This article by Ethan Goffman is part of a series of articles drawing inspiration and ideas from the 2016 SCORAI conference that has just been happening in Maine, USA. Enjoy the reading!
Transitions Beyond a Consumer Society, SCORAI Conference Final Post
Circumstances have forced me to proceed backwards, to conclude my discussion of the 2016 conference of the Sustainable Consumption Research and Action Initiative (SCORAI) with the opening keynote address, by John Ehrenfeld. There is at least one advantage in this, as it will help to contextualize material already discussed in my earlier posts. Indeed, Philip Vergagt began with an introduction that provided context, arguing that our economic system is based on an ideology of growth that generates over- and under-consumption around the globe, spurring human suffering and ecological catastrophe. Ehrenfeld then delved back in history, examining the philosophical structures that underlie today’s unsustainable global order. He briefly suggested some solutions, although they would be developed in much greater depth, questioned and discussed, examined from every angle, throughout the conference.
Ehrenfeld’s talk focused on complexity, on systems made unpredictable by convoluted networks of interactions, leaving a constant possibility of sudden change. Complex systems are “not amenable to description via the usual deterministic, scientifically based laws.” Such complexity is inherent to ecosystems and human social systems—the very objects of study by the field of sustainability (hence rendering sustainability an art as much as a science). For example, an ecosystem stressed by over-harvesting can collapse, although the exact time and speed of the manifest changes are impossible to predict. Human social and economic systems are similarly susceptible to sudden shifts, epitomized by, for instance, the French Revolution and the 2008 financial crash. Once Humpty Dumpty has fallen, he cannot be put back together again (as is the likely result of last week’s Brexit referendum). In actuality, the world financial system has been patched together again, leading Ehrenfeld to argue that “the same system rules are probably still in place, waiting to cause another” financial crash. We just do not know when and where—nor whether the next crash will cause deeper changes.