many parts. I tell this story as it emerges, more or less chronologically, focusing on the parts in which I personally and the Energy Commission (the official name is Newton Citizens Commission on Energy) took active part.

It gets updated every few weeks or months.

Chapter 1. About Newton

Newton is a wealthy suburb of Boston, population 90,000, with high average income, very high educational attainment, and expensive properties. Its operating budget if over $500 million. Newton has very good amenities: superior public schools, fine city services, public transit to downtown Boston, cultural life, open space, beautiful landscape, and proximity to both the countryside, Boston downtown, highways, and the airport. Majority of residents live in single or double family houses and 70% of them drive SUVs. The housing stock in Newton is beautiful but old, energy inefficient, and in a dire need of retrofits. About 90 percent of houses in Newton were built before 1970, and more than half were built before 1930.

Newton residents are predominantly white, politically liberal, and very active in local politics: they expect the politicians to listen and respond. We have a strong mayor, an unwieldy 24-member City Council, and a large and very active grassroots community. People in Newton are deeply concerned about climate change but are also averse to making changes in their largely comfortable lifestyles. There are many municipalities like Newton across the country and the world. We have a large consumption-based carbon footprint.

The size of the Sustainability Team in Newton is not easy to describe numerically: its two co-directors in principle share a single position but in reality represent about 1.5 person-hours; there is a full time Energy Coach; and there are two other professional employees who devote part of their time to sustainability matters (one in transportation and one in natural resources).

During the past four years the collective efforts of the activists and the Commission produced several results: Newton Climate Action Plan, GHG Emission Inventory, the City entered into electricity aggregation program with 80% renewables, large building developers are increasingly expected to meet the Passive House standard of construction, or close to it. But the most difficult tasks are still before us: private residences and commercial buildings need to drastically reduce their carbon footprint and to electrify their heating; and we need to drive less, let go of the huge SUVs and transition to EVs. Above all, residents and businesses need to take personal responsibility for their own GHG emissions. 

Chapter 2. 2017-2019

Newton adopts the highest level of renewable electricity among the 360 Massachusetts municipalities.

Until about four years ago, Newton was virtually asleep with regard to climate action. The municipality did not consider the greenhouse emissions from non-city operations (97% of total) to be their responsibility. And the greens in Newton have focused mostly on the traditional environmental agenda: waste recycling, tree planting, preservation of open space, water management, pesticide use, and so on. And on solar roofs.

The first major municipal action directed specifically toward GHG emissions from the residential and commercial sectors took place in 2017-18 around clean electricity. Notably, it was triggered by actions taken in the neighboring municipality, which, as I will highlight in this story, exemplifies horizontal diffusion of learning and policy innovation.

Massachusetts law allows cities and towns to adopt what is known as “community aggregation” or “municipal aggregation” programs for electricity. It was first introduced in Massachusetts in 1997 to increase market competition and is becoming increasingly popular among municipalities nationally. It works as follows. A municipality (or some other entity representing a town or another large community of households), serves as an intermediary in purchasing electric power on behalf of all its residents. Such bulk procurement from sources other than a local utility which is regulated by the state, generally done through a consultant under a 1–3-year renewable contract, gives the municipality a leverage to negotiate better price and to avoid large price fluctuations. Recently, power aggregation has been also used to increase the content of renewable electricity sources in the mix. And important feature of all aggregation programs is the opt-out option: people can choose not to participate by taking an active step of opting-out without penalties.  

In recent years, aggregation has gained renewed popularity in Massachusetts (more than a hundred municipalities participate), with a novel feature: the municipalities channel the so-achieved savings toward increasing the renewable content in the electricity mix, the latter being usually more expensive. In short, the customers receive greener electricity without having to pay the price premium. A typical green content in Massachusetts has been only 5% above the state-mandated level provided by the local utilities (in 2018 it was 14%, with 2% annual increases).

In 2017 Newton started considering an aggregation contract. In the same year, a neighboring town – similar to Newton in a socioeconomic profile and in several respects our rival — adopted an aggregation program with 25% additional level of Class 1 locally-generated clean electricity above the Massachusetts baseline. This was a trigger for the grassroots organizations in Newton to call for a similar, and even more ambitious, contract for Newton. This quickly became a well-organized campaign, which took the Mayor totally by surprise; she thought of aggregation as an internal administrative matter, to be decided in her office.

