For the past two weeks I’ve been attending the United Nations’ Commission on Sustainable Development. I’ve listened to in-depth discussions of everything from pesticides and fertilizer to mining and waste management. All the latest updates tell us the frightening truth we already know, but simply refuse to act upon in any meaningful way: our current way of life is flatly unsustainable, and if we don’t change our ways, the earth will soon be uninhabitable.
It’s not that “no one is doing anything about the degradation of the environment”—it’s just that 99% of the population (in the developed countries that are causing the most damage) aren’t doing enough. According to Tim Jackson, author of Prosperity Without Growth, the damage to the earth is so far advanced that if we want to stop or reverse the effects, we not only have to stop damaging the environment, we actually have to do the opposite—actively improve it. But that’s step two, and we don’t even see the need for step one. Not good.
One presentation really struck me. While the scientists bewailed the metric tons of carbon dioxide and the tens of thousands of ingredients in pesticides, Erik Assadourian of WorldWatch, deliberately avoided big numbers and fear-inducing facts. He knows that, for many, what is happening to the environment is overwhelming, almost incomprehensible, causing mental shut-down and inaction. He spared us the science, but his prescription for our ailing planet was perhaps the most revolutionary. Assadourian advocates for the transformation of our culture, so that living sustainably feels as normal as living in our currently consumer-driven culture. Shorter showers, recycling and buying organic aren’t going to cut it anymore. The problem is systemic and results from the status quo lifestyle.
Juliet Schor of Boston College noted that in 1991, the average American purchased 33 items of clothes per year. Fourteen years later, in 2005, the average had more than doubled to 69. She attributes this to the rise of “Fast Fashion”—we get things more often, wear them fewer times and get rid of them far