By Vicki Robin
An edit of an address given by Vicki Robin, New Road Map Foundation president, at the United Nations on April 6, 1994.
We are all consumers. Every human takes sustenance from and returns waste to the environment. But overconsumption means taking more than we can productively use — or more than the environment can sustainably provide. Overconsumption has become our way of life in the United States. We put our faith in “more,” but it’s never enough; we report being no happier now than we were in 1957, when cars were fewer, houses smaller and microwaves, VCRs and personal computers did not even exist. Worse yet, our lifestyle, which threatens our social fabric and the very web of life on which we depend, has become the envy of much of the world.
As Robert Muller, retired Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations, says, “The single most important contribution any of us can make to the planet is a return to frugality.”
Overconsumption Is A Mounting Catastrophe
Quantity as well as type of consumption defines the individual’s impact on the environment. With population rising and expectations for more, better and different stuff increasing, humanity is taxing the earth’s life-sustaining systems, its “carrying capacity.” Each overconsumer is responsible; we must face this catastrophe in the making.
Overconsumption Is A Catastrophe for Ourselves:
- Declining quality of life. Our habit of overconsumption enslaves many of us to longer hours at tedious or morally questionable jobs. We say we value relationships over possessions, yet our behavior says the opposite. As we spend less time with our families and communities, we end up with more crime, violence and teen suicides.
Overconsumption Is A Catastrophe For Our Country:
- Economic weakness. Our habit of overconsumption has led to debt, bankruptcy and the lowest savings rate in the industrialized world. We don’t have money to invest in infrastructure, in education, in the future.
- Personal excess encourages institutional abuses. The more-is-better mentality allows us to tolerate wars over oil, and corporate practices that are wasteful, polluting and unethical. We can’t say “no” to Nintendos for our children or new gadgets for ourselves, so how can we expect our government to say “no” to deficit spending or CEO’s to say “no” to exorbitant salaries?
Overconsumption Is A Catastrophe For Humanity:
- Modeling an unattainable and unsustainable lifestyle to the global community. The earth cannot support everyone in the manner to which Americans have become accustomed. We must find a way to limit our excess and maintain or increase our quality of life while providing the world’s people with our best knowledge and technologies so that they too can enjoy sustainable livelihoods and lifestyles.
Overconsumption Is A Catastrophe For The Earth:
- Environmental destruction. Overconsumption accelerates species extinction, water and air pollution, global warming, and accumulation of toxic waste and garbage.
- Resource depletion. Overconsumption means we’re using renewable resources faster than nature can restore them. Twenty percent of the groundwater we use each year is not restored. One million acres of cropland are lost to erosion annually. Ninety percent of our northwestern old-growth forests is gone.
We Can Change!
Strategies For Ending Overconsumption
Break the Silence
We must begin to talk about our consumption and challenge the conspiracy of silence. We can’t solve a problem we won’t acknowledge. Challenge yourself. Challenge others. Risk being uncomfortable. Risk offending others. Ask:
- Should we be able to buy whatever we can afford, no matter what the effect on others or the earth?
- Should we allow credit cards to lure us into excessive debt?
- When is personal consumption a matter of public concern?
- Who or what will set limits for us, if we won’t do it ourselves?
- Does overconsumption really make us happy?
At the 1992 Earth Summit the United States refused to talk about consumption, saying that a country such as ours could not tell its citizens what kind of lifestyles and consumption patterns to have. By the 1994 Cairo Population Conference, the United States at least acknowledged the need to reduce our consumption. The door is opening. Speak out. And keep speaking.
Reframe the Game
Saving money — “creating a nest egg,” “saving for a rainy day,” “recession-proofing your life,” ensuring a decent retirement income independent of shaky pensions or social security — benefits you, the economy and the planet. By getting out of debt, saving money and building financial security, you consume less. By living life at a slower pace, you consume less. Frugality isn’t deprivation. Deprivation is pouring your time and talent into your job while ignoring your health and your loved ones. Poverty is wanting more than you have. Wealth is having more than you want. So make overconsumption sound dull-witted and frugality smart. (It’s easy, because it’s true.)
Debunk the Myths
- Myth: “Standard of living” equals “quality of life.” Once we have enough for survival and comforts, quality of life suffers when we continue to focus on quantity of stuff. Studies show that good relationships, meaningful work and restorative leisure are core components of quality of life.
- Myth: Overconsumption is natural. No, it isn’t! It began in this century as a deliberate strategy on the part of business, media and government to educate people to want what they don’t need in order to increase markets for American products. Overconsumption is selling your life and mortgaging your future so the economy can grow. Now that’s unnatural.
- Myth: The US (or any) economy is dependent upon overconsumption. Respected economic observers like Lester Thurow of M.I.T., Charles Schultze of the Brookings Institute and Alfred E. Kahn of Cornell all assert that economic health in the 90’s depends on consuming less and saving more.
- Myth: Government programs, revolutionary business practices or new technologies will take care of it. Green taxes! Renewable energy! Fuel efficient cars! Clean industry! Better living through chemistry! All are valuable — but, even all together, they are not sufficient. Creating a sustainable future requires a new way of thinking. We must re-examine our desires, transform our perceptions and develop a new ethic. Only then can the larger systems within which we operate be transformed.
- Myth: One person can’t make a difference. There is no “they.” There is only us, a society of individuals making personal and collective choices. Legislators, CEOs and consumers are all people who can change their minds and thus change the world, no matter what they did yesterday. Lowering consumption happens one transaction at a time.
Educate About Overconsumption
Every conversation is an opportunity. Share your ideas and success stories with friends, neighbors and colleagues; write about them in your letters. Discuss and debate. Put together a study circle. Talk to the media. Show the link between overconsumption and environmental and social issues. Begin to notice all the ways that others can benefit from what you have learned.
Provide Tools For Personal Change
Beyond the what and why of overconsumption, people need the “how to.” Based on 25 years of experience in living and educating about low-consumption, high-fulfillment lifestyles, Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin wrote the bestselling book Your Money Or Your Life. Among the many other available resources is The New Road Map Foundation’s popular booklet, All Consuming Passion: Waking Up from the American Dream.
Live A Sustainable Lifestyle Yourself
Each of us has the mandate to consume in moderation. Ask yourself now and every day, “How much is enough?”
A Call To Action
The shift away from excess and back to balance is on. “Voluntary Simplicity” is one of the top 10 trends in the 90’s, according to the Trends Research Institute in Rhinebeck, N.Y. Books on getting out of debt, saving money and working less are hot. Churches are exploring stewardship, not dominion. Foundations are funding projects to explore the issue of consumption and activate solutions. People are taking back their lives. The can-do American character has faced challenges before. When science showed us the dangers of being couch potatoes, of smoking, of too much fat, we responded with lifestyle changes. The mandate to reduce consumption can energize our country in a similar fashion, this time in a fiscal fitness campaign. Let’s transform the American way of life and pave the way to a sustainable future.