The Energy Commission, which I chair since 2018, joined the campaign. The 9-member Commission collectively represents a very high level of expertise in science, engineering, energy systems analysis, management consulting, urban planning, building science, social science, and others. It was established in 1979 during the Carter Administration and partly in response to the OPEC energy crisis.

The Mayor was cautious, worrying about the political and human costs of increased electricity rates. The campaign responded by implementing a random survey to find out people’s willingness to pay. This was not a survey that would make it through a peer review process in a scholarly journal, but it was pretty good on scientific grounds: in designing the questionnaire, sample size and the target participants the members of the Energy Commission reached out to experts in the field. The interviewers accosted residents at key physical locations through the city. The Municipality tacitly approved doing the survey but left the sponsorship to the local activist organization Green Newton.

The result: an average household paying about $150/month for electricity was willing to pay an extra $10/month for about 56% of renewable electricity. These numbers became the centerpiece of the campaign.

The campaign was very successful. In 2019 Newton signed an aggregation contract with 40% Class 1 renewable electricity above the baseline (actually, these are Renewable Energy Certificates, or RECs, not “green electrons”). But we never had a chance to test people’s willingness to pay because at that brief moment in time the renewable electricity prices dipped.

Impacts:
  1. The Mayor became so emboldened with her success that when the first 18-month contract expired, she signed a new contract in 2021 for 62% renewable electricity above the baseline, for a total of 80% renewable electricity (the graph below, with Newton I and Newton II marked). This time the cost to homeowners about 7% higher that if the electricity supplied by the local utilities. Nobody complained.
  2. About 10% of residents opted out of the program. Otherwise, nobody complained. People barely noticed the higher price.
  3. The grassroots activists and Energy Commission learned that they can successfully campaign.
  4. Within a year, other communities in MA adopted aggregation with higher than 5% renewables. The graph below shows the timeline of municipalities adopting aggregation and the level of renewables. The action by Newton had a big effect on other municipalities. This horizontal diffusion of learning is an important avenue for social change on municipal level.
  5. For the first time, Newton has made a major decision addressing greenhouse gas emissions from the residential sector.
  6. Newton acquired a reputation of being a sustainability leader in Massachusetts, which hopefully gave the Mayor some political capital for making more difficult decisions in the future. It also raised expectations.

Chapter 3.  2018-2019

Newton adopts a Climate Action Plan

In 2018, the newly-elected mayor won by a very narrow margin, largely thanks to strong support from the environmentally engaged community. Her campaign promise was to develop during her first year in office a climate action plan. In 2019 she engaged a consultant for the City to do just that. Environmental activists and Energy Commission were invited to the table where the scope of the project was to be discussed. It became very clear very soon that for various reasons the plan the city was going to get would be an off-the shelf template document of little use in setting implementation priorities and goals, or guiding the implementation process.

This gave the Energy Commission an impetus to get to the finish line ahead of the City with its own climate action plan. Over a period of about eight months the group spent many hundreds of volunteering person-hours on that project, with no budget. The resulting 130-page document Citizens Climate Action Plan, handed to the Mayor a shortly before the consultant completed their work, contained an extensive quantitative analysis and modeling of Newton’s circumstances – the building stock, the private car fleet, the turnover of houses and cars, the demographics, and so on – followed by specific recommendations for priority actions and the approaches for achieving the overarching goal of carbon neutrality in 2050. I then proceeded to meet each member of the City Council (all 24 of them) over coffee to hand them a copy of the document and explain its significance.

The Plan does not address consumption-based greenhouse gas emissions, focusing instead on more traditional emission accounting from direct use of energy: heating, cooling, cooking, mobility, and electricity use. Newton was not ready for it, and in any case, we do not have the technical capacity to develop one. But its driving rationale is “personal responsibility for significant reduction, not just gestures like recycling of reusable shopping bags”. I hope that by confronting Newton residents with this personal lifestyle challenge we are making a significant step toward re-examining the impacts of their consumption and lifestyles on climate. 

The Citizens Climate Action Plan was formally presented to the City Council in August of 2019. It garnered unanimous support from the City Council and forced the hand of the City to produce a high quality “official” plan several months later. The environmental community in Newton also raised its voices, calling for carbon neutrality in 2050. The official Newton Climate Action plan was largely modeled on the Citizens Plan. Its most important feature was that identified priority actions and adopted very specific numerical goals for 2050 and interim progress milestones. In other words, it created a mechanism for accountability.

