“But other factors shaping a post-consumer future for every segment of society are not a matter of choice. An economy that makes employment for all ages uncertain, and which constrains earnings for the majority, is an economy that can no longer be based on ever-escalating consumer spending, on mass consumption by a socially massive middle class.”
The greatest shocks may yet be ahead, but the fault lines in the post-World War II lifestyle of ever-increasing material consumption are becoming more apparent to more people. It’s a lifestyle predicated on unbridled consumption of energy and other resources by an ever-expanding host of consumers — at the expense of the environment and with escalating risk of international conflict.
In a word, it’s a lifestyle that concerned critics say is “unsustainable.” A positive alternative to this decades-long social drift is, in another word, “sustainability,” adopting attitudes, technologies and public policies that dial back the stresses on our planet and enhance our quality of life. But as
A member of the Department of Humanities and director of the Science, Technology and Society program, Cohen came to NJIT in 2000. He brought a background grounded in studying regional science (a combination of economics, geography and spatial planning) at the University of Pennsylvania, which led to his becoming, as he says, an “interdisciplinary social scientist.” Cohen then had particularly formative experiences at the University of Oxford in England, where he held a multi-year fellowship with the newly established Oxford Centre for Environment, Ethics and Society, researching end-user consumption and consumerism as a basic organizing principle for social and economic life.
Author of the forthcoming book The Future of Consumer Society: Prospects for Sustainability in the New Economy due to be published by Oxford University Press, Cohen is also editor of the journal Sustainability: Science, Practice & Policy. He is a co-founder of the Sustainable Consumption Research and Action Initiative (SCORAI), and an associate fellow of the Tellus Institute, an interdisciplinary, non-profit research and policy organization dedicated to sustainable development. His Lewis O. Kelso Fellowship for 2015-2016 involves researching the potential of employee ownership for promoting an economy that is more socially equitable and ecologically sustainable.
Recognizing the Social Dimension
During the 1990s, awareness that environmental problems are not only scientific and technological challenges to be solved but social and political dilemmas to be overcome was fostered on various fronts. For example, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 produced a voluntary action plan for the 21st century entitled Agenda 21.
A chapter of Agenda 21 was devoted to sustainable consumption, and Cohen says that it was one of the most contested pieces of documentation ever presented to the international community, largely because of the reaction of the United States and other wealthy countries. Agenda 21 spotlighted the tremendous energy and material throughput required to maintain the lifestyle characteristic of these nations.
Since Agenda 21 ruffled national sensibilities, contention over climate change has made the sustainability debate hotter, with the UN climate-change conference scheduled to convene in Paris at the end of November likely to raise the temperature of discussion still further in some quarters.
“If we can achieve a global consensus that something needs to be done to drastically ratchet down greenhouse gases, the follow-on question becomes ‘Now what?’” Cohen says. “It will require much more than making minor personal lifestyle adjustments, such as buying a Prius hybrid and thinking that we’ve taken a major step toward substantial change.
“It’s not just a matter of cleaner and better technology. It’s also about understanding that the activity of end-use consumers is responsible for driving so much of the global economy. Transforming that as well as our conceptions of economic growth is a key challenge, rethinking what constitutes a desirable lifestyle, what constitutes well-being. These are questions at the heart of the sustainable-consumption research agenda.”
Asking “Now what?” at NJIT
For Cohen, NJIT has been very welcoming when it comes to interdisciplinary research that can help to answer the question “Now what?” — translating good intentions into workable strategies for sustainability. At first, it may seem surprising that NJIT is such an accommodating venue for collaboration between science and technology and the social sciences. But that’s not the case at NJIT, Cohen explains, or at other engineering-intensive schools, including Carnegie-Mellon, Georgia Tech and MIT.
“To be honest, having an interdisciplinary background like mine makes it difficult to fit into the disciplinary silos typically found across the mainstream of academia,” Cohen says. ““NJIT doesn’t have the same segregation by traditional silos. I haven’t been confronted by the question, for example, of whether I’m a card-carrying sociologist or economist.
“Schools like NJIT really seem to be more receptive to integrating interdisciplinary perspectives into their communities. Today, I have found that many of my academically kindred brothers and sisters are based at engineering-intensive universities in North America, Europe and Asia.”
Two Leading Cohorts
So “Now what?” with respect to a more sustainable future?
In the estimation of Cohen and other researchers, it’s going to be a complicated course forward, set by intention as well as by unsettling environmental, social and economic factors. “Reurbanization” or “desurburbanization” is a well-documented trend energized by two major demographic cohorts — the so-called Millennials and Baby Boomers, who are rediscovering the benefits of living in cities.
They have less interest in sustaining or reproducing the lifestyles that were dominant in post-World War II America. Some among these cohorts, as well as other reflective citizens, are increasingly critical of the buying frenzy of “Black Friday,” and more inclined to observe “No Shopping Day.” They even appear to take the call for reducing consumption that President Obama expressed in proclaiming America Recycles Day on November 15 to heart.
This evolving social perspective also means decreasing automobile use both in terms of the number of vehicles owned and miles traveled. Among other impacts, these changes portend decreasing construction of far-suburban “McMansions” and substantially less consumption of all that it takes to maintain the McMansion way of life.
But other factors shaping a post-consumer future for every segment of society are not a matter of choice. An economy that makes employment for all ages uncertain, and which constrains earnings for the majority, is an economy that can no longer be based on ever-escalating consumer spending, on mass consumption by a socially massive middle class.
At the Edge in Asia?
Cohen cites Japan as a possible forerunner of dramatic post-consumer change. Although on the surface a “hyper-consumerist” society, demographics and economic conditions are forcing Japan to rethink the model of unlimited growth and consumerism.
“Shrinking demographically and aging rapidly, Japan has to be viewed as a prime candidate for the transition to a post-consumerist future. The ‘salary man’ with long-term, secure employment has been in retreat. There are diminishing career opportunities for college graduates. Many now work on an annual-contract basis, and young people are getting by on meager or minimal incomes. This affects decisions about purchasing homes, having children.”
It remains to be seen whether these trends in Japan signal more global change, but some of the precursors also seem apparent in other countries, including the United States.
Reinventing the Future
Yet Japan is also taking legislative steps in the direction of a future very different from the one envisioned as prosperity returned after World War II. In the wake of the disaster at the Fukushima power plant, the country may ultimately be more politically willing to move away from nuclear power and actively chart a national path toward a different technological and social future, away from consumerist lifestyles that have been the norm.
A fundamental question for Japan and other affluent nations is the degree of willingness to invest in the public infrastructure needed for a future based on more equitably shared benefits and modes of living that are less resource intensive.
There’s no denying that the students now preparing for careers at NJIT will have to contend with challenges presented by our planet’s growing population, a climate that’s increasingly destabilized, and erratic and volatile availability of natural resources. But as formidable as these challenges will be, technically inclined individuals will be needed to meet them and to contribute positively to inventing the future, Cohen says.
There will also be unique, equally significant, entrepreneurial opportunities that are not exclusively economic, he adds. “Young men and women will have opportunities to be socially entrepreneurial, to understand and experience innovation in an expansive sense. Inventing a livable, sustainable future will not only require technology and science, but also entail reinterpreting how we want to live and adapt ourselves in constructive ways to rapidly evolving global circumstances.”
By Dean Maskevich