Nieuwenhuis P.
CAIR, LOM & SPRI, Cardiff Business School, Cardiff University, Cardiff, Wales, UK

Keywords: object oriented ontology; ecology; resilience; sustainability; cars.

Abstract: The study of product lifespans and product durability initially took a somewhat mechanistic approach, focusing very much on how to make products last longer. It was found however, that psychological and social factors were in many cases more important than purely technological factors in the decision to discard a product. A number of valuable contributions were made to this strand of thinking, many of which suggesting the need for a change in attitude. Such changes, however, would clash with countervailing pressures in society towards greater consumption. At the same time, it could be argued that such suggestions did not go far enough and that what is needed instead is a more complete revision of our relationship to objects and our understanding of the concept of ‘nature’ and how this has distorted our understanding of our role in the systems that prevail on our planet. It is important to understand that the concept of nature is in reality ‘man-made’ and that the artificial distinction between what is considered ‘natural’ and what is instead considered ‘man-made’ is increasingly unhelpful, as it creates a barrier to progress towards greater sustainability. By using a combination of ecological concepts and also concepts from recent philosophical thinking, this paper will explore these issues using cars as an example.

Introduction

The concept of sustainable consumption and production (SCP) has been attracting interest in both government and industry in the context of moves towards more sustainable societies. Industry is clearly a key player in this. Although it has traditionally blamed consumers for unsustainable product choices, this view was discredited by Hart (1997), who put responsibility firmly back in industry’s court. At the same time, it is hard to deny that consumers share responsibility and that the relationship consumers have with products and the role these play in their lifestyle is a key issue in SCP. In response to this, environmentalists have often called for ‘voluntary simplification’ of our lives, something some individuals have been happy to adopt (Elgin and Mitchell 1997; Etzioni 1998). However, to most, consumption has become too closely associated with psychological factors such as identity and success (Jackson 2006). The main flaw, therefore, in many such debates– and one that besets many of our ideas in the environmental and environmental academic world – is that puritanism and frugality just do not sell. And yet, we are hoping to change the world with our ideas, which means convincing the majority that our ideas are worth trying out and will likely lead to a better life, not one of more hardship.

The economic growth model has become firmly embedded during the 20th century and with it a cycle of acquisition and disposal. Natural systems tend to work in cycles of growth and subsequent destruction, but the problem is that people and institutions do not see themselves as part of a natural system and there are always limits to the growth and destruction that any system can accommodate before a tipping point is reached (Walker and Salt 2006). We have developed the notion that human systems are somehow separate from other natural systems and therefore subject to a different set of – unnatural – laws. It is that we need to tackle.

A transition phase

For this reason we need to think in the first instance, perhaps, of a kind of transition phase, not so much in terms of just using less stuff as such, but less of better stuff – we need to replace quantity with quality. To give a crude example, rather than having a dozen handbags from high street shops, we have one Gucci handbag that becomes part of us, part of our image. Instead of having half a dozen H&M jackets, we have one Dolce et Gabbana jacket. When any of these quality items needs repair, we have them repaired and we grow with our treasured items as they grow with us, rather than disposing of them (Cooper 2005). Given that the environmental impact of a Gucci bag or D&G jacket is not significantly greater than that of its lesser equivalents, we reduce our impact, but I hardly think this constitutes hardship. The environmental impact debate is an interesting one; clearly the impact of a Rolls-Royce or Ferrari is greater than that of a Prius or Volt, but the impact of Toyota or GM is an order of magnitude greater than that of Rolls-Royce or Ferrari; the environment does not care about the impact of single items, but about the total impact of all of them.

While many in the environmental movement may think of a Ferrari, Gucci or D&G as the ultimate in consumerism, in reality, it may not be, as their products are not consumed in quantity. There are of course potentially difficult transitions to be made from mass production, mass consumption and mass employment to low volume production and consumption of high value durable goods and consequent employment of people in higher skilled jobs in smaller, more personalized facilities using more labour and creativity-intensive processes.

Our place in ‘nature’

Once we get to this intermediate consumption stage – or ideally much earlier than that – we can then begin to tackle the more fundamental question of our place vis-à-vis what we call ‘nature’; a term that is itself misleading in that it already separates us from the rest of creation. Morton (2010) suggests we should abandon that term and come to a more fundamental understanding of how we relate to the rest of creation and the impact of our actions and the feedback loops that will inevitably come back to haunt us if we get this wrong (Walker and Salt 2006). In object oriented ontology (OOO) as developed most recently by, among others, Morton (2010, 2013) and Bogost (2012) there is no hierarchy as such among what we find on our planet. Thus people, animals, plants, animate and inanimate objects are essentially of equal value and equally deserving of respect. It is this higher level thinking about our place in the world that often seems to be lacking in much of the environmental literature, as perhaps exemplified by the ‘degrowth’ literature (Georgescu-Roegen et al. 1979; Kallis et al. 2012). Many such works are still perhaps too closely linked conceptually with an ‘economic’ rather than an ‘ecological’ mindset (Krebs 2008).

