“The means by which we have outdistanced the ends for which we live, our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
In the era of instant gratification, solving our sustainability issue is like kicking the ball forward each time we attempt to pick it up. It keeps getting pushed further down the road. Defeated, the resolve to create a better world is numbed and instead we have focused on ourselves. The commercially-promised happiness is as elusive as the brief satisfaction of ownership.
The cost of consumerism has not been rewarding. We have been mesmerized with unnecessary wants, and relieved with a side order of short-lived consumables. Our consumer culture places blinders on us, preventing any glimpse of hope that exists outside our personal space. Our participation in the ecological havoc has become as harmful as that of the industries excavating raw materials. We are encouraged to make ourselves feel better rather than make the world feel better; this also makes the economy feel better.
From birth to our final descent, our lives are caged in by the insanity of capital growth. We support the capitalists with our life-exhausting dollars, making our contribution to a bigger and more expensive economy. The corporate dinosaurs, already too top-heavy not to tumble, have been living on a tax-subsidized life support system and resuscitated with bailouts. Our social policies are tied to the industries’ will, weakening our rights to economic gains. If we view our spending habits as our vote in the ‘democracy of economics’, each dollar should demand and show support for responsible corporate behaviour.
Nature’s relevance has taken a back seat to this delusion: “Economic vitality will take society towards prosperity.” When the resources run out, what will the growth feed on? Growth without limit is cancerous, and the economy is no different. Our unhindered development will continue until we get our consumptive obsessions under control. The destruction begins with the industry’s extraction, but continues with our support.
Oscar Wilde asks, “What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” Nature can grow back, but financial growth needs fostering. Our products, created with built-in economic deficiencies, always leave room for improvement to guarantee further growth for the producer. Termed ‘planned obsolescence’, industry growth is based on short-lasting products that are replaced or upgraded frequently. Rather than make products that can be recycled back through the industrial process, more than 90% of our disposables end up at the landfill; a cradle-to-grave cycle.
A proper functioning product won’t break down nor need upgrading; this is economically inefficient in the market of growth. As William McDonough and Michael Bruangart state in Cradle to Cradle (2002), “to eliminate the concept of waste means to design things – products, packaging, and systems – from the very beginning on the understanding that waste does not exist.” Cradle to Cradle uses the concept of eco-efficiency, where industry and the system of growth replenish, restore and nourish the rest of the world. We must demand what we want for products: clean, sustainable and repairable.
Our energy use, emissions, and global living standards are draining our resources and mutating our atmosphere. Each year the average middle-class family has four million pounds of material moved, mined, extracted, shoveled, burned, wasted, pumped, and disposed of to feed their manic consumption. Even more shocking: To keep up with the West, developing countries are destroying themselves in their attempt to live the way we do. However, their population is frighteningly larger than ours. We must lead by example and curb our unbridled spending. We must show others how life should be, rather than what the West has done.
Our interconnection with the natural world becomes more obvious each day as we are ravaged by earthquakes, floods, oil spills and health pandemics. Our treatment of the Earth has left her no choice but to bite back. The only remedy is to reduce our impact on Nature, and work with rather than against her. With plenty of alternatives for running our world, their current relevance depends on how well they fit with the current economic framework. When industry claims that cleaner techniques are not economically viable practices, then we must change the system so we can embrace these products.
No rule states that smarter production will reduce our selection. In Biomimicry: Innovations Inspired by Nature, Janine Benyus describes this new science as “the conscious emulation of life’s genius.” Biomimicry researchers are looking for ways to produce our materials without needing a high input of energy. Examining plants, animals and minerals, they are creating materials and processes that, for example, can replace our dependence on petrochemical plastics with biodegradable, long-lasting natural polymers. Biomimetic processes require less machinery and use materials that can either be returned to their place of origin, or broken down and reused in another production process.
In the age of speed, instant gratification is the sole reward of our consumer actions. Occupied by mindless entertainment and celebrity gossip, our hope has relied on our credit card going through. Wading through the glut of waste peddlers, we move further away from improving our social environment. We strive for an unreachable happiness.
How long does something sit on the shelf before the reason for purchasing it is forgotten? How long have you owned something to be admired before you needed that next best thing? Emotional contentment will not come through our possessions.
German film director Gottfried Reinhardt is quoted, “Money is good for bribing yourself through the inconveniences of life.” All this insatiable craving breeds stress and health problems: We work too much, owe too much, and want too much. We are working, on average, a full month more each year than they did in 1969. We’re cutting our vacation time so we can pay for the stuff we have on credit; our stuff is cutting into our fun time, too.
When did the madness begin? When did we forget Nature’s importance and shut ourselves off in our homes? The Cleavers showed us everything that life could offer; we can blame our consumption addiction on the Beaver. In Affluenza, John de Graaf reports how, since commercial television’s grand entrance in 1957, the average level of happiness in Western countries has been in a steady free fall. This is what an intellectual diet of fear, conspiracies and one-liners will do to you.
