Minnesotans For Sustainability©
Sustainable Society: A society that balances the environment, other life forms, and human interactions over an indefinite time period.
NOPC: National Optimum Population Commission
Consumption What Can Be Done About It?
M. Boyd Wilcox, Founder*
What would you tell your kids? The subject of consumption inevitably arises in discussions about the impact of population on the planet's resources. We often see comparisons such as, "The average citizen in the U.S. consumes as much as 40 people in India." The numbers vary as one scans the globe looking at different cultures, economies, and technologies. But in general, those who live in more developed nations consume more —often much more— than people from lesser-developed countries. Besides feeling guilty about our relative overconsumption and wanting to do more to reduce it, how else might we think about this dilemma?
The case could be made that our consumption requires us to stabilize and then reduce our population. To expand this viewpoint I'll use the most personal example available to me: my own family.
I had two sons and a vasectomy ...in that order! The sons are now mostly grown up, one in his first year of college, the other about to graduate from high school. During their formative years they had to contend with a father who pontificated endlessly on the virtues of a simpler life: bicycling to work; eating more natural foods; turning off the lights when nut needed; recycling; reducing or eliminating the purchase of disposables; purchasing used clothing; etc. As a family of four, we almost always lived at or below the federally designated poverty level, partly because my wife and I chose early on in our marriage to have more time and less money, even though we could have earned a great deal more and reflected a higher standard of living.
In summary, we lived much lower on the consumption ladder, which I would estimate to be about one-quarter the level of the average U.S. citizen. Carving out this style of existence within more dominant cultural forces is not easy. We don't travel or eat out as often or buy gifts except on special occasions (and then we usually buy tools or items with long-lasting value). My sons sometimes resented our position or felt that we were too different from their school friends and from neighbors, although they have mellowed that criticism in recent years.
Despite their upbringing, my sons are still drawn to the larger commercial and cultural influences. As each turned 16 years old, driving an automobile became a top priority. I could identify with that, having experienced the same heady, androgenous rush behind the wheel when I was their age and when gas was 25 cents per gallon.
As a teenager, I drove my parent's vehicle when permission was granted. By comparison, my sons own their own cars and worked hard at part-time jobs to earn the money to do so. This privilege became the most significant economic stimulus in their lives and continues as a dominant (no longer exclusive) theme. They often talk admiringly, drooling over the possible upgrades one might make to their vehicles ...from fancy chrome rims to lowered suspensions to high-tech stereo and alarms systems.
They knew my resistance to their automobile purchases as I extolled the benefits of bicycling and offered the family car when needed. But the pull of private ownership and operation of a car (and even the necessity, in this society currently structured) were just too strong for my sentiments to overcome.
My younger son, who wanted a 280-Z and who finally settled on a 1975 modal in good, affordable condition said to me, "Dad, I know what you mean about bicycling or that I should at least look for a more practical, more economical car, something boring like an old Corolla station wagon, but please just let me get this out of my system. In a few years I'll be over this addiction and will get something more sensible."
How could I argue with a 16-year-old's statement of maturity that was more advanced than my own at the same age? Young people do their best in trying to make sense of the world. incorporating their own values with the mixed messages they receive from parents and conflicting sources throughout this crazy culture we call America.
But they still want to consume at unsustainable levels. Cars are just one example, fast-food burgers another. It is as if U.S. citizens are born to consume; it is our inheritance and legacy. "The business of America is business" and the American Dream preaches that each generation should expect more than the previous one. So we march on as if this mythology were the gospel truth and that its fulfillment is an inevitable birthright bequeathed to us by the proper forces of history.
Perhaps we can change some of the mythology (the book Ishmael by Daniel Quinn speaks to this potential) but I don't believe we can change it much or quickly enough to make a big difference —at least not until we are forced to do so by events likely to be unpleasant.
This societal modus operandi is a beacon to much of the world. People curve to the U.S. to join the lifestyle of its citizens, to partake in the feast and to have the freedom to consume more.
I work in a small city of 45,000 people, home to a major university. Internationals comprise about 10 percent of the student population, and many come from what we call lesser-developed countries. Those from wealthy families or who are supported by ample grants or scholarships drive newer Hondas, Toyotas, Nissans, and Fords to school. They often pass me on my bike as they drive the two to five miles from home to school in one of the most
bicycle-friendly cities in the nation. Most of these people (and almost everyone associated with the campus community) could use alternative modes of transport. Bus service is free to anyone with a campus ID.
The international students are not doing something "bad"; rather, they are simply emulating their American counterparts. "When in Paris, do as the Parisians do" and in this case, in this country, enjoy the freedom to own and drive an automobile. They did not come here to lower their consumption, but to join the cultural mainstream of America. Just as I did as a kid. Just as my kids are doing now.
Which brings us back to population pressure and consumption. If it is not possible to appreciably lower consumption levels of U.S. citizens, and if each citizen takes more from the Earth than 40 average residents of India, perhaps we should think about not just stabilizing but drastically lowering the U.S. Population. If we could reduce consumption to about 25 percent of average, each of us would be down to the effective level of about 10 people in India.
If consumption, and assuming a collective body of 260 million people, then we must reduce our population to 10 percent of the present level to "equal" that person from India.
Imagine a U.S. population of 26 million, considerably lower than most estimates of those who have researched and written on the subject of optimum population where the figures range from 75 to 150 million as a long-term, sustainable population.
The usual response to this is that the consumption level of people from India must be raised. so they, too; can assume a reasonable quality of life. Few would disagree. Where does that put us on the grand scale of things?
For my kids, for the U.S. and for every other nation on the planet, we return
to the question, "What IS our optimum sustainable population, and how do we
engage a process that will help us arrive at a consensus regarding our most
complicated, controversial. and intractable dilemma?"
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