There are two ways to reduce the harm to the planetary habitat we depend on for our health, happiness and security. One is to reduce the amount of resources we consume or degrade--air, forests, atmosphere, water, etc--and the other is to make the consumption of those resources less harmful.
In other words:
Resources Used x Environmental Harm = Total Planetary Damage
Strangely enough, I adapt this equation from a paper published by Robert J. MacCoun in the American Psychologist in 1998 about the then new "harm reduction" paradigm for treating drug addicts. The somewhat controversial harm reduction movement in drug treatment arose out of the need to decrease the prevalence of HIV cases, about a third of which were among intravenous drug users in the United States.
Central to the harm reduction paradigm, according to MacCoun, "is the belief that it is possible to modify the behavior of drug users, and the conditions in which they use, in order to reduce many of the most serious risks that drugs pose to public health and safety."
HIV transmission among intravenous drugs users is caused by sharing needles. The idea was, that if you can't get addicts to stop using drugs, then at least you might be able to prevent transmission of the virus by providing new needles, educating them on "safe use," or getting them to take their drugs orally instead of by injection.
So in drug treatment, the equation goes:
Total Drug Use x Average Harm per Use = Total Harm
What intrigues me about this approach is that when you accept that the message of "just say no" simply isn't going to reach all drug users, you can begin to develop methods of reaching those who are intransigent. You can help them try to prevent their own deaths and the spread of disease. It doesn't mean that you don't promote abstinence, but it means you can reduce the harm caused to and by those who will never abstain.
The same message applies to consumption of resources. There is no question that excess consumption both causes damage to the planetary habitat and has the potential to make people less happy. A "reduce consumption" message is good for the planet and good for the people.
But some people aren't ready to hear it. The message of "just say no" to consumption simply isn't going to reach all consumers, or for that matter, producers. On the other hand, we may be able to convince them to take approaches that do less harm.
We may not be able to get some individuals to clean with vinegar and baking soda, for example, but we may get them to switch to Clorox's new brand of household cleaners Green Works (no pun intended). I'd like us to get away from disposable products, but I accept that we may not get Kimberly Clark to stop using trees to make tissue. We may, though, one day, get them to manage forests sustainably.
In other words, in my equation at the top, we may not be able to get them to reduce their resource use, but we may be able reduce the Environmental Harm and, therefore, the Total Planetary Damage.
Some people resist the harm reduction paradigm to consumption. Just as in the drug treatment world, they are worried that a harm reduction approach waters down the message of abstinence.
But the fact is that many drug treatment agencies, particularly in Europe, have found that once they develop a relationship with users through the needle exchange program, they are then able to help the users to move from needles and onto oral use. From there, with a relationship developed, they can help some of them decide to completely abstain, people they never would have reached under the "just say no" model.
Perhaps we can do the same. Perhaps, by introducing consumers and producers to the idea of reduced harm, we will get them to thinking in such a way that will eventually get them to thinking about reduced resource use. Perhaps we will help them to move from recycling to reusing to reducing.
Colin Beavan (that's me!) is now leading a conversation about finding a happy, helpful life at Colinbeavan.com. If you want to know how people are breaking out and and finding authentic, meaningful lives that help our world, check it out the blog here and sign up to join the conversation here.