The Problem with Consumption

I recently read several books about how we can thrive in a future of climate change and resource constraints, and I just want to share about a big theme that all of these books talked about: the problem of consumption.

The bottom line is that we have to stop our current pattern of consumption. While we need to consume in order to survive, our current ways are not sustainable. Consumption has become a form of recreation or status, and American home sizes have increased dramatically just to fit all of our stuff in it. This increased consumption is largely due to cheaper prices. Cheaper prices are especially dangerous for items that were once luxury items, because their higher price was a signal that they contained some rare resource. With increases in the efficiency of extracting resources, their prices have been able to drop, but as we are seeing with many things, resources are starting to run out.

I will be the first to admit that consuming less will be difficult, but after reading what these authors had to say, it is clear that we all need to stop consuming in the way we normally do. We should only buy something if we really need it and buy from brands that truly have sustainable values at their core, such as Patagonia. The authors of Flourishing pointed out that many companies are claiming to be “sustainable”, but that word is overused and does not really mean anything, so when looking for brands that are sustainable, we need to be careful that they are in fact what they say they are.

We also need to learn to be happier with less, as material possessions do not quantify happiness. There are really rich people out there with all the stuff you could ever dream up, but they are miserable. Conversely, a person living a modest lifestyle off the grid with almost no material possessions may be having the time of his life. Consumption does not define you, you can be happier with less, and quality, not quantity, is what really matters.

One thing I really liked about True Wealth was that the author gave a really encouraging and practical suggestion for how people addicted to consumption could be satiated in this new age of resource constraints that we are moving into. She pointed out that because we have been such voracious consumers in the past few decades, we find ourselves in an unusual situation where we have all of these different items in our lives that are no longer useful or worth anything to us, but may be useful or worth something to someone else. So for both those addicted to consuming or for people who actually need something, we have this huge stockpile of second-hand items just ripe for the picking. We have seen thrift stores, consignment shops, and the like increase in popularity in recent years, and I think and hope that they will continue to do so, as this can help people get what they want or need without extracting any more resources from an already stressed environment.

I don’t mean to preach, and I struggle with consumption as much as the next person. I just think this is a really important issue we need to keep in mind, especially during the Christmas shopping season, if we really want to be more sustainable.


Sources and Recommended Reading

  • True Wealth: How and why millions of Americans are creating a time-rich, ecologically light, small scale, high-satisfaction economy. Juliet B. Schor, 2010, 2011.
  • Flourishing: A frank conversation about sustainability. John Ehrenfeld and Andrew Hoffman, 2013.
  • Deep Economy: The wealth of communities and the durable future. Bill McKibben, 2007.

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