Walker and Salt (2006) explain that natural systems can achieve equilibrium in various different states, each of varying stability. Some of these are more suited to us than others and these are therefore more desirable, at least for us; they ensure or facilitate our survival or comfort. However, the system, or indeed ‘the planet’ can exist in any of these states; any of these can be stable in its own way. So therefore we very often seek to stabilise a particular natural state because it brings those ecosystem benefits we are after. Even when we protect nature, we are therefore shaping it.

In reality, we humans have become totally intertwined with our technology in the broadest sense, such that humans and technology combined constitute our species (Malafouris 2013). Technology is a natural human characteristic in the way black and white fur is a characteristic of the giant panda. We would now struggle to survive without cooking our food, which requires the technology of controlling fire, kill much of our prey, which requires the technology of weapons and traps, or grow our crops, which requires the technologies of tools to work the soil and harvest plants. To a large extent we have co- evolved with our technologies – we make them suit us and adapt to them such that we increasingly suit them (Spyker, 2007). Our control of fire allowed us to keep predators at bay, change our environment and cook our food (Lipton and Bhaerman, 2011), similarly, our stone tools did a job for us and then we adapted to become better at making and using them (Malafouris, 2013; Reardon, 2013). What is true for fire and stone tools is true for all our technologies, all our creations ranging from a carefully dressed arrow-head to an iPhone. Technology is part of our nature and technology is thus a natural phenomenon and our relationship with our things should be understood that way.

On an ethical level, Kohak (1985, p. 35-36) explored the intrinsic value and our inherent moral obligations towards our artifacts:

“Artifacts are not only products but also gifts, be it of God or of Nature. …Though it might be my privilege to use that resource, that gift, it is immoral for me to waste it.” 

It is even possible that technology is used as part of our role in natural systems; nature will thus use our technological aptitudes to help it in its efforts to achieve equilibrium in the natural systems of which we are part. If this is indeed how humankind operates, with nature acting through us in a sociological and psychological fashion, then there is mounting evidence – even for those who still believe that we are somehow separate from, or even above the rest of creation – that in fact we are an integral part of nature and part of the natural processes used to maintain equilibrium – Gaia, if you like (Lovelock 2000) – and that we are therefore an integral part of nature’s resilience and resistance. Indeed, Lipton and Bhaerman (2011, p. 209) argue that ‘Humans, like every other organism in the biosphere, are here to support environmental balance, to buffer it, to sustain it, and to encourage harmony’. We are not, as some deep greens like to portray us, a blot on the landscape causing only harm and no good; we are natural. Lipton and Bhaerman add, however, like Field and Conn (2007), that we are unique in our awareness of our evolution and of our potential for change. We can therefore gain awareness of our role in maintaining harmony in natural systems and act accordingly; with foresight.

As part of this approach we also need to change our relationship with the objects around us. For example we need to start looking at objects as part of systems, rather than single entities, an approach to which cars lend themselves particularly well. As Jackson (2006) argues:

“There are few places where the symbolic character of material consumption is more naked to the popular scrutiny than in the case of the automobile…”.

Automobility is also one of our least sustainable forms of consumption, which makes an exploration of our relationship with cars particularly significant in the context of SCP. Cars are themselves made up of some 15 000 components all working – ideally – in perfect harmony to deliver us personal mobility, identity, fun, while they are part of a system of conception, production, distribution and use that all contribute to the very complex system of ‘automobility’, or the automotive ‘regime’ (Geels et al. 2012). In this sense, an ecosystem approach is like systems theory. Meadows (2009) is a useful source here as she combined expertise in systems thinking with expertise in sustainability thinking. Natural and human- made objects become part of the same system in this context deserving of similar, though not necessarily equal attention.

It is important here to understand our position in time and space. In time, due to evolution, we are essentially a snapshot in a continuing process. ‘Humans’ are a point along an evolutionary continuum and it is very difficult to pinpoint at what point along that continuum we became human, and no longer humanoid, or ape, or whatever we choose to call it. Looking forward it will also be very difficult – except with hindsight – to determine at what point we will have evolved into another ‘post-human’ species. In terms of place, we need to realise that we are made up of the same atoms as everything else on this planet, including cars. The iron atoms in our blood are the same type of iron atoms as those in the Earth’s crust, at the Earth’s core, and in our car (Nieuwenhuis, 2014). This emphasizes the point made earlier, that in very physical terms, we are connected with everything around us, animal, vegetable and mineral – including our cars; we are all made of the same stuff.