In December of 2019 the official Newton Climate Action Plan was unanimously adopted by City Council. And about a year later (after some COVID-related delays) the City created a new position of Energy Coach and fills the position with a young, energetic, smart and highly motivated person.

This incident gave the Energy Commission a high standing in the community as a highly competent body whose advice should not be ignored.

Two political lessons for the Energy Commission and the activist community: 1.  City Council can be a powerful ally in mobilizing the Mayor toward our objectives; 2. In a municipality, all politics is personal. 

Chapter 4. The grassroots community takes action for climate protection

The long process of creating the Climate Action Plan, CAP, injects energy into the climate activism in Newton. Here, I focus on two areas of activities most relevant to implementing CAP.

Building Standards Committee

Green Newton, the highly regarded and very visible local organization, established the Building Standards Committee, BSC. It comprises architects, progressive local small developers, urban planners and other professionals, and one city councilor who is also an architect. The initial work of the BSC, going back to about 2018, is to introduce a new criterion in the review by the City Council of applications for permits to build large buildings: consideration of environmental impacts.

After this modest success the BSC takes on a bigger task. One of its members has a task of identifying developers of multi-unit residential buildings who are seeking permits from the municipality (City Council’s job), and then approaches them with proposals to adopt fully electric heating with air pumps and a highly insulated construction method known as Passive House. Their modus operandi is a combination of pressure, persuasion, and highly sophisticated technical advice. In 2020 the BSC scores a major victory when a large national developer headquartered in Newton, Northland, adopts these principles of construction for a large project consisting of about 800 apartment units. The project becomes very controversial because of its size, greatly polarizing Newton between the pro- and anti-development supporters. It eventually leads to a city-wide referendum in March 2020, in which the project wins in a landslide. I get deeply involved in the campaign supporting the Northland project, and after they receive the permit I publish an article about it in Commonwealth Magazine “How Newton Bridged the Housing Divide”.

After the Northland victory the prestige of BSC grows and its agenda as well as its effectiveness rapidly increase. This small group of volunteers puts an outsized imprint on the types of residential building projects taking place in Newton. Looking at their work through the theoretical lens of socio-technical transitions, the change they introduced to Newton takes place on the accelerated section of the S-curve of transitions; each new development project is a little easier to fight for and to justify. By the end of 2021 the BSC is responsible for about two dozen building projects executed to very advanced sustainability construction standards.

And the City Council gets educated in the process.

Electric Vehicle Taskforce is established sometime in 2020 to advocate for a rapid adoption of EVs in Newton. I do not elaborate here on their many activities.

Chapter 5. Implementation sags

But the hardest job is still ahead: mobilizing residents and businesses to upgrade the existing buildings toward higher insulation and replacing gas with heat pump heating systems. Existing buildings are the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in Newton.

In 2020, the Mayor creates a new full-time position, Energy Coach, to help with implementing Climate Action Plan, CAP. This is a major manifestation of her commitment, especially that in the meantime the Covid pandemic creates temporary chaos in the municipal operations and its budget. With some delays related to the pandemic, Liora, Newton Energy Coach is hired in early 2021.

Among the numerous job responsibilities of the Energy Coach, the largest is to develop a campaign directed at homeowners. With the help from volunteer professionals in communications and web design a campaign with a slogan 4Our Future is developed, focusing on four areas of voluntary actions:  solar roofs, insulation, electrification of heating, and electric vehicles. The idea is to assemble a large number of volunteers who would then engage in peer-to-peer communications and over time build a large network for communication and encouragement. Green Newton, a prominent local organization, is working closely with the City on this project.

But the Energy Commission is skeptical about the capacity of information, persuasion, and campaigns to yield significant results. The City Sustainability team knows it as well, deep down, but prefers not to think about it because it implies taking more coercive and politically risky action.

The activists create CAP Implementation Working Group comprising representatives of the Energy Commission, EV Taskforce, Green Newton, the entire municipal team working on climate and sustainability (5 individuals with various levels of assignments toward that topic), one city councilor, and Mayor’s community outreach director. A highly regarded grassroots activist chairs the Implementation Group. This group becomes an important venue for open conversation about CAP implementation by the City and about accountability.

