Most of us who live in wealthy nations don’t need more stuff. What most of us are lacking is a sense of purpose. We want our lives to have meaning. We want to know we aren’t just taking up space and consuming resources. We want to believe we’re making a difference—not just to ourselves and our families, but also to our communities.
Lacking a sense of purpose, we tend to gratify ourselves with things. Although we generally lose interest in what we’ve bought in no time flat, we keep buying things because we get a brief boost with every item we purchase. Going from one brief high—a bite of chocolate, to the next—a new pair of jeans, to the next—a new car (or whatever), we string our consumption of things together like beads. The more often we consume, the closer the beads fit on the chain and the less time we spend between highs.
Our ancestors’ impact on the ecosystems that supported them was typically negligible. Back in 1900, for example, the population of the world was approximately 1.6 billion, and, by today’s standards, most people had few possessions. But now, with 7.3 billion people on the planet and consumption levels rising in rich and poor countries alike, humanity is straining ecosystems and the services they provide to the breaking point.
At this point in history, we must recognize that our health and happiness in the future will depend on our consuming fewer resources and producing less waste in the present. And if we’re looking for a purpose—if we’re looking for something to give our lives meaning—what could be a better goal than handing down a thriving planet to coming generations?