If Scotland is serious about reducing resource consumption, then we must wrestle with our materialistic culture, which is directly linked to aspiration and social mobility.
We can see it for what it is: an exploitative, empty system that pushes stuff around. A system that truly benefits no one (even the rich!) and pillages our natural world in the process. The social mobility dream makes sense. We want people to have opportunity, jobs, and adequate income, but this cannot be at the expense of our planetary boundaries. Without any meaningful reduction on resource consumption, all our social mobility ambitions are just working towards equal opportunities for anyone, from any background, to have the chance to exploit other people and the planet and harm their own wellbeing in the process.
There is an environmental imperative to decouple social mobility from growth and resource consumption. If Scotland is serious about reducing resource consumption, then we must wrestle with our materialistic culture, which is directly linked to aspiration and social mobility. People with more money consume more stuff: “around half the emissions of the richest 10% (24.5% of global emissions) are associated with the consumption of citizens of North America and the EU”, and “in the past 20-30 years, more carbon has been emitted by the “consumption [habits] of the already affluent, rather than lifting people out of poverty.” (16)
At present, we enjoy the benefits of our colonial past, continuing to push the environmental, social, and economic burden of our mass consumption on to the countries we import our products from. Our reliance on overseas economies for our stuff allows us to also export the carbon emissions associated with their production. Around 46% of the UK’s carbon footprint is emissions released overseas to satisfy UK-based consumption, and this figure is not accounted for in national reporting of our emissions. (17) Moreover, when the electronics, clothing, and plastic toys are broken or out of fashion, we send much of the waste back overseas for someone else to deal with.(18)
All our lives we have been told that we modern consumers are magpies, always scraping and searching for the next shiny thing. But it turns out that the link between consumerism and wellbeing is about as real as the thieving-magpie myth: it turns out magpies do not steal shiny things, but in fact have “neophobia – fear of new things”. (21) We are not magpies, and we do not need to be defined by tired myths of aspiration as the accumulation of stuff. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we long for meaningful connection, that we want to cultivate our communities and nurture skills to play a part in society. We have a chance to reframe social mobility away from consumption, creating aspiration to lead a meaningful life, with security, happiness, and freedom at its heart. It all starts with stepping away from stuff.