Time to Take a Fresh Look At Consumption

Isn’t it interesting how hard times help us bring into focus that which is really important?  I believe that this is true in our day-to-day lives as well as in the mindset of a nation.  True crises sharpen our vision and help us cut through the minutia that often takes precedence in our day to day lives.  Or does it?


For so long,  rampant consumption, the behavior that typifies the American way of life, has been the rule.  The mantras of “the bigger the better” and “he who dies with the most shit wins” capture the mindset that drives this behavior.   This is particularly true this time of year.  Somehow, many of us turn the Holidays into a competitive event spurred on by Martha Stewart and Madison Avenue – with massive divestitures of capital, time, sleep, energy, and ultimately health.


As Americans we make up 5% of the world’s population, yet we consume 25% of the world’s resources.  Our economy is perilously balanced on this mentality of consumption.  No longer can we afford this – economically or environmentally.  China and India, whose populations greatly exceed that of the US, have expanding economies, and when their citizens’ develop consumptive appetites like our own, we are in serious trouble.


Sustainability, both personally and environmentally,  demands that we cut back – we have to shed those deeply entrenched materialistic ways of old.  This is not easy given that we have been programmed to value things over people, to seek happiness through acquisition, and to enhance our status through the clothes we wear and the cars we drive.


Perhaps this sustained economic crisis will help us all refocus on what is really important.  I believe that ultimately we will be better off if we share the view that enough is riches.  Having enough food, shelter, water, and clothing stands one in good position relative to the vast majority of people in the world.  Conspicuous consumption to keep up with the Joneses is really a zero sums game.  But such a minimalist mentality wont drive our current economic scenario out of the doldrums.  This is the rub.


How do we move forward as a people and a nation in a sustainable manner?  Our economic needs and our planet’s needs are at odds.  The solution, I am certain, is complex – yet the need has never been more clear.  I believe that we can make choices to cut back in strategic ways and at the same time take steps to engage in sustainable practices.


For example, we can take real steps to reduce our consumption of, and dependence on, hydrocarbons.  And we can buy our food in ways that reduce the impact and power of large unsustainable factory farms.  We also can spend our money in stores that provide a living wage and health care for their workers.


How do we do this?


First, get away from the mindset that consumption and material items will raise your status.  Then consider driving less and walking or biking more.  Look into renewable energy sources like solar or wind generation systems.  Turn off the lights, computer, and TV when they are not in use.  Turn down the heat or A/C and dress to compensate.  Buy based on need not want.  Buy your produce from a local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm and grow your own vegetables (learn how to can or freeze fresh produce from these sources).  Buy your meat from local farmers who graze their livestock in pastures where they consume what they have evolved to eat.  Learn that convenience comes at a cost – and that those costs, in many ways, are hidden and delayed.


Cost is the second rub.  All the things that I have suggested (with the exception of the conservation efforts) cost more.  And they all demand more effort.  It costs more to shop at Krogers, Wegmans, or Tops than at Walmart.  It costs more to buy your food at a CSA farm stand or from a local sustainable farming practitioner.   It takes time and effort to grow your own food.  And although the tax benefits and governmental subsidies for wind and solar power are huge, one still has to lay out some money to install such a system.


Regardless, if we are more careful and mindful about how we spend our money, I believe we can take strides to reduce the fiscal impact of sustainable buying.  At the same time we can grow the economy, by rewarding sustainable and responsible practices over unsustainable and unethical practices.


For my family the motivation to take these steps has come from gaining increased insight into the hidden costs of practice as usual.  The ethical, economic, social, and environmental implications of business practices like those of Walmart and huge food conglomerates like Tyson Foods, Perdue Farms, ADM, AgriBank, Cargill, JBS, etc. are not well known or even all that accessible.  If you desire more knowledge or inspiration perhaps a good place to start is with the movie Fresh.  See the trailer below.



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