Need for the simple life

August 31, 1994|By Wade Greene

Siasconset, Mass. -- AMERICANS invented mass marketing and we tend to equate the robustness of our invention with national virtue.

Yet we have been deeply ambivalent about the pursuit of goods and services.

Our prophets have long railed against unabashed consumerism.

Philosophical ambivalence is now being joined by ecological misgivings over the processes and products of consumption that pollute. The idea of over consumption is the result and the idea is being taken up by major institutions.

An immediate spur to action is the International Conference on Population and Development, to be held in Cairo from Sept. 5 to 13.

Consumption by the world's wealthier countries is expected to be a major focus.

Consumption is linked to population by a bit of elementary algebra: population times consumption per capita equals environmental impact.

An unwritten compact is in place for Cairo.

The rich countries can talk about overpopulation as long as the poor countries can dwell on over consumption.

Organized religion is taking the algebra to heart and to its faithful.

As part of a campaign overseen by a New York-based ecumenical group, the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, kits are going out to 53,000 congregations and synagogues.

Lengthy references to consumption are part of the preachments. "Consumption in developed nations remains the single greatest source of global environmental destruction," says the Roman Catholic version, which is particularly strong on the subject.

The Vatican, which is at odds with many Cairo participants over abortion and homosexuality, has supported the conference's inclusion of over consumption as an alternative focus to the theologically disagreeable idea of overpopulation.

The interfaith campaign is being underwritten by a number of foundations and the foundation world is tackling consumption on secular fronts as well.

The Environmental Grantmakers Association had consumption as the focus of its last annual meeting.

Two of the country's largest foundations have incorporated the issue into their programs.

The Pew Charitable Trusts recently added "unsustainable consumption of resources" to its "global stewardship initiative."

In a rare move for any grant-making foundation, Pew financed and put its name on a series of newspaper advertisements on population and consumption.

The MacArthur Foundation added consumption to its population program in July.

Meanwhile, a movement of uncertain dimensions but unquestionable zeal is challenging consumption at the grass roots. Under the banner "America puts its house in order . . . household by household," 100 local support groups called eco-teams are methodically helping members reduce the amount and kind of material that flows into and out of homes.

Another, less formally organized array of consumption-downsizers nods to environmental factors but is marching mainly to a different drum -- a blend of '60s sensitivities and '90s economic wariness.

Its main message is that we live much more extravagantly than we need to and that we devote too much time to earning the living needed to sustain this kind of consumption.

Its principal prophet is Vicki Robin, co-author of "Your Money or Your Life," which has already sold a quarter-million copies.

Is there a realistic likelihood that a society steeped in advertising can alter, let alone reverse, its consuming ways?

After all, we're talking about what some, perhaps most, Americans still equate with happiness, if not virtue.

Speaking before the annual meeting of the League of Conservation Voters, Celinda Lake, a pollster, summarized results of recent focus groups and polls.

People were asked, "Don't you think Americans over consume?," she said, and went on: "Seventy-seven percent of Americans said, 'Yeah, I think Americans over consume.' 'Do you think we should change that?' 'No, it's one of the great things about being American.' "

Nonetheless, several advocates of changing consumption patterns point out that rapid shifts in attitudes toward smoking, gun control and physical fitness are evidence of the possibility of a broad shift in public behavior.

Expanding codes of environmental correctness may overcome conspicuous consumption, the formidable obstacle that Thorstein Veblen diagnosed.

As Amory Lovins, apostle of reducing the consumption of basic commodities like energy and water by using them more efficiently, observes, "Many green people today would say that consuming stuff to show that you can afford to is not only vulgar but immoral."

Ultimately, if changed patterns on a long-term, society-wide basis come about, they may have more to do with economic determinism than personal or political reform. We probably cannot continue consuming at the current rate without economically undermining the very basis for sustaining, let alone increasing, our consumption levels.

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