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Most of the people I speak to today know that humanity is doing terrible damage to our planet's life support systems, which provide us with clean air and water, soil, and biodiversity.
But at the same time they feel so insignificant among 6.2 billion people that anything they can do to lighten our impact on nature seems trivial.
I am often asked: what can I do?
Well, how about we look at our consumer habits?
Not long ago, frugality and simplicity were considered virtues. But now two-thirds of our economy is based on consumption. This has not been arrived at by chance.
The stock market crashed in 1929, triggering the Great Depression that plunged the world into dire hardships.
The Second World War was the catalyst for economic recovery. America's huge resource base, its productivity, energy, and technology were put at the service of the war, and soon its economy was on wheels. With victory imminent, the president's council of economic advisers was forced to find a way to transform an economy of war, for peace.
Shortly after the end of the war, the market analyst Victor Lebow expressed a possible solution: "Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert buying and using goods into authentic rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, ego satisfaction, in consuming… we need things to be consumed, burned, replaced, and thrown away, all at a faster and faster rate. "
President Eisenhower's council of economic advisers stated: "The ultimate purpose of the American economy must be to produce more consumer goods." Not better healthcare, education, housing, transportation, leisure, or less poverty and hunger, but supplying more and more things to consumers.
When things are designed to be well made and durable, there comes a time when markets become saturated. To achieve an endless market, rapid obsolescence is introduced (think of cars, clothes, computers…) And with disposables, when an item is used once and thrown away, the market will never reach saturation.
But consumer products aren't created out of thin air. They come from the material of the Earth, and when they are no longer useful they will be returned to her as garbage and toxic waste. Energy is also required to extract raw materials, process, manufacture and transport these products; while air, water and soil are contaminated at many points in the life cycle of a product. In other words, what we consume has direct effects on nature.
And there are also social and spiritual costs. Allen Kanner and Mary Gomes write in "The All-Consuming Self": "Buying a new product, especially an expensive one like a car or computer, typically produces an immediate burst of pleasure and fulfillment, and generally provides status and buyer appreciation. But as the sense of novelty fades, the emptiness threatens to return again. The usual solution for consumers is to focus their illusion on the next promising purchase. "
In the end, it is something that goes beyond pleasure or status: buying things becomes an impossible demand to satisfy. Paul Wachtel writes in "The Poverty of Wealth": "Having more and newer things each year has become not something we want, but something we need. The idea of greater and ever-increasing abundance has become the center of our identity and security, and we are trapped as the addict is by his drug.
Almost everything we buy is not essential to our survival, not even basic human comforts, but is based on impulse, novelty, a momentary desire. And there is a hidden price that we, nature and future generations will have to pay for it all.
When consumption becomes the very reason for the existence of economies, we never ask ourselves "How much is enough?", "Why do we need all these things?", Or "Are we a little happier?"
Our personal decisions as consumers have ecological, social and spiritual repercussions. It's time to re-examine some of the deeper ideas that lie behind our lifestyles.