HAVING MORE BY CONSUMING LESS
PCDForum Column #37, Release Date July 20, 1992
by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin
The Earth Summit is over. The question remains. What has it accomplished? If nothing else, it has given us each a media course in the environment. Even if we didn't read the lengthy reports, analyses and updates, the cartoons themselves said volumes. Who can forget the image of George Bush dressed in basketball togs, walking off the court carrying the planet under his arm? Or the one where Uncle Sam sits opposite the leaders of the Third World saying, "Its a deal...you continue to overpopulate the planet while we squander its natural resources."
Fidel Castro, with the moral authority often vested in underdogs, told the Summit, "Consumer societies are fundamentally responsible for environmental destruction. The ecological debt should be paid, not the foreign debt." While the first inclination of those of us from the North may be to defend ourselves by pointing out the heinous enviro-crimes of Eastern Europe or the uncontrolled population growth of the Third World, deep down we know that we are indeed, over-consumers, and that our profligacy is destroying the earth.
We also know we aren't likely to change politely and voluntarily. We equate giving up our over-consumption with deprivation, of having less of what we need or want.
What if we have it all wrong? What if we were to find that by consuming less we are actually gaining more of what is really important to us? What if we were to discover that living more simply can be liberating?
Consider the time consumerism costs us. Every time we buy something we have given up a piece of our lives to earn the money to buy it. The more we consume, the more money we need, and the more the pursuit of money consumes our life energy. It is literally a choice between having a new car and spending more time with our families, reading a good book, or participating in the life of the community.
The average American worker spends nine hours a week just commuting to and from work. What if we were to take jobs closer to home, even if they paid less, and that time were devoted to family and community relationships? What might happen to America's divorce and crime rates? What does that commute buy and do we get comparable satisfaction from it?
Consumerism also costs us time to shop for goods and services, return defective merchandise, deal with poor workmanship and make sure the bill is correct. Over-consumption is for many of us a personal treadmill.
Much of modern society is built around the dynamics of over-consumption. Many of us obtain the money to support our own consumption by producing things for other people to consume. Most of this production requires turning some aspect of the earth's ecology into consumption goods. This is most obvious in such occupations as chemical farming, logging, mining, manufacturing, and developing tract housing and shopping malls. Much of this production is directed to producing things for people who don't really need them. Consequently, others of us earn our money in jobs such as advertising, sales, and television directed to convincing people that consuming more of what they don't need is the way to greater happiness. The third major form of employment deals with the results of the previous two forms. In this category we include psychiatrists, hernia specialists, divorce lawyers, day-care operators, police officers, garbage collectors, and landfill operators. Over-consumption becomes society's own treadmill.
Place this in a planetary perspective. What if the wood for your new dining set came from the three lovely maple trees in your front yard (don't mind if we cut them down, do you?), or the bauxite for your aluminum foil were mined from under your house (don't mind if we tear it down, do you?)? Or, what if, when the time came to throw away those broken toasters and outmoded clothes, "away" were your backyard? Sound far fetched? It isn't. Such things, and worse, are happening every day to millions of people all over the world, mainly to those too poor to protest and for our benefit, not theirs. "The price of progress," they are told. It is actually the direct human cost of the ecological profligacy of the rest of us.
The next time you find yourself reaching for your credit card or wallet ask yourself, "Will I really get personal fulfillment equal to the family stress, lost friendships, and foregone leisure it cost me to buy this? Will consuming this produce make the world a better, safer, healthier place to live?
If we spend less time shopping and more time with one another, we'll be getting back time and life and perhaps having the time of our lives as well. We might, as well, just end up with a world in which we actually enjoy living.
Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez are co-founders of the New Road Map Foundation, P.O. Box 15981, Seattle, WA 98115, U.S.A. and co-authors of Your Money or Your Life (Viking, September 1992). Vicki is also a contributing editor of the PCDForum, which produced and distributed this column based on materials provided by the authors.