"The diligent farmer plants trees, of which he himself will never see the fruit." — Cicero
You go into a community and they will vote 80 percent to 20 percent in favor of a tougher Clean Air Act, but if you ask them to devote 20 minutes a year to having their car emissions inspected, they will vote 80 to 20 against it. We are a long way in this country from taking individual responsibility for the environmental problem. –William D. Ruckelshaus, former EPA administrator, New York Times, 30 November 1988
The activist is not the man who says the river is dirty. The activist is the man who cleans up the river. -Ross Perot
Materialism is widespread in our culture. It is perhaps the most important social force in our society. It drives our economy, fuels our desires, and preoccupies our minds. Americans are addicted to shopping and self-indulgence. We continue to spend even when we don’t have any money, which is part of the reason why our country is now in the throes of an economic crisis (another reason is that we are bumping up against the physical limits to growth where our demand (ecological footprint) exceeds the supply (biocapacity)). That we continue to purchase products that we don’t need and can’t afford, when we buy them when we know we shouldn’t, when the anxiety caused by accumulating financial debt does not prevent us from purchasing more, then we have an addiction, a disease of the mind. The symptoms are an uncontrolled compulsion to shop and purchase items and the habit of “going shopping” whenever we have free time even when we don’t need anything. There is also a buildup of tolerance to the pleasure of shopping but decreasing satisfaction with continuing purchases, so we must buy more to get the same “high”, a sure sign of addiction. The following sections contain prescriptions to the disease of consumerism. Many of these prescriptions are common sense, and they don’t require the knowledge of a scientist to explain or elaborate. However, I am reminded of the numerous books and magazines sold daily that tell the reader how to lose weight. The answer is obvious (stop eating!), but sometimes we need encouragement. Also, I would argue that here we are dealing with a much larger problem than obesity, and unlike obesity there is more than one way to reduce the problem.
We have to shift our emphasis from economic efficiency and materialism towards a sustainable quality of life and to healing of our society, of our people and our ecological systems. -Janet Holmes à Court
We’ve reviewed a lot of evidence that consumption has the biggest impact on the environment. I hope it has convinced you to change your lifestyle. But how? What changes will have the greatest effect? To reduce consumption requires changing the way you think and how you spend your time, which is not easy. So be patient, and take small steps. Don’t get frustrated. It will probably take a few years of effort before you become satisfied. Start small, or start with the “low-hanging fruit”, the easy changes that have a big impact.
First, you must divorce yourself from materialism. Look around your home. How much do you own? How much of it do you really need? When looking at past and potential purchases, ask yourself if you would be less happy if you didn’t own it. If you are still tempted to make an unwise purchase, remind yourself that it is unsustainable, and picture what it will look like in a landfill a few years in the future. Remind yourself that the peace of mind you gain from keeping that money in the bank, or avoiding another credit card purchase you can’t afford, is worth more than the item. Pat yourself on the back for not letting advertisers manipulate your behavior. If you stop and think this way before making any purchase, you will avoid the trap of impulse buying that comes naturally in a materialistic world.
When trying to reduce consumption, one of the easiest guidelines to remember is to avoid disposable products. I’ve followed this guideline for most of my life, because it always seemed so obvious to me: products are designed to be disposable so that we will spend much more money continuously replacing them. Disposable products may seem more convenient, but often they are marginally so, and using them generates huge amounts of waste. Water bottles have become a symbol of our wasteful society, and rightly so. It’s so easy to avoid using disposable water bottles: buy a BPA-free water bottle, carry it with you wherever you go, refill it for free, and wash it every day. You can save yourself lots of money by doing this.
It’s useful to keep in mind that corporations always try to sell as much product as possible. They do this by convincing you through advertising that you need something that you don’t really need. There are endless examples of ways that advertisers try to get consumers to consume more, e.g., Taco Bell serves a "4th meal", and movie theaters have increased the size of their drinks to the point that they no longer fit in the drinkholders, both obvious examples of why America has an obesity epidemic – we are victims of advertising. Some advertisers suggest that you can’t be happy without their product; for example, Best Buys motto is: "You. Happy."
Another way that corporations get you to buy more is through the use of planned and perceived obsolescence. Everyone born before the 1970’s has the perception that the quality of products has declined, and that products are now designed to be disposable. I remember that my grandfather spent a lot of his time fixing things, and as a result, he seldom had to purchase replacements. In fact, I still have some of my grandfather’s tools, which are now between 50 and 100 years old. How many of today’s products last that long? Few do because most products now are designed with planned obsolescence in mind. Again, the goal of the manufacturer is to get you to buy as much of their product as possible, so they design the product to fail after a planned amount of time, usually just after the warranty lapses. In fact, most consumers now accept that they will have to buy a replacement shortly after the warranty expires, but it wasn’t like that in the past. My parents and grandparents each owned only one vacuum in their lifetimes, but today people frequently replace their vacuums after only one or two years of service. The vacuums are made so cheaply that they are not even worth repairing. Do you remember TV and appliance repair shops? You almost never see them now, because it usually is more expensive to repair a product than to replace it. Now the old product goes into the landfill as waste, and we waste more time shopping for and more money purchasing replacements.
Corporations and advertisers also rely on perceived obsolescence when they try to convince you to replace a product that still works perfectly well. By emphasizing a fancy feature in each new version of a product, usually a feature that you are unlikely to use and definitely don’t need, they convince you to buy replacements on a regular basis. This strategy has always worked well for car sales, but it works even better for new electronic devices that perform better tricks every year. I know people who buy annual upgrades of products such as the IPod nano or the IPhone because Apple is so remarkably good at marketing. I personally am a technophile, so I enjoy playing with gadgets and figuring out how to use all of their features (I even read the manuals!), but I still use less than half of the features bundled in most of my electronic gadgets. Yes, I am tempted to buy the newest versions of these products, but I know I don’t need them. From my experience, the constant upgrading is time-consuming and expensive, and I have more enjoyable and less expensive things to do. To convince myself not to buy them, I find the best strategy is to remind myself how much time it will take to figure out how to use them and to configure them properly. I now strive to simplify my life and eliminate clutter, a topic to which we will return.
Sometimes it’s not easy identifying the cheaply made junk. A good source of information on product reliability is the magazine Consumer Reports. Over time, you will learn which brands and countries sell junk, and which make reliable products. My grandfather used to say decades ago that anything marked “made in China” was junk, and that may be even truer today (and we now know that they frequently make their products using materials that are bad for our health).
Besides avoiding purchases of disposable products and junk that is designed to break, and repairing rather than replacing, you should try to purchase products that are made from renewable resources and that are made locally (to reduce carbon emissions from transportation and to help your local economy). Always keep in mind that your goal is to reduce your footprint. Does your footprint look like that of an elephant, or of a mouse? Stop living so large!