We live in a consumer oriented society. Everyday we are bombarded by messages on TV, radio, billboards, and the internet to continuously buy and purchase more things. Keeping up with the Jones is part of our modern culture. But is there an environmental consequence to our continual purchase and use of resources? Absolutely. The insatiable drive to develop raw materials to maintain our lifestyle is one of the biggest contributors to the degradation of the environment in the United States and globally.
Take a look at the major environmental issues facing Americans: global warming, clean air, clean water, pollution, and deforestation. All of these issues are negatively affected by our consumption patterns. The burning of fossil fuels for gasoline for our vehicles and coal for electricity is contributing to global climate change. Mining and solid waste problems contribute to the pollution of our waterways and our oceans. Breathing clean air is impaired by pollution created by cars and power plants. Forests are cut to supply wood for building materials, but often in an unsustainable manner.
Not only is this a local and national issue, but a truly global issue as resources know no boundaries. Most of the things we Americans buy and consume are made in foreign countries, and often the raw materials are also produced internationally. But as Americans, we consume more than anybody else on Earth. According to a United Nations Develoment Programme report from back in 1998, “Today’s consumption is undermining the environmental resource base. It is exacerbating inequalities. And the dynamics of the consumption-poverty-inequality-environment nexus are accelerating. If the trends continue without change — not redistributing from high-income to low-income consumers, not shifting from polluting to cleaner goods and production technologies, not promoting goods that empower poor producers, not shifting priority from consumption for conspicuous display to meeting basic needs — today’s problems of consumption and human development will worsen.”
In other words, our consumption patterns are not only contributing to massive problems of pollution and environmental degradation, but are contributing to increased global poverty. Americans contribute an unequal share of world consumption. So what can be done about this? Well, to start, how about trying to live on less? Instead of orienting our lives on the accumulation of more and more things, which relies on an ever increase of money being made to buy these things, we could shift to a more sustainable way of living.
How is this possible? Start simply. Buy only things that you need. What is needed versus wanted is a debatable, subjective perspective. Is it something that is used frequently? Secondly, reuse things. You can buy things that have already been used such as clothing or vehicles. Or, before you throw something away, can it be reused?
Drive less. Our use of oil and gasoline contributes to much of the world’s pollution, not to mention that it supports hostile regimes in different parts of the globe. Is there alternative transportation options where you live? Change your value system. This can be done slowly. Do I value new, expensive things? Or do I value things that don’t contribute to environmental destruction? Do I overvalue money or do I want to accumulate as many things as possible? If so you are contributing to the problem of excessive resource use.
Recycling is a simple way to provide reusable materials, thus cutting down on the need to mine and harvest virgin materials for product use. It’s also amazing that if you look at your budget, you can actually discover many ways of reducing expenses on things that aren’t really necessary. Simplifying your life will actually make you happier, and give you more time to do things that you enjoy. More free time allows for more experiences which bring happiness. Ryan Howell, an assistant professor of psychology at San Francisco State University, found that buying experiences — such as vacations, going to the theater or renting a sailboat — gave people more happiness than buying material things (L.A. Times, February 16, 2009). So now we can do more, with less.
For further information: Global Issues, http://www.globalissues.org/issue/235/consumption-and-consumerism
Human Development Report 1998 Overview, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)
“Happiness is Experience, Not Stuff” http://www.livescience.com/6158-study-happiness-experiences-stuff.html