Choices for a Sustainable World
essay contains ideas that could be interpreted as threats to the
"American Way of Life." It also gently appeals to your
sense of responsibility to future generations. Read with
You’ve heard about sustainability. By one commonly accepted
definition, it means meeting our needs today in such a way that
we don’t compromise the ability of future generations to meet
their own needs.
No doubt you've seen pitches for products that are "sustainable."
Unfortunately, some such products are simply "less un-sustainable"
than conventional products.
Let's face it, we can't consume our way to sustainability.
World population is approaching 6.7 billion, and headed toward 9
billion by mid-century. Meanwhile, aspirations for the material
elements of a “good life” are rising throughout the
developing world. World oil consumption is over 85 million barrels
per day and demand is growing, even as industry experts caution
that oil production is at or near the peak of what's possible.
Oh – and the climate is changing as rising CO2 levels contribute
to the warming of the atmosphere and the oceans.
You've read all of that and more. Yet, you feel powerless to do
anything about it – except to maybe write to an elected official
asking them to please do something. And maybe you've checked your
own environmental footprint
using any of the several on-line tools.
Taking personal actions is hard, however, because it seems everybody
else is doing nothing. And there's no leadership from the one place
that we Americans traditionally look to for leadership – the
Oval Office. The message from the White House is "keep the
economy strong and go shopping."
Unfortunately, conspicuous consumption is always going to get more
attention than personal responsibility and restraint, but we shouldn’t
let the seemingly endless and mindless self-indulgence of others
keep us from acting.
It's time to get radical – responsibly radical – especially
if you have kids or grand-kids who will live into the second half
of this century.
So much consumption is linked to major life choices. You make one
seemingly simple life choice, and instantly find yourself sucked
into a whole pattern of consumption based on the expectations of
the peers you've decided to join.
Consider just a few life choices, along with some of their associated
and unintended peer-pressured consequences.
Living arrangements. Two
can usually live more efficiently than one since so much of the
home and its “machinery” can be shared – but this
has to be a highly personal decision.
Having kids – either natural or adopted --
leads immediately to consumption patterns you may not have planned
on. An extra room and bathroom and TV and media-hyped toys and school
activities and soccer-mom driving syndrome and... You get the picture.
This is not
to say you shouldn't have kids. In fact, if you are reading this,
you might be especially well suited to launch responsible offspring.
When to have kids also matters. Deferred childbearing
is almost always a good thing. Imagine how many fewer people there’d
be in the world – and how much better off the kids would be
– if teen mothers had waited until they were 25 or 30.
Shelter. A new house in a new suburb is nice, but
chances are it’s bigger than you really need and carries with
it a lot of social pressures about what kind of car you drive, how
aggressive you have to be at eliminating all but certain species
from your lawn, and whether you can line-dry your laundry. What’s
more, in a new suburb the chances are lower that you can walk anyplace
– to a store or library or park, or even around the block
What kind of shelter. As household demographics
change and the housing supply adjusts to offer a broader range of
choices, the most common reason to purchase a single-family home
– easy marketability – is now declining. That makes
alternatives to the single-family house worth a second look. A condo
or loft or apartment in a multi-unit building, may meet your needs
at least as well as a house in the suburbs, while also relieving
you of the obligation to own a riding mower and fertilizer spreader
and snow blower. What’s more, your heating and cooling costs
will be lower since your neighbors help shelter you from temperatures
Location of shelter matters. Deciding where to
live is complicated. While some people live in the same place for
decades, a lot of households relocate every few years.
households that have the best opportunity to lower the impact of
their housing location decision. The farther away you choose to
live – from work or play or where you socialize or worship
– the longer your daily commute is likely to be. What’s
more, it’s more likely you’ll have to drive alone, because
transit service isn’t available and there are no co-workers
with whom you can carpool. If there are two wage earners in the
household, you can look for a location where at least one of you
can use transit,
or drive a short distance to a park-and-ride lot.
Achieving life satisfaction. For some people, it
seems, conspicuous consumption is the road to happiness. It might
be a big house and expensive car and big-screen TV. It might be
a second home on the lake with a boat. On the other hand, finding
satisfaction by socializing with friends, reading, taking in cultural
activities, and pursuing other relatively non-consumptive interests
can be far more satisfying and infinitely less resource consumptive.
These are just some of the life decisions each of us makes. Driving
a Prius and screwing in compact fluorescent bulbs and buying toilet
tissue made from 100 percent recycled paper isn’t going to
save the planet from climate change. We literally have to re-evaluate
our lives and our priorities, and resolve to make better life decisions.
Then we need to let our friends and relatives know – gently,
without being sanctimonious – that we’ve made conscious
decisions to make our earthly existence less hostile to that of
individuals not yet born.
There are many more ways to make life choices for sustainability.
We can’t present all of them here. Remember - we might not
get out of this life without seeing some really ugly consequences
of the over-consumption that has characterized the last several
decades of American life.
Offered for your thoughtful consideration by the Sustainable Life
Choices committee of the Missouri Chapter of the Sierra Club. September,