A Promise Worth Making At UNCED

One of the articles in Reclaiming Politics (IC#30)
Originally published in Fall/Winter 1991 on page 8
Copyright (c)1991, 1996 by Context Institute

Want to participate in the Earth Summit but not sure what to say? Here’s a suggestion from Vicki Robin, President of an organization – New Road Map Foundation – that offers a course on financial independence and works to link consumer behavior with creative solutions for people and planet. For more information write: New Road Map, P.O. Box 15981, Seattle, WA 98115.

Consumption as the royal road to happiness is not working – for us nor for the planet. Why do we persist? We persist because we still believe that "more will be better," a belief supported by a business community which spends $500 per year on every man, woman and child in America to convince us there’s more for our lives at Sears, things go better with Coke, and so on. We are no longer citizens. We are consumers, and we do not seem to be able to stop. Overconsumption in the US is the ultimate substance abuse.

Reducing consumption should be a key commitment the United States brings to the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Brazil next year. A former UN Assistant Secretary General, Robert Muller, recently said, "The single most important contribution any of us can make to the planet is a return to frugality." We are spending down the Earth’s capital, and this consumer spending, considered the lifeblood of the US economy, is bleeding the planet dry. Overconsumption by the few at the expense of the many, is an environmental problem – not to mention the social costs – that is unmatched in severity by anything except, perhaps, burgeoning population growth.

The average person in the US today is four and a half times "richer" than were his or her great-grandparents at the turn of the century. Yet our unprecedented luxury has been purchased at a very high price. We are in hock up to our eyeballs. Consumer debt exceeded $735 billion in 1990 – that’s approximately $3,000 for every US citizen, up 146% since 1980. This debt has tied us to the workplace. The average American works 20% more today than in 1973, and has 32% less free time per week.

And do we like these lifestyles? A recent poll showed that 75% of working Americans aged 25-49 would like to see America return to a simpler lifestyle, with less emphasis on material success. Asked a similar question 7 years ago, only 52% felt this way. Over 45% of career professionals in large organizations suffer from work-related emotional problems – stress, burnout, malaise and values conflicts – which are proven precursors to disease. We have more debt, less free time, poorer health, increased drug use and crime, and are less happy than we were 30 years ago.

Suggesting we reduce our personal consumption, however, is an issue that no one wants to touch with a ten-foot pole. This is cause for great hope. Precisely because this question is perceived to be so politically unpopular, it offers an untapped arena for significant change. No one has made a dent in it, which means that each one of us has a wide-open opportunity. We also have a powerful cultural ally, because reducing consumption ultimately rests on what we Americans are best at: individualism. It’s between each of us and our wallets, our credit cards, our family budget processes and our own appetites.

So let’s say the US goes to Brazil with a promise to reduce consumption by 20%. How will we keep this commitment? The fulcrum for this powerful exercise of political will is our understanding of the word "frugality." Today, many people see frugality as deprivation. Doing without. But frugality is a traditional American virtue. It used to mean wisdom – and it can mean that again. Frugality is not deprivation. Quite the contrary: it is liberation. It is no longer spending our lives to make money to buy things that we don’t use or enjoy or value.

Frugality is the ability to know when enough is enough. It is creative – not solving boredom through shopping. It is challenging – not solving problems with money. Frugality is having enough love – being with our families instead of buying for our families. It is having enough friendship – having life partners rather than just business partners. And it is having enough community – knowing our neighbors and working with them to improve conditions in our neighborhoods and in the world.

By the simple act of saving money – on anything from stereos to restaurant meals – we will be reducing the impact of our consumption on the Earth. In the process we may also regain our health, our sanity, our families, our friends, our neighborhoods and our credibility in the community of nations. If we go to the UN Conference on Environment and Development telling others what they must do to save the world and yet fail to cut down our own massive personal consumption, surely our hypocrisy will detract from the efficacy of whatever other advice we may offer. If we champion other causes but fail to acknowledge and control our own spending, our efforts are in vain.

What if each of us who has the basic creature comforts were to spend 20% less? This may sound difficult, but it is surprisingly easy. Just paying with cash rather than credit cards cuts impulse buying by 23%. Paying off our credit cards in a timely fashion would eliminate interest charges which average 15-20%. People who follow the New Road Map Foundation’s 9-step financial program spend 20% less by simply noting down and evaluating where each dollar goes. Awareness alone trims excess spending on unconscious, unnecessary and unfulfilling expenses.

Every time you take out your wallet, every time you sign a credit card receipt, ask yourself, "Am I getting personal fulfillment equal to the number of hours I had to work to buy this?" "Is buying this in any way making the world a better, safer, healthier place to live?" You will easily and naturally accomplish your part of the 20% reduction in spending we should promise next Spring in Brazil.

– Vicki Robin

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