 

Chapter 6. 2020-2021

Citizens Commission on Energy takes initial steps toward implementing the most challenging provisions of CAP: improving energy performance of current buildings.

The focus of the Energy Commission is on residential and commercial buildings. We take two initial steps regarding the residential sector: public posting of energy efficiency rankings of homes; and creating energy coaching service of homeowners.

Posting HERS ratings. As the first step toward getting the homeowners engaged with their energy use, we worked with the city to post energy efficiency ratings of homes on publicly accessible database: The tax Assessor’s database. Through a state law, since 2010 all newly constructed homes in Newton must meet a certain minimum energy efficiency rating score, so-called HERS rating. Since 2017, this is a state-wide requirement in Massachusetts.

The assessor’s database is the most frequently used page on the City’s website. It posts detailed information about each house, including the history of its sale prices, the type of a heating system, and the size. The HERS ratings have now been added to the list of these features. Unfortunately, it only affects houses build and radically renovated wince 2010, which represents only a small fraction of total.

Energy Coaching. In 2020 we develop the Energy Coach website in order to provide advice to homeowners on a variety of energy-climate-retrofits topics. The website has hundreds of questions and answers, and it has a portal for making appointments with any of the several volunteer experts. The City loves this service. In the summer of 2021, the City takes over the management of the site and the coordination of the meetings with residents. The newly hired Newton Energy Coach manages this process. The Energy Coach service receives high marks from all who use it. But not a lot of people use it.

Coaching responds to homeowners who are already involved in energy upgrades of their homes. They are a minority. Furthermore, the commercial buildings are a challenge that has not been tackled at all. It is going to be very hard to mobilize the City to do anything about these two biggest emitters of greenhouse gas emissions in Newton because any kind of coercive policy proposal will be politically very risky.

Chapter 7. We are still not making measurable progress:  Newton Greenhouse Gas Emission Inventory

Since the adoption of Climate Action Plan in December of 2019, the foundation has been set in Newton for taking meaningful steps toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions: the Energy Coach hired, Energy Coaching Service installed, HERS ratings of new homes publicly posted, BSC works toward future reductions from new construction, EV Taskforce is working, the City is developing an outreach campaign for homeowners. But we on the Energy Commission suspect that none of these are currently leading to actual measurable reductions in energy use in Newton. Furthermore, the City does not have a strategy on how to reduce energy use and is not interested in developing one. And because the impressive Power Choice contract for 80% renewable electricity gave Newton the reputation of being a leader, nobody is in a hurry to do anything drastic.

I raise these critical issues in my presentation at Newton Public Library in March of 2021. The virtual presentation is well attended, including several city councilors and the City Sustainability Team, but it does not have any visible impact.

We need facts and figures to draw the attention of the government and activists to that reality, and to open the door for bolder and more coercive policy initiatives. In the summer of 2021, the Energy Commission develops a Greenhouse Gas Emission Inventory, the first such update since 2013.

The Inventory went public in November 2021, and it indeed showed no progress in energy demand and the only reductions in GHG emissions being attributed to green electricity contract.

Among its conclusions and recommendations are these:

“Continuing the current trends in energy demand and greenhouse gas emissions virtually guarantees that Newton will not meet its stated goals. While we made progress in shifting toward a more renewable electricity mix through NPC, the accounting reductions so produced are being counteracted by a growing demand for heating fuel in the residential, commercial and municipal sectors.”

“No matter how large, the resources never match the challenges. We should therefore focus our energy on actions that are likely to succeed rather than actions that we know how to implement. Our strategies and tactics should be evidence-based. The fields of sociology, behavioral economics, management and others offer a large body of research and knowledge on how to effectively change individual, institutional and business behaviors; what works and what does not work. There lies Newton’s best hope for the innovations needed in its next steps.”

The graph above shows that commercial and residential buildings are the primary source of GHG emissions in Newton (this is a traditional inventory, not consumption-based). And since relatively few new single- and two-family houses are built annually, we estimate that it will take several hundred years for the current housing inventory to be replaced with new and highly efficient construction. Something needs to be done about existing buildings.