American journalist Sidney J. Harris once wrote, “A cynic is not merely one who reads bitter lessons from his past; he is one who is prematurely disappointed in the future.” We have tranquilized our ambition, eroding a social ravine and filling it with our commercial waste.
Media viewership has rewired our social circuitry. Television is miraculously efficient for the marketing industry, providing twenty-four hour access to that obsessively selfish little nub in our psyche.
The thirty-second commercial spot costs the same amount to produce as the twenty-minute sitcom being sponsored. Spending $10,000 per second producing commercials, companies are luring us to buy all things that we didn’t ask for. The $217-billion-a-year advertising industry has been growing at “a rate more than twice the average rate of the economy as a whole.” It pays to mangle our minds. Applying their psychological know-how and technological wizardry, we are dazzled into unleashing our credit.
Philosopher Arnold Schopenhauer (1788-1860) once said, “Man never feels the want of what it never occurs to him to ask for.” The airwaves have mesmerized us into wanting, unsustainable creatures. The marketers’ psychology has manipulated us into believing that the promoted (and unreachable) lifestyles on TV and in ads are the norm that everyone lives; we just have some catching up to do. So goes the race after the Joneses.
By enhancing our vanity, we paint an exterior imitating a person that we wish to be. We have become too good at making ourselves feel better; it’s like going through everlasting adolescence. When most of our vanity objects take a bite out of the environment and chop away at our lifeline, then our self-praise chips away at our future’s certainty. If we focus on enhancing our inner qualities, then our outer qualities are enhanced through natural admiration rather than superficial.
In earlier decades, subliminal messages were flashed into our subconscious telling us to spend money on the tricky vendor’s product. Once caught, they quickly jumped to another, much darker, way to lure us in. On average, we spend of two years of our lives watching commercials, zoning out to the economic glow emitting from our plasmas. These enchanting signals have lured us into isolated close-proximity lives; first was the headphone, then along came Bluetooth. Now we can all walk around muttering to ourselves. In military terms, technology has ‘divided and conquered’ the population into docile narcissists.
Western culture’s fear, paranoia and desire have reinforced our hoarding mentality. We have been led astray, conditioned to these habits of greed and coveting. While we want our stuff to be admired, we won’t display it for fear of theft. Instead, it fills our homes, yards, basements, and storage facilities. The enjoyment of our stuff is put aside by our fear of losing it. Rationalizing this attachment, we have become disconnected from our social environment. We miss the point of happiness and joy: they are derived from sharing, not hoarding.
Swiss philosopher Henri Frederic Amiel (1821-1881) noted, “The man who has no inner life is the slave to his surroundings.” If our personal economic status measures our place in society, then community involvement becomes irrelevant. Looking first to our own needs and safety places our surroundings not as a part of us but as competition. Where is the safety when we can’t trust the people around us? Sustaining communities requires communication; we must step beyond our comfort and draw our neighbourhoods back into our lives. This may require missing your favourite show.
To improve our world, first we must ask, “What shall we become?” We must move past idolizing our possessions; our stuff doesn’t make us, our words and actions do. Regaining our social cohesion requires disconnecting the media’s influence and focusing on our personal relationships.
Gaining a sense of optimism is our first step towards bettering ourselves. We must take back control of our daily lives and become mindful of what our spending supports. To simplify our lives we must stop filling our individual space with stuff, and either find uses for what we already have, or look for ways that someone else could use them.
If a lop-sided economy says we aren’t living up to our full spending potential, how does digging up more debt benefit us? If we question our consumptive impulses and realize that our lack of happiness is not from a defect in a product, then we can seek out the true source of happiness out in our communities. Let time be soaked up with friends and family, not commercials and fiction. We don’t have to buy something to get a smile; we need everybody around to keep it in place.
The moments of greatest happiness should not involve entering your PIN number on the debit pad. Happiness is possible without our favourite shows having to script it for us; it is created from the people around you, not in a room full of stuff. Turn off your television and open your doors. Invite friends and neighbours in rather than talk show hosts and canned laugh tracks. Happiness is built upon from security and comfort, and its cheapest source is outside our front door.
 DeGraaf, John; Wann, David; Naylor, Thomas H., Affluenza (San Francisco, Berrett-Koehler, 2005) 148
 McDonough, William & Braungart, Michael, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things (New York, North Point Press, 2002) 27
 McDonough, William & Braungart, Michael, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things (New York, North Point Press, 2002) 104
 McDonough, William & Braungart, Michael, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things (New York, North Point Press, 2002) 78
 DeGraaf, John; Wann, David; Naylor, Thomas H., Affluenza (San Francisco, Berrett-Koehler, 2005) 90
 Benyus, Janine N., Biomimicry: innovation inspired by nature (New York, Perennial, 2002) 2
 DeGraaf, John; Wann, David; Naylor, Thomas H., Affluenza (San Francisco, Berrett-Koehler, 2005)42
 DeGraaf, John; Wann, David; Naylor, Thomas H., Affluenza (San Francisco, Berrett-Koehler, 2005) 23
 DeGraaf, John; Wann, David; Naylor, Thomas H., Affluenza (San Francisco, Berrett-Koehler, 2005) 155