Lipton and Bhaerman (2011, p.18) point out that ‘…the primary characteristic of life is movement’. To this extent, then, are cars ‘alive’? Just think how easy it is to accept that the cars in the Pixar-Disney film Cars are animate; and, does it matter? Interestingly enough, some recent research has confirmed that most of us do not see cars as mere inanimate objects. The brain organizes things in terms of categories, or as us general linguists would call them ‘semantic categories’. Research carried out at the University of California at Berkeley found that for many people, vehicles and animals fall into the same category (Reardon 2013, quoting Neuron, doi.org/j29); while Malafouris (2013) would recognize them as extensions of our own mind.

Shaping our environment, things

It is natural for us to want to influence, or change our environment. Like beavers with their dams, and termites with their mounds, we adapt our environment to suit us, as much as we adapt to our environment. In this context, to be presented with a product that discourages input from us is, in a very real sense, ‘unnatural’. In the early years of the car, such input was normal (Franz, 2005). Franz (2005, p. 130) concludes that under the new culture that developed gradually during the 1920s and 1930s:

“In the eyes of the industry the perfect consumer did not tinker, but rather told the manufacturer what he or she wanted and then waited to receive the benefits of the ‘holy trinity’ of the modern age: science, industry and progress.”

This is a model we are still familiar with today. We are inextricably linked with the technologies we use: ‘…, we create technology, technology affects us, and we in turn create or, rather, refine, technology’ (Spyker, 2007, p. 67). But leaving this to a technological elite divorces us from that important and inherently human bond with our technologies. Spyker explains that it can in fact be ‘spiritually comforting’ to be pleased by an object (ibid., p. 84).

Assuming that premature scrapping is wasteful, or indeed even morally questionable, as Kohak (1985) argues, is it possible to make consumers more attached to their cars and thereby increase durability? The longer a product lasts, the less often it needs to be replaced and therefore the less often it needs to be produced, thus reducing overall production and resource use. At the same time, durable products significantly change patterns of consumption (Nieuwenhuis, 1994, 2008, 2014). Yet, products are often discarded not because of a lack of technical durability, but because the consumer has lost his or her emotional attachment to it (Chapman 2005; Muis 2006). Cars built for an expected lifespan of only 10- 12 years, such as many from the 1960s, can be made to last many decades, if an owner can be found who is willing to build an emotional relationship with the product (Nieuwenhuis 2008, 2014). By exploring this type of relationship it may be possible to discover just how this could be used to build a model for sustainable consumption. Chapman’s (2005) point that products are discarded because the owner has ‘fallen out of love’ with the object results in waste sites full of working machines and serviceable objects. Chapman (2005, p.9) blames the prevailing industrial model for this system of consumption:

“Consumers of the 1900s were not born wasteful, they were trained to be so by sales-hungry teachings of a handful of industries bent on market domination.”

The US car industry with its once ‘planned obsolescence’ is a prime suspect. Chapman also blames an inability of products themselves to keep up with the speed of change in our world. Yet, the case of classic cars (Nieuwenhuis 2008), or the increasingly popular trend of modifying cars in various ways, does indicate an ability on the part of cars to adapt and ‘grow’ with their owners. The higher the initial cost, the more likely that this process of extending the ownership experience can be justified by an owner in line with the ‘transition phase’ suggestion made earlier. Perhaps with the higher purchase cost of electric vehicles (EVs), compared to their much lower running costs and inherently more durable technologies, EVs could be one way of achieving the intermediate phase of reduced consumption of higher value goods. The Tesla Model S may well be a good example of such a product. In fact, as the move towards the battery electric vehicle brings with it a move towards cars that, though emitting less CO2 in use, in fact contain significantly more embedded carbon (Hawkins et al. 2012), this need has never been more pressing.

Conclusions

I have tried in this discussion to bring together three strands of recent thinking that may help in building a new model of more sustainable consumption. It is increasingly thought that human evolution is closely intertwined with human technology; that our relationship with our things has in fact shaped us as much as we shape our things. This notion is perhaps most developed in Malafouris’ Theory of Material Engagement (Malafouris 2013). Linking this with OOO, which maintains that everything is deserving of respect, including the objects we so readily dispose of, adds another key element to a model perhaps first hinted at by Kohak (1985). The final element concerns our notion of a concept of ‘nature’ as somehow separate from us. Morton (2010) suggests abandoning this idea. It creates a boundary between us and the rest of creation that in reality does not exist; the ‘man-made’ is as much part of ecological systems as anything else, including ourselves. This leaves us with a model whereby we and everything else around us share a common destiny of mutual interdependence. This could be leveraged to change our relationship with our objects such that we build more lasting relationships with them – the example of cars is explored above. By understanding this, we will gain a better understanding of how what we do impacts on other parts of the system and how feedback loops may then cause these impacts to impact on our ability to do what we have been doing, while also, perhaps as an intermediate step, improving the quality of our consumption at the expense of quantity.

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