Chapter 8. Addressing commercial building emissions: BERDO 2.0

A great opportunity arises in 2021.  In September of that year Boston, the main city in Massachusetts and only a few miles away from Newton, adopts a very innovative policy regarding large commercial buildings 20,000 square feet or larger. Under the name BERDO 2.0, it mandates two things: annual reporting of energy use and GHG emissions per square foot; and meeting specific GHG emission standards. The former requirement (under the name BERDO) has been on the books for many years, but despite a high compliance rate it produced no significant reductions in GHG emissions. This is why Boston moves to adopt the latter requirement; a mandate to meet specified performance standards, tailored for 13 different types of buildings. These performance standards get tighter every few years until reaching net zero in 2050. The program has significant financial penalties for non-compliance. At this time of this writing specific regulations are being developed for BERDO 2.0

Boston’s BERDO 2.0 is a path breaker. While there are more than a dozen programs around the country (Including Cambridge, Massachusetts) which require regular reporting of energy use intensity, none set enforceable specific emission standards for buildings. This is a template policy we on the Energy Commission have been looking for. Within weeks of the Boston ordinance, the Energy Commission informally introduces a proposal for a BERDO 2.0-like program in Newton: in informal conversations with sympathetic city councilors and through the CAP Implementation Working Group. The idea is quickly embraced by several city councilors. After the initial reservations, over the next three months the Sustainability Team of the City also warms up to this policy proposal, clearly with at least a tacit approval from the Mayor to cautiously proceed.  

Chapter 9. Unfolding of the BERDO strategy

This part of the story is evolving. The general strategy for BERDO 2.0 is:

  • To Engage the large buildings owners and hopefully gain support form most of them.
  • To build on the work of the Boston team with regard to technical specifications and regulatory requirements; e.g. to maximize the horizontal diffusion of learning.
  • To secure the Mayor’s support in order to identify the necessary resources to implement BERDO 2.0.
  • To persuade the City Council to adopt the BERDO ordinance sometime before the end of 2022.

Chapter 10. The toughest challenge: residential retrofits

At the current rate of replacement, by 2050 80% of Newton’s current housing stock will still be in place. These structures are largely energy inefficient. The Climate Action Plan calls for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 20% through insulation and by another 80% by replacing gas heating with electric heatpumps. Massachusetts has a robust program that provides homeowners with free home energy assessments and generous subsidies for insulation and other energy efficiency improvements. The program is not perfect, and is currently undergoing much needed improvements, but it has a great potential to improve energy efficiency of homes. Unfortunately, relatively small number of homeowners use it. Newton Climate Action Plan calls for approximately tripling the number of home energy assessments and insulation projects in the next couple of years, but there is little evidence that this will happen. 

Partly, the problem is the voluntary nature of the program. As shown by scientific research and decades of national experience, voluntary programs compete with other urgent demands for attention in people’s lives and rarely rise to the level of visibility required for taking action. Other barriers include: unfamiliarity with technical matters, lack of knowledge about what actions are needed, feeling powerless because of the highly technical challenges involved, confusing and inconsistent advice, lack of trust in contractors, and general reluctance to tackle potentially large, expensive and time-consuming projects.

The Energy Commission has been developing a proposal for an ordinance requiring that every homeowner in Newton obtains what is known as Energy Use Intensity score, EUI.

The program has several benefits: It –

  • Induces homeowners to engage with the energy performance of their homes;
  • Identifies homes most in need of greater energy efficiency, relevant professional advice, and help from the Newton Energy Coach service;
  • Provides a mechanism for homeowners to compare their homes to others, using a simple metric, and for energy-efficiency competition among homeowners with different ratings through the public posting;
  • Stimulates the demand for retrofits and adds to the local economic activity;
  • If deemed necessary, it provides the basis for developing additional data-driven future policy instruments that will mobilize building owners to improve their properties.

It imposes both a responsibility and an accountability on building owners. It drives home the message that what people do with their homes impacts local and global communities.

One of the members of Energy Commission has developed an app for calculating EUI from the data on the use of natural gas and electricity, and the square footage of a house. The app is extremely easy to use. A pilot program for the App is under development at the time of this writing.

Consumer Society, its Dangers and its Future

Halina Szejnwald Brown, April 22, 2020

This is an invited opening essay for a special issue of the Polish monthly Kultura (a sort of Atlantic Monthly with a more academic bend). It is published in Polish. The topic of the special issue is economic growth and degrowth, and my contribution is to link growth with consumption, with a personal touch. The essay may still undergo small editorial changes. Please do not distribute it until the final version is approved by the Editorial Board.


