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Climate Change Brand Purpose Sustainability

Is advertising causing climate change? Actually, it’s worse than that

By Ty Montague, Chairman and chief purpose officer

August 15, 2022 | 5 min read

The rate of consumer activity has long surpassed the pace of ecological regeneration. Our obsession with consumption needs to end now, or we risk existential threat – and the role of advertising can no longer go unquestioned.

Melting ice

Our planet cannot sustain current levels of consumption / Lucas Marcomini

Here’s a question to consider. If it turned out that advertising was causing climate change, would you support banning it? While you think about that, consider this: lots of advertising has already been banned or restricted in various markets around the world for good reasons. Tobacco ads. Ads that promote negative stereotypes. Ads that may be seen as offensive. Ads that ‘ashcan’ competitors. Ads that over-promise or are clearly dishonest. Ads that inappropriately target children. There’s precedent for limiting ads that use their well-documented powers to alter human behavior in a way that is bad for a vulnerable segment of society.

So now let’s talk about a problem that is definitely worse than climate change: overshoot. The concept is relatively simple: the earth has a finite ‘carrying capacity,’ and our consumption of global resources actually overshot the carrying capacity of the entire planet way back in 1971. Every year since then, our extractive economic activity has increased, which means we are literally living on stolen resources – resources stolen from our own children – by consuming them today.

The bill on that magical charge card is coming due. Climate change is but one of many grim symptoms – extinctions, mass human migrations and wars fought over resources are a few bonus features. In Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change, environmental sociologist William R Catton unpacks these and other concepts. What I took from it is that overshoot has happened before many times on Earth. A species gets out of balance with its environment and its population overshoots the carrying capacity of the local ecosystem. It is a familiar pattern, part of Earth’s natural rhythms. And it ends the same way every time: what always follows overshoot is collapse – the population crashes back to the actual carrying capacity of the ecosystem. Always. Every time. I’m thinking we need to pay attention to this. To avoid that impending crash, we humans need to curb our consumerism in some dramatic ways.

Earth overshoot chart

But we’re addressing this already, right? Electric cars? Renewable energy? All the ‘net zero’ pledges we hear about? Recycling? Shopping locally? Eating a plant-based diet? Don’t get me wrong – these are all great things. But they are insufficient solutions to overshoot. At the present rate of consumption, if we stopped growing our economy today, we are already extracting the equivalent of 1.75 Earth’s worth of resources every year. So, we actually have to shrink our economy – or our population.

Therein lies the challenge of our time. The way our economy is currently designed, when growth slows, people suffer. Rock, meet hard place. There is a small but growing contingent of economists who are exploring ways to solve this problem.

Here’s the good news (I’m talking to you, folks who believe we can innovate out of any bad situation) – we do have a deep-seated belief in our own cleverness and ability to invent solutions to tough problems. So let’s prove it. Instead of spending all of our brain power on the next useless consumer product (do you really need a mattress that comes with an app?), what if we direct real energy toward inventing a stable, sustainable global economy that doesn’t require growth as a pre-condition of success? The zero-growth economy should be our positive Manhattan Project.

While we figure that out, we need to begin to dramatically change our current culture of consumption. So let’s get back to the question I began with: if the problem we have is over-consumption, and the way we convince people to consume is advertising, then shouldn’t we reconsider the role of the ad industry? And yes, I understand what I’m saying and I understand who I’m saying it to. I don’t raise it lightly. But after reflecting on our situation and my own role in it, I feel as though we need to begin to discuss some very hard things, even if (or maybe especially because) it will affect many of us personally.

There is plenty of precedent for curtailing advertising that uses its powers to do harm. And it is clear at this point that our consumption-obsessed culture is doing harm. So a logical step, it seems, would be to begin deconstructing the culture that we have created with advertising. Perhaps an outright ban goes too far. Maybe we just need rules against advertising products that don’t solve real problems (there are many of them) – or products that create bigger problems than they solve (there are lots of those, too).

One way or another, we have to shift culture away from buying happy and toward being happy – with less.

Ty Montague is chairman and chief purpose officer at Co:Collective.

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