The American Population Bomb

Strategies for creating the public will
for lifestyle change

One of the articles in Creating A Future We Can Live With (IC#40)
Originally published in Spring 1995 on page 61
Copyright (c)1995, 1997 by Context Institute

If we could develop a long enough perspective, we would become aware of a slow dialogue humanity is having with itself in response to becoming a global society. Who are we now? What do we owe one another and the Earth?

One place where these ruminations become explicit is at any of a series of enormously important United Nations conferences, from the Earth Summit in Rio to the upcoming Beijing women’s conference.

The population summit in Cairo is a good example. One of most stunning (and under-reported) outcomes of the conference was that the topic of the North American lifestyle came out from under the rug and on to the table.

Until Cairo, the United States refused to talk about consumption, saying at the Earth Summit in 1992 that a government like ours could never presume to tell people what kind of lifestyle to have. Then, like a breath of fresh air, Tim Wirth, US representative to Cairo, changed our tune, saying "There is no question that we do have a significant impact [through our consumption]; we have to lower that and [we are] doing it."

The facts are clear. With 5 percent of the world’s people, we consume 30 percent of the world’s resources. Every day each of us consumes our body weight in basic raw materials. One American uses energy at an average rate that equals six Mexicans, 14 Chinese, or 38 residents of India. These facts have certainly not escaped people in the developing world who want us to pontificate less about how many there are of them and pay more attention to how much is enough for us.

Here are steps we can take to respond to this challenge:

Let’s break the silence and talk about overconsumption. We have to change the world’s question from How much can I get? to How much is enough ?

Let’s reframe the game. Saving money and ensuring a decent retirement income, benefits you, the economy and the planet. As a by-product of getting out of debt, building financial security, and re-balancing your life, you consume less. The enlightened already know that our standard of living (what we have) is not the same as our quality of life (how much we enjoy it). After a certain point, more stuff just means more debt, more maintenance, more insurance, more hassle. When you start off with excess, less isn’t deprivation – it’s freedom.

Let’s debunk the myths. Our consumption patterns are not hard-wired into us. They result from a deliberate strategy begun in the 1920s to boost US markets by educating people to want things they don’t need.

  • It’s a myth that our economy depends on more consumption. Leading commentators are calling urgently for more savings as the way to prosper.
  • It’s a myth that new technology will save us from having to cut back. An energy-efficient car won’t help if we keep making more cars and driving more polluting miles.
  • It’s a myth that recycling will save us. The savings so far are minuscule, and much of what we use we can’t yet recycle. What about precycling – avoiding needless and wasteful consumption in the first place?

Let’s learn about consumption and teach what we know. We need a worldwide citizens’ movement. We have to start exploring together the links between personal happiness, consumption, global problems, and a healthy future for everyone. What are genuine needs and what are merely desires? What do things really cost in terms of time on the job, resource depletion, pollution?

Let’s find practical solutions. Shifting to lifestyles that are moderate in consumption and high in fulfillment is catching on. Millions of Americans are doing it; many voluntarily – in search of time for family and friends, or for greater meaning, or out of concern for the environment. Others are being forced into it because of economic hard times.

The winds of change are at our back. We have the personal motives to lower consumption. We have the constituency for a movement toward healthy thrift. We’re masters of persuasion; surely we can create the public will for lifestyle change. And Cairo shows we’ve come far enough in our global conversation to make it so.

IC contributing editor Vicki Robin is president of the New Road Map Foundation, PO Box 15981, Seattle, WA 98115, and co-author with Joe Dominguez of Your Money or Your Life.

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