When I was forced to emigrate from Poland in 1968 I left behind a country of scarce consumer goods, gray-looking objects on store shelves, poorly designed clunky soviet electronics, and an unmotivated sales and service staff. Twenty there years later, when I visited Poland in 1991 for the first time, the picture was not much different. In the communist economy of scarcity there had been few incentives to foster or expand consumer markets. What a difference a decade or three of capitalism has made!

By the early years of the millennium the country became flooded with consumer goods. Essentially everything could be bought if one only had the money, and advertising relentlessly assaults one’s senses from all directions. During my numerous visits to Poland since 1991 I have watched how the entire society increasingly focused on “catching up” with the West. This term, which I often hear in conversations with
Polish friends and acquaintances, essentially means increasing consumption as manifested in material possessions and personal comfort.

To me the most striking changes in the Warsaw area, where I spend most of my time, are: the beautification of this lovely city, the rapid spread of US-type suburbs, the proliferation of shopping malls, the rising tempo of life, and the leisure travel to distant places around the globe. It seems as though the pent-up demand — built during the four decades of enforced living in dreary-looking soviet-style apartment blocks and restrictions on international travel — has simply exploded. And where once upon a time people spent their abundant leisure time on social gatherings, cinema and theater, books and strolls in the glorious Warsaw parks, there is now constant rush. So many things to do, so many people to outcompete, so much money to be made,
so many goods to acquire, and so little time to get it all accomplished!

The educated Polish middle class indeed uncannily resembles its U.S. counterpart: helicopter mothers and their rushed, over-enriched children, the fear of kidnappers and sexual perverts, the relentless barrage by children advertising, the positional consumption. In my sad wisdom built on the U.S. experience I point out to my young Polish friends moving to suburbs that they will spend the best years of their lives chauffeuring their children; that their and their children’s social life will have no spontaneity; that they will lose the community of neighbors, that low quality mass produced merchandise in shopping malls is boringly the same across the world. My words fall on deaf ears. More and bigger is better. And why not? This is a seductive vision, the price of which – in the growing wealth and income inequality, in the loss of spontaneity, leisure time, freedom to quit a job one hates, and in greenhouse gas emissions— become apparent only years or decades later. Furthermore, freed from central planning and government ownership, the newly capitalist Polish economy has flourished, and Warsaw has become a beautiful city with gleaming white sandstone of the 18th and 19th century buildings, gorgeous parks, skyscrapers,
and lively street life. How can I argue with that?

But the economy so highly dependent on household consumption is very vulnerable, as we are in the process of discovering at the time of this writing. In the U.S. in barely five weeks since the middle of March 2020 the Covid-19 lock-down has led to about 20 percent contraction of the economy, 22 million unemployed (14 percent of the workforce), and created the need for more than three trillion dollars in federal government help to businesses, institutions and individuals alone (not counting the expenditures on the state and municipal levels). It is widely predicted that much more will be needed. This gigantic government debt will take years or decades to pay back, affecting our collective wellbeing for a long time to come.

While the politicians and mainstream economists have recognized all along the symbiotic relationship between mass consumption and economic growth- and in fact intentionally constructed the consumer society in the US and Western Europe after WW II – the earliest academic studies of consumption in the 1980s and 90s took primarily the psychological and sociological perspectives. The former focused on individual behaviors by consumers while the latter on culture and institutions. Little attention was given to the macroeconomic aspects of consumption. But in a parallel development, ecological economists, a rebellious stream within the mainstream neoclassical economics, have since the 1970s sounded the alarms that infinite economic growth and consumption are impossible on the finite planet; therefore the society
should aim for a steady-state or contracting (degrowing) economy. They also argued that the economy should be conceptualized as residing within the ecological system rather than outside of
it. A robust political and intellectual movement – degrowth — arose in the 2000s around these ideas, initially in France, followed by Spain, Italy, and elsewhere, calling for radical social and political changes. But these economics did not study consumption as a cultural and sociological phenomenon. So, for decades these two areas of study existed in separate domains.

