Dare to consume less

December 04, 2006|By Edward Flattau

There is something unseemly about our nation's obsessive preoccupation with holiday shopping when our troops are dying and being maimed in Iraq. Should our indulgence be tempered by thoughts of the thousands of Iraqis who have also perished in the conflict as well as the billions of people around the globe lacking adequate drinking water and sanitation?

Do we need to take stock when the valuable natural resources used in many of the products we buy are being drained from the earth at an unsustainable rate and are not being recycled? After all, the United States and other developed countries constitute only 20 percent of the world's population, yet they consume more than 80 percent of its natural resources.

If this doesn't stir our collective conscience as we engage in frenzied material acquisition, what of our country proportionately lagging way behind many other developed nations in allocating a percentage of gross national product for foreign aid to less fortunate states?

Our society is so wedded to holiday excess that breaking out of the mold can sometimes seem impossible, even on an individual basis. For example, like many others, I am bombarded by unwanted glossy catalogs and other assorted advertisements as Christmas approaches. I wrote to an alleged junk mail registry that supposedly would stop delivery of this waste of paper, but my request has had no effect.

True, our all-too-often gluttonous behavior is important to the country's prosperity. Consumer purchases (especially at the high end) account for approximately two-thirds of the United States' $12 trillion economy. Shoppers spend an estimated $457 billion between Thanksgiving and the New Year, providing retailers with an estimated 40 percent of their annual sales and half of their annual profits. These shopping sprees also obviously create jobs in the manufacturing sector.

Nonetheless, in a recent Harris Interactive poll of shoppers, nearly three-quarters acknowledged they bought items they did not need when the sales discount was too attractive to resist. More to the point, succumbing to greed does not appear to lead to happiness. Recent research suggests that shopping binges place consumers on a materialistic treadmill that they have difficulty getting off. The study found that the more goods the consumers acquire, the more they think they need to have, a vicious (and costly) cycle grounded in avarice.

But how do we wean ourselves off the conspicuous consumption roller-coaster so integral to our economy? Promoters of change insist they are not advocating the end of shopping. Rather, they are urging a shift to "responsible consumption." That translates into restructuring our economy to make it more harmonious with the earth's life-support system and more responsive to the needs of all humanity, not just our own pleasures.

Specifically, we are talking about consuming less, recycling more and reducing pollution to a level that doesn't overload the environment. Other strategies include favoring locally produced items, gravitating to energy efficient goods and services, and shifting personal expenditures whenever possible to largely non-materialistic activities such as educational enhancement and patronage of the arts.

Stepped-up pollution control and development of renewable fuels will create new manufacturing industries and a multitude of jobs. So will new technologies, many of which will be communications-related.

Making this transition won't happen overnight, but as it progresses, it will seamlessly lead to a more equitable distribution of the planet's wealth throughout the world without our sacrificing creature comforts. (We might look to the Europeans, who enjoy a lifestyle similar to ours while expending half as much energy per capita.)

The benefits of altering our culture of waste would invariably include the ripple effect of easing international tensions and overseas poverty that have been major catalysts for civil unrest and the expansion of terrorism.

Back home, a shift away from the "Shop 'til you drop" mind-set might even make us eventually feel better about ourselves.

Edward Flattau is an environmental columnist based in Washington. His e-mail is edflattau@msn.com.

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