Recent conversations with friends have brought to mind the opening paragraphs of The Conundrum, a book by David Owens. Here’s how they go:
During the summer of 2010, I gave a talk in Melbourne, Australia, as part of a weeklong state-sponsored series of lectures on climate change. A couple of days before I spoke, a resident asked me what my theme was going to be, and when I began to explain he stopped me. ‘Forget all that,’ he said. ‘Just tell me what to buy.’ He was willing to believe the world was in peril, but he wished that someone would cut to the solutions. My car’s a problem? Tell me what to drive instead. Wrong television set? I’ll switch. Kitchen counters not green? I’ll replace them with whatever you say.
This is what most of us think, whether we think we do or not. We’re consumers at heart, and our response to difficulties of all kinds usually involves consumption in one form or another: just tell me what to buy. The challenge arises when consumption itself is the issue. How do we truly begin to think about less—less fossil fuel, less carbon, less water, less waste, less habitat destruction, less population stress—when our sense of economic, cultural, and personal well-being is based on more?[*]
Most of us care about the quality of the environment. Like the man from Melbourne, we know there are reasons to worry about ecological degradation, and we want to do something to help, but because we lead such busy lives, we want the solution to be simple: Just do this one thing and the world will be saved.
Unfortunately, doing one simple thing won’t save the world. What we need (to use to an appropriate but overused phrase) is a paradigm shift.
The problem we’re facing is a new one for humanity. For almost as long as our species has been around, our survival has depended on amassing as much stuff as we could whenever we could. And although history provides examples of societies that collapsed due to overconsumption, those examples are few and far between. Our ancestors could generally accumulate stuff to the extent of their abilities (which in most cases weren’t great) without causing serious environmental consequences. When the human population was small and the available technologies were too feeble to allow the average person to over-consume, the environment was generally able to handle humans’ resource consumption and waste production.
Well, folks, I don’t need to tell you that those days are gone. We simply can’t go on chomping through resources and spewing out waste as if there were no tomorrow—unless we want there to be no tomorrow. We have to reorient our values. We need to get in the habit of thinking about the environmental costs of the things we buy.
A video by Annie Leonard, The Story of Stuff, provides a good introduction to this way of thinking. You can watch it at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9GorqroigqM
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[*] Owen, David. 2011. The Conundrum: How Scientific Innovation, Increased Efficiency, and Good Intentions Can Make Our Energy and Climate Problems Worse. New York: Riverhead Books, pp. 1-2.