In 2008, Philip Vergragt, Maurie Cohen and I founded the Sustainable Consumptions Research and Action initiative, SCORAI. Our goal was to interconnect scholars and practitioners who were trying to understand, from several disciplinary perspectives, how consumer society functions; and to create a better understanding of and how to shift toward less consumption. We had no funds and no idea who else might be interested in these questions out there in the huge American landscape. To our delight, about three dozen well-established scholars and institutional
entrepreneurs showed up for the first workshop at my home institution Clark University. Since then, the field of sustainable consumption studies has emerged as a legitimate recognized area of scholarship, teaching and policy discourse as manifested in the number of professorial chairs, funding streams for doctoral research, and publications; The concept has even made it to the Goal 12 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Today the SCORAI network has approximately 1400 members, an active exchange of ideas on its listserv, and provides advice to policy makers. Several major insights have emerged over the years about how consumer society functions and sustains itself, ultimately showing the symbiotic relationship between household consumption and economic growth. In the summary of the 2009 workshop at Clark we wrote that consumption is a collective activity of individuals embedded in culture and dominant institutions. That
realization resulted in a shift of focus among researchers from psychological to more systemic drivers of consumption. Yes, individuals acquire material goods in order to express individuality, signal their place in social hierarchy, share and express love and belonging, but there are also powerful systemic drivers which exploit these fundamental human needs. The drivers include the advertising machinery which generates desires, wants, perpetual dissatisfaction with the present, and aspirations (always in the direction of more), and the structure of the employment landscape. The result is the creation of a circular treadmill in people’s lives:
want > work > earn > spend > want… and so on. And the economics of the real estate market, where houses are not just dwellings and status symbols but also important debt-driven financial investments, leads us to purchase ever larger energy-hungry houses full of stuff. Research conducted by sociologists interested in the link between technology and human behaviors enriched this systemic view of consumption by demonstrating that technological advances can drive consumption by establishing new social practices. Social practices are the rituals and routines widely adopted by individuals and society in every day without much conscious thought given to them. Well-known examples of social practices include daily showering, frequent laundering and attitudes toward personal cleanliness, all relatively recent and driven by wide access to indoor plumbing, washing machines and dryers, and invention of showers (in place of baths). Their longer term impacts include greater demand for hot water and an upward-creeping definition of what constitutes a basic level of comfort: increasing numbers of bathrooms in family homes. Social practices can be understood through the lens of institutional theory, especially their “invisibility” to those practicing them, and their stability, resilience and resistance to change.

Once the drivers of consumption were exposed the obvious question arouse: does all this consumption make people happier and societies better off? The answer came from another well established research field: on human happiness and well-being. And it was unequivocal: while being better-off than those with whom a person compares themselves is a sources of personal satisfaction, on an absolute scale material consumption does not increase individual happiness or
a social well-being once the basic physical and psychological needs are satisfied. That would imply that competitive positional consumption has a detrimental effect on well-being and that people in less unequal societies are better off. And this is exactly what empirical research has shown.

The introduction of the ecological and carbon footprint accounting to the study of consumption expanded this systemic view in several directions. It showed that household income is a strong predictor of ecological footprint; introduced the concept of embodied energy of manufactured goods; and quantified the contribution of housing, personal mobility, food, and leisure travel to the overall footprint. It showed that consumption is not only about shopping for more clothing, appliances and household goods, as commonly assumed, but also about the lifestyle choices and aspirations, such as where and in what size and kind of a house to live in, how to spend leisure
time, and what kind of a community to aspire to be a part of. Additionally, the introduction of carbon footprint accounting showed that consumption is a major contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions and climate threats.

And what of the change agents? Can people voluntarily change their behaviors and reduce greenhouse gas emissions? Here, extensive studies of various small scale social and cultural innovations showed their limited potential. The voluntary simplicity and ecovillage movements are very much fringe activities. The promise of collaborative consumption, alternative currencies and the sharing economy dissipated with the discovery of their failure to reduce ecological
impacts or change dominant practices and cultural norms. And the study of environmentally responsible citizens showed that their footprint is hardly smaller than their uninterested counterparts.

In his landmark 2010 book “Prosperity without Growth” Tim Jackson at University of Surrey pulled all these bodies of knowledge about consumption together and linked them to economic growth. At the time of this writing it is clear that consumption has much to do with the existential issues of the day: the economic growth ideology, international trade, fundamental
structure of the economy, growing inequalities, and power relations. Yes, much can be accomplished to reduce consumption through changes in infrastructure, pricing of energy, local taxation and land use, and various economic incentives, but the economic system will always pull in the direction of more consumption. The financialization of the economy and its dependence on paying off debt are powerful drivers of growth and the attendant consumption.

With political power currently in the hands for the rentier class, which greatly benefits from this system, is a shift toward a steady-state or degrowing economy feasible? Or are we to travel on the current trajectory of growth until the earth’s ecological boundaries are exceeded so far that the economy collapses altogether? What would happen if we all decided not to consume?

I never thought that I would see the day when the answer to the latter question materialized in all its dimensions. But here we are, staring at it, during the Covid-19 crisis. The greenhouse gas emissions are down but at a great price of tremendous human suffering, the future of which is highly uncertain. The forecasts range from the “we shall jump-start the economy and soon recover” to dire predictions of human dislocation, irreversible damage, and future galloping inflation.

The familiar adage says: “never waste a good crisis”. And indeed, as I write this essay the blogosphere and webinar sphere are full of opinions on how to take advantage of this crisis toward social and economic reforms. No doubt this will continue exponentially in the near future. In this essay I want to add some of my own thoughts on how we might be able to flourish in a post-consumer society.

The Covid-19 crisis has abundantly shown that in a consumer society a sudden reduction of consumption is associated with unemployment, business bankruptcies, and a lot of human suffering. Therefore, any attempts at reducing consumption need to be carefully planned.

First, the economy needs to be rebalanced in the direction of less dependence on household consumption and toward larger spending on social welfare, including healthcare, education, public housing and transportation, environmental management, and other elements of social welfare. The concept of Universal Basic Services, popularized by Anna Coote at New Economics Foundation, provides a conceptual framework for this goal (this contrasts with the concept of Universal Basic Income, which seeks to increase household purchasing power).

Essentially, after five decades of neoliberalism I advocate the return to the principles of the West
European welfare state, but with a fundamental difference: this time the economy must be viewed as being embedded in the ecological system and has to respect its natural boundaries. The doughnut economics, introduced by Kate Raworth at Oxford University, is a helpful visual metaphor for that kind of a society. It says that society needs to function within the boundaries of two concentric circles (which form a shape of a doughnut). The smaller circle represents the floor of a thriving society: ecological impacts of meeting the society’s basic needs, from nutrition, shelter, education and health to gender equality, justice, others; while the outer circle defines the ceiling not to be transgressed, the planetary ecological limits.

The ecological economics community needs to aid this transition by developing macroeconomic models for a steady-state or even contracting economy. Peter Victor, a Canadian economist, has been modeling a low- and no-growth economy for his country and has shown that social prosperity with substantial reductions in greenhouse gas emissions can be achieved in a steady state economy while securing full employment, economic security, less inequality, more leisure time, and control of national and personal debt.

To achieve such an economy, we would need a political will and forward-looking national government policies regarding taxation and investments in infrastructure and institutions. After five decades of unchallenged reign, the neoliberal ideology needs to be set aside. But such an economy will also require a bundle of decentralized policy initiatives aiming at disincentivizing large footprint lifestyles. These will of course be country and locality specific. In the US, for example, local land use and property taxation policies as well as cooperative or otherwise community land ownership arrangements (such as land trusts) would turn the middle class away from wanting ever larger houses in distant car-dependent suburbs. Such structural changes would
over time also de-emphasize the culture of consumerism.

By all indications, the Covid-19 crisis is giving rise to political mobilization on several fronts. In the US these include movements against growing inequality, privatized for-profit healthcare system (and increasingly the educational system), growing economic insecurity of the workforce, and the assaults on science and evidence-based policy making. These movements can open opportunities for a push toward a non-growth-oriented economy which would provide for collective and individual wellbeing.

Finally, the Covid-19 crisis has shown that a smaller footprint lifestyle of taking walks and bicycle rides, less air travel, more engagement with the immediate family, cooking family meals, gardening, and a slower rat race have great benefits. This is the time to reflect on the meaning of good life.

References

  1. Anna Coote and Andrew Percy “The Case for Universal Basic Services.” Polity Press 2020.
  2. Tim Jackson “Prosperity without Growth: Foundations for the Economy of Tomorrow. Second Edition.” Routledge 2017.
  3. Kate Raworth, Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist. ” Chelsea Green Publishing 2017.
  4. Peter A. Victor “Managing without Growth: Slower by Design, not Disaster. Second Edition.” Edward Elgar 2019.