For years we have been taught to measure the quality of our lives according to how much we can consume – bigger house, grander cars, more food, till we are so fat we can barely walk – drugs, till we cannot think straight — alcohol, gold, diamonds, travel – these are the status symbols that our society adores — rather than love, wisdom, loyalty or honesty.
The average American consumes more than his or her weight in products each day, according to a new report (State of the World 2010: Transforming Cultures: From Consumerism to Sustainability) published by the Worldwatch Institute in Washington DC.
The importance of the new study is in its argument that we as individuals should not blame ourselves for these excesses as we lounge over our (imported) coffee on some hotel patio. Business and government are the cause of the societal greed, and we need them to provide the solution.
“Today, the average European uses 43 kilograms of resources daily, and the average American uses 88 kilograms,” says the report.
“All in all, the world extracts the equivalent of 112 Empire State Buildings from the earth every single day says the report which concludes that the global cult of excess consumption and greed could wipe out any gains from government action on climate change or a shift to a clean energy economy.”
It doesn’t say so directly, but the study makes clear that the American Dream is diametrically opposed to sustainability and the current state sanctioned/multilateral efforts to regulate global warming. Perhaps the most serious threat in almost a century, the Credit Crunch, may prove a blessing after all. “As the world struggles to recover from the most serious global economic crisis since the Great Depression,‘ says the report,” we have an unprecedented opportunity to turn away from consumerism.”
But will we?
This blog has reported previously on the growing recognition that the consumer era is over. We marveled at statements by Martin Sorrell the boss of WPP, the world’s second biggest ad agency that it is time for the advertising industry to “make fashion unfashionable,” But little has happened to prove that the ad industry is turning talk into action. How could it? Advertising’s paymasters just could not allow it.
“By the early 1900s,” says the Worldwatch study, “a consumerist orientation had become increasingly embedded in many of the dominant societal institutions of many cultures—from businesses and governments to the media and education. And in the latter half of the century, new innovations like television, sophisticated advertising techniques, transnational corporations, franchises, and the Internet helped institutions to spread consumerism across the planet. Arguably, the strongest driver of this cultural shift has been business interests. On a diverse set of fronts, businesses found ways to coax more consumption out of people. Credit was liberalized, for instance, with installment payments, and the credit card was promoted heavily in the United States, which led to an almost 11-fold increase in consumer credit between 1945 and 1960.”
Are we then supposed to turn our backs on the system which has brought so much to so many?
Perhaps more realistically, neo-liberal pundit Thomas Friedman says we can harness our greed to create a move towards greener living. This is not from the report but from the Grist web site.
The world’s population is burning through the planet’s resources at a reckless rate, the US think-tank said. In the last decade, consumption of goods and services rose 28% to $30.5tn (£18.8tn) in 2008 dollars.
The consumer culture is no longer a mostly American habit but is spreading across the planet. Over the last 50 years, excess has been adopted as a symbol of success in developing countries from Brazil to India to China, the report said. China this week overtook the US as the world’s top car market. It is already the biggest producer of greenhouse gas emissions.
Such trends were not a natural consequence of economic growth, the report said, but the result of deliberate efforts by businesses to win over consumers. Products such as the hamburger – dismissed as an unwholesome food for the poor at the beginning of the 20th century – and bottled water are now commonplace.
The report makes much of the fact that the average western family spends more on their pet than is spent by a human in Bangladesh. But it offers no route out of this consumer society, and, come to think of it, its as pretty cheap shot in any case, since pets are one of the few innocent repositories of affection and uncompetitive values left inside the American household.
Erik Assadourian, the Worldwatch project director who led a team of 35 (why so many?) behind the report, said: “Until we recognise that our environmental problems, from climate change to deforestation to species loss, are driven by (our)unsustainable habits, we will not be able to solve the ecological crises that threaten to wash over civilisation.”
The report did note encouraging signs of a shift away from the high spend culture. It said school meals programmes marked greater efforts to encourage healthier eating habits among children. The younger generation was also more aware of their impact on the environment.
“We’ve seen some encouraging efforts to combat the world’s climate crisis in the past few years,” said Assadourian. “But making policy and technology changes while keeping cultures centred on consumerism and growth can only go so far.
“If we don’t shift our very culture there will be new crises we have to face. Ultimately, consumerism is not going to be viable as the world population grows by 2bn and as more countries grow in economic power.”
To be truly challenging, a voyage, like a life, must rest on a firm foundation of financial unrest. Otherwise, you are doomed to a routine traverse.
“I’ve always wanted to sail to the South Seas, but I can’t afford it.” What these men can’t afford is not to go. They are enmeshed in the cancerous discipline of “security.” And in the worship of security we fling our lives beneath the wheels of routine – and before we know it our lives are gone.
What does a man need – really need? A few pounds of food each day, heat and shelter, six feet to lie down in – and some form of working activity that will yield a sense of accomplishment. That’s all – in the material sense, and we know it. But we are brainwashed by our economic system until we end up in a tomb beneath a pyramid of time payments, mortgages, preposterous gadgetry, playthings that divert our attention for the sheer idiocy of the charade.
The years thunder by. The dreams of youth grow dim where they lie caked in dust on the shelves of patience. Before we know it, the tomb is sealed.
Where, then, lies the answer? In choice. Which shall it be: bankruptcy of purse or bankruptcy of life?
found on the web
TREADING ON OUR DREAMS
Though man has walked upon the moon
(And probably on Mars quite soon)
About this world he has no care
He poisons land and sea and air.
Where once the awesome forest stood
We see bare land which grows no food
How many people, do you think
Have water which is safe to drink ?
The earth is plundered for its store;
Insatiable, we cry for more.
Yet landfill mountains grow apace
We’re swiftly running out of space
While monstrous concrete marches on
How many more green field have gone ?
Yet in our cities there is still
Space for more dwellings – given the will
Polluted air which threatens life,
Asthma and breathing problems rife.
Where once we walked we have a car;
We ride, although it’s not too far.
The adverts in our living room
Still motivate us to consume.
“I’m tired of yellow, I want blue”
Discard the old, bring in the new.
The earth IS bountiful, it’s true.
But now it’s up to me and you
To think of children yet to wake
And ‘tread more lightly’ for their sake.
@ anti-copyright: Veronica-Mae Soar Jan 2000
(Under â€œCreative Commonsâ€ you may copy this anywhere it might be useful, provided I get a credit, it is copied accurately and that it is copied for free.
A copy of where it appeared would be appreciated)
Business and Government have their own agenda. To expect them to resolve a “problem”, they likely don’t see as a problem, will produce no results.