by Ron McLinden |
Lets face it: We cant consume our way to sustainability. By making significant life choices we can finally become responsible for future generations. It may not be the American Way of Life, but it is the responsible way of life.
First, a warning: This essay contains ideas that could be interpreted as threats to the American Way of Life. It also gently appeals to your sense of responsibility to future generations. Read with caution!
Youve heard about sustainability. By one commonly accepted definition, it means meeting our needs today in such a way that we dont compromise the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
No doubt youve seen pitches for products that are sustainable. Unfortunately, some such products are simply less un-sustainable than conventional products.
Lets face it: We cant consume our way to sustainability.
World population is approaching 6.7 billion, and headed toward 9 billion by mid-century. Meanwhile, aspirations for the material elements of a good life are rising throughout the developing world. World oil consumption is over 85 million barrels per day and demand is growing, even as industry experts caution that oil production is at or near the peak of whats possible.
Oh, yes, and the climate is changing, as rising CO2 levels contribute to the warming of the atmosphere and the oceans.
Youve read all of that and more. Yet, you feel powerless to do anything about it, except to maybe write to elected officials asking them to please do something. And maybe youve checked your own environmental footprint using any of several on-line tools.
Taking personal action is hard, however, because it seems everybody else is doing nothing. And theres no leadership from the one place that we Americans traditionally look to for leadership. The message from the White House is keep the economy strong and go shopping.
Unfortunately, conspicuous consumption is always going to get more attention than personal responsibility and restraint, but we shouldnt let the seemingly endless and mindless self-indulgence of others keep us from acting.
Its time to get responsibly radical, especially if you have kids or grandkids who will live into the second half of this century.
So much consumption is linked to major life choices. You make one seemingly simple life choice, and instantly find yourself sucked into a whole pattern of consumption based on the expectations of the peers youve decided to join. Consider just a few life choices, along with some of their associated and unintended tended peer-pressured consequences.
Living arrangements. Two can usually live more efficiently than one since so much of the home and its machinery can be shared. This, of course, is a highly personal decision.
Having kids, either natural or adopted, leads immediately to consumption patterns you may not have planned on. An extra room and bathroom, television and media-hyped toys, school activities and soccer-mom driving syndrome and . . . you get the picture.
This is not to say you shouldnt have kids. In fact, if you are reading this, you might be especially well suited to launch responsible offspring.
When to have kids also matters. Deferred childbearing is almost always a good thing. Imagine how many fewer people thered be in the world, and how much better off the kids would be, if teen mothers had waited until they were 25 or 30.
Shelter. A new house in a new suburb is nice, but chances are its bigger than you really need and carries with it a lot of social pressures about what kind of car you drive, how aggressive you have to be at eliminating all but certain species from your lawn, and whether you can line-dry your laundry. Whats more, in a new suburb the chances are lower that you can walk to a store, a library, a park, or even around the block for exercise.
What kind of shelter. As household demographics change and the housing supply adjusts to offer a broader range of choices, the most common reason to purchase a single-family homeeasy marketabilityis now declining. That makes alternatives to the single-family house worth a second look. A condo, loft or apartment in a multi-unit building may meet your needs at least as well as a house in the suburbs, while also relieving you of the obligation to own a riding mower, fertilizer spreader and snow blower. Whats more, your heating and cooling costs will be lower since your neighbors help shelter you from temperatures extremes.
Location of shelter matters. Deciding where to live is complicated. While some people live in the same place for decades, a lot of households relocate every few years. Its these households that have the best opportunity to lower the impact of their housing location decision. The farther away you choose to live from work or play or where you socialize or worship, the longer your daily commute is likely to be. Whats more, its more likely youll have to drive alone, because transit service isnt available, and there are no co-workers with whom you can carpool. If there are two wage-earners in the household, you can look for a location where at least one of you can use transit, or drive a short distance to a park-and-ride lot.
Achieving life satisfaction. For some people, it seems, conspicuous consumption is the road to happiness. It might be a big house, expensive car and big-screen TV. It might be a second home on the lake with a boat. On the other hand, finding satisfaction by socializing with friends, reading, taking in cultural activities, and pursuing other relatively non-consumptive interests can be far more satisfying and infinitely less resource consumptive.
These are just some of the life decisions each of us makes. Driving a Prius, screwing in compact fluorescent bulbs and buying toilet tissue made from 100 percent recycled paper isnt going to save the planet from climate change. We literally have to re-evaluate our lives and our priorities, and resolve to make better life decisions. Then we need to let our friends and relatives knowgently, without being sanctimoniousthat weve made conscious decisions to make our earthly existence less hostile to that of individuals not yet born.
There are many ways to make life choices for sustainability. We cant present all of them here. Remember: We might not get out of this life without seeing some really ugly consequences of the over-consumption that has characterized the last several decades of American life.
Reprinted from the JanuaryMarch 2008 edition of the Missouri Sierran with the authors permission. Ron McLinden, email@example.com, is co-chair of the Missouri Transportation Committee of the Missouri Sierra Club and lives in Kansas City, Missouri.
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