Earth Day Reflections on Consumption

There is reason to be optimistic about the environmental movement as we celebrate this Earth Day. No longer the province of hippies and other “fringe” members of society, Earth Day has become more mainstream. While there may not be unanimity about global climate change, acceptance is spreading even among the ranks of the Republicans. While federal action has been mixed at best, many local governments such as Salt Lake City have taken bold steps to promote environmental values. “Green” architecture is becoming rather popular. There are more options for consumers to make renewable energy choices. Hybrid vehicles have been enormously popular. The selection of environmentally friendly consumer products continues to grow, from compact fluorescent light bulbs to cleaning supplies, to home building materials and furnishings. Local entrepreneurs have successfully opened environmentally friendly businesses, such as Earth Goods General Store, Underfoot Floors, The Green Building Center, and Green Peas Baby. The “green consumer revolution” is a positive development to see.

As grateful as I am to see the rise of environmentally friendly consumer choices out there, I’m skeptical about relying on new products, new technologies, and new energy sources to solve our environmental problems. Every new development comes with overlooked disadvantages and unforseen consequences. We’ve seen it happen before with hydroelectric power, with nuclear power, and now with much of the biofuels craze (nod to Jeremy). We have to realize that there are no perpetual motion machines, no magic pills to solve our environmental problems. It all comes back to consumption. Monica Hesse, columnist for the Washington Post, recently made some very keen points.

When renowned environmentalist Paul Hawken is asked to comment on the new green consumer, he says, dryly, “The phrase itself is an oxymoron.”

…The good thing is people are waking up to the fact that we have a real [environmental] issue,” says Hawken, who co-founded Smith & Hawken but left in 1992, before the $8,000 lawn became de rigueur. “But many of them are coming to the issue from being consumers. They buy a lot. They drive a lot.”

They subscribe, in other words, to a destiny laid out by economist Victor Lebow, writing in 1955: “Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction…in consumption…We need things consumed, burned up, replaced and discarded at an ever-accelerating rate.”

The culture of obsolescence has become so deeply ingrained that it’s practically reflexive. Holey sweaters get pitched, not mended. Laptops and cellphones get slimmer and shinier and smaller. We trade up every six months, and to make up for that, we buy and buy and hope we’re buying the right other things, though sometimes we’re not sure: When the Hartman Group, a market research firm, asked a group of devout green consumers what the USDA “organic” seal meant when placed on a product, 43 percent did not know. (The seal means that the product is at least 95 percent organic—no pesticides, no synthetic hormones, no sewage sludge, no irradiation, no cloning.)…

…Really going green, Hawken says, “means having less. It does mean less. Everyone is saying, ‘You don’t have to change your lifestyle.’ Well, yes, actually, you do.” (“Greed In the Name Of Green

In her own essay on the subject for Sojourners, Kim Szeto noted

True environmental consciousness will challenge the way we respond to our culture of consumerism and create changes in lifestyles. I do think that you can be an environmentally conscious consumer. However, this will most likely mean being less of a consumer to begin with, and when you do have to put on your consumer hat, be critical and read between the lines of “brand organic” (as well as everyone else’s) advertisements. (“Green Greed“)

No matter how environmentally friendly a given product is, its production will generate some level of waste and pollution. The best way to conserve energy is not to use it in the beginning.

(for an interesting analysis of consumption, view The Story of Stuff )

There are other reasons besides environmentalism to try to reduce consumption. Over the course of the last few years it has been reported many times that average household consumer debt is at all all-time records (adjusted for inflation) as is the average household’s debt-to-savings ratio. This places our families in rather precarious financial positions, often causes a great deal of stress for (and friction between) couples, and distracts us from many of the more important aspects of life.

The U.S. has long been swayed by the siren song of overconsumption, wryly diagnosed as “affluenza.” Despite the fact that our families have almost halved over the past half-century, house size has almost doubled. The number of automobiles in our driveways have multiplied like rabbits, and have burgeoned in size—despite a persistent lack of passengers when on the road. I wouldn’t even hazard a guess at how much larger our television screens have grown, nor how many more we have per household. Then there is the proliferation of other electronics, the clothes, the toys—for adults as much as children.

Do the bigger houses, bigger screens, and more toys make us any happier or more fulfilled?

I don’t propose that we live as beggars or luddites. But I believe we can make more conscious choices about how we live. Can we live just as well in a smaller house? Would life be worse without all the video game consoles and other toys? Can we make do with one less car, or even without a car altogether (Local blogger Green Jen has been documenting her efforts to wean herself from her car)? Can we make do with what we have? Can we find another use for that which we plan to throw away? Have we considered the all-but-forgotten environmentalist maxim: Reduce, reuse, recycle? The answers and methods will legitimately be different for each of us, but I suspect there are few among us who cannot find ways they could significantly reduce consumption.

There has been a quiet movement rejecting conspicuous consumption and encouraging more frugality, providing a number of resources for those interested in exploring a simpler lifestyle. If you are interested, look into these.


Internet Resources

  • New Roadmap Foundation was founded by Dominguez and Robin to provide support and tools for people in their efforts to change their relationship with money and align their living choices with their values.
  • The Simple Living Network provides resources for people in their quest for a more simple life.
  • The Dollar Stretcher is a great online resource for ways to save money, reduce consumption, and be frugal.
  • Freecycle is an online community dedicated to reducing waste through re-use.

The local Utah Society for Environmental Educators sponsors and mentors discussion groups for people interested in starting programs in voluntary simplicity and sustainable living.

It is difficult to make frugal choices in a world which revels so much in reflexive materialism. The consumption is so much a part of our culture that our President’s answer to terrorism and to economic difficulties is the same: go forth to the mall and buy! Vice President Cheney claims that our lifestyle is non-negotiable. I disagree; persistent untreated affluenza will lead to ruin. Like any addiction, kicking the consumption habit is challenging—having been raised in a very consumptive family, I truly understand! But through the effort we can find greater peace of mind, more financial security, more time for the things we really value, a greater joy in our relationships and experiences, and a healthier planet to boot.


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10 Responses to “Earth Day Reflections on Consumption”

  1. Obi wan liberali Says:

    Very nice post. I really appreciated the books and links. Looks like useful information and I’m always looking for another good book.

    Best regards.

  2. D. Sirmize Says:

    Derek, I agree with your take on these things. Consumption is the root of the problem and new technology cannot be a panacea if we can’t kick the habit of overconsumption. No amount of treating only the symptoms of a disease will stop that disease from killing.

    It is nice to see the greater environmental movement progress in unexpected circles. Some of the things you mention in your opening paragraph are examples of market-driven awareness, which I believe is an essential- though often discounted and derided- factor in the success of environmental movement. Companies are going green because it’s marketable. So while their intentions may not be as genuine, their customers are demanding “greener” solutions and that demand provides the incentive for action.

  3. alliegator Says:

    “‘You don’t have to change your lifestyle.’ Well, yes, actually, you do.”

    I love that!

    There’s an article in the NY Times by Michael Pollan that you might enjoy (if you haven’t already read it…)

    Why Bother?

  4. Rudy Says:

    As someone who sells light bulbs for a living, I am less enthusiastic than most about compact fluorescent bulbs. This is due to the fact that the ones currently available contain significant amounts of mercury. If one of these bulbs should break inside of a person’s home, it could cause a challenging disposal situation. It is my belief that the technology should progress to a point at which the mercury levels are low or nonexistent before people changeover their entire homes. Another consideration is that as these bulbs burn out, they will most likely be thrown away as though they are normal rubbish and landfills will have incredibly high levels of mercury in their soil as a result.

  5. Aaron Orgill Says:

    Agree again. That’s two in a row. Has to be a record. And this is another case where you could accurately call yourself a true conservative.

  6. D. Sirmize Says:

    Rudy, thanks for your take.

    I have yet to hear a convincing argument that compact fluorescent bulbs, on the whole, are better. Their use may save energy, but health and environmental risks strike me as too great to make the change.

    What about all the people who’ve had it pounded into their head that they need to use these bulbs don’t know their broken bulb could kill them?

    Any thoughts on this, Derek?

  7. Derek Staffanson Says:

    Rudy is right that CFLs are not perfect. Nor are they appropriate for every situation; in locations where the lights are frequently turned on and off, their energy savings and lifespan is severely compromised. Nevertheless, there are plenty of situations for which they are far better than normal incandescent, and are a valuable tool in the green toolbox. Their disadvantages just go to show the point which I did already make; there is magic pill which will solve all our pollution/energy problems.

  8. Kristina Richardson Says:

    Most CFLs today on the market contain less than 5mgs of mercury and there are CFL options out there that contain as little as 1.5mgs of mercury- which can hardly be called a “significant amounts of mercury” considering that many item in your home contain 100s of times more of mercury including your computer. Mercury levels in CFLs can never be “nonexistent” since mercury is a necessary component of a CFL and there is no other known element that is capable of replacing it. But CFLs actually prevent more mercury from entering the environment. According to the Union of Concerned Scientist, “a coal-fired power plant will emit about four times more mercury to keep an incandescent bulb glowing, compared with a CFL of the same light output”.

  9. D. Sirmize Says:

    Sure, but no matter how you slice it, if you happen to drop and break one in your home, you still have to call a hazmat team if you want it cleaned up right.

  10. Kristina Richardson Says:

    Calling a hazmat team is way overkill. Just visit and follow their cleanup instructions.

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