A nuanced story about consumption

One of the home designers I’ve gotten acquainted with as I work toward a book about Minneapolis and sustainability is Michael Anschel of otogawa-anschel design+build. At my December “Sustainable We” forum he was not afraid to speak his mind about the limitations of energy efficiency as a concept, despite being on a panel of efficiency-minded peers.

Anschel believes that in the West we are bent toward satisfying consumption needs. He noted that his new office in Uptown was built roughly a century ago as a home without closets. People subsisted in that era with an armoire because they owned roughly five articles of clothing and two pairs of shoes.

Michael Anschel
Michael Anschel

He believes we innately choose to have more, and that the goal should be to figure out how to get more for less. “Think of how we used to need an entire room to do what our smartphones now allow us to do with a battery,” he said.

He went deeper. “For most people in the world, however, sustainability is about rising out of subsistence-living to one of safety, comfort, health. Sudan, for example, would love to be Minnesota. Or Nicaragua even, which is the second poorest country in the world — but where people aren’t being hacked apart by machetes, or dealing with dysentery and HIV. A sustainable society has to include the rest of the world, who cannot be denied the opportunity to live the way we do,” he said.

Consumption has become a dirty word—  it is not one of my favorites — yet it is not automatically about wasteful indulgence. A woman I interviewed, transitioning out of homelessness, said her goals are to someday replace hand-me-down undergarments with store-bought ones that fit, take a friend out for dinner, and have a bathtub to help soothe chronic pain she suffers since being hit by a car.

The consumer in us can make us feel good about ourselves or ease our way of living. We make choices on an individual basis as our means allow.

Yet I also believe that our storyline about consumption was set during the 1950s — and that story will be quite different by 2050.

The first-world problems we talk at length about, such as where the light rail goes and how it affects homeowners, or how/where we burn and recover energy from our garbage, are plot points in a Big Story. Each thread is important, especially to people whose health is disproportionately affected by it. But I believe we have long grown in an unsustainable way because we tend to focus discussions on one part of a larger story.

The Legislature is one example of how the holistic challenges of the network easily bogs down without collaborative vision.

“People talk about putting a mini-power plant in their backyard,” Anschel said. “But we also need to power clean water, food, widespread heat and air-conditioning, production of medicine. We still need oil to make plastics used for shelter, heart valves, IVs. There is more danger to us as a society of losing the resources of oil for use in the pharmaceutical industry than for transportation, and I don’t think we have those conversations.”

Where I diverge from Anschel is that I don’t believe our evolution is linear. I see our choices as being aligned with a storyline we adopt. And that story changes.

I recently finished watching the entire Mad Men series, which was about 1960s/70s advertising culture at a time when cigarettes were king, and civil rights and housewives were finding new shoots. Indulgence was the American Way. Yet lives were hollow and incomplete. By the finale, it was time to teach the world to sing.

I don’t believe corporate America and conspicuous consumption and superiority over others will rule as the storyline after the next two generations, regardless of how this election cycle ends.

In Minneapolis, more of us are becoming aware of how our structure is cracked. The resources that should be available to everyone globally are not accessible to large swaths of our own residents (threads of Flint). Resources for affordable energy and clean air and water and healthy food — as well as safety, housing, childcare, education, parks —  are lacking. I believe we are in the early stages of creating a more inclusive story.