Conservation > Consumption

Life Choices for a Sustainable World

Warning: This 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 caution.

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 for exercise.

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 extremes.

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.

It’s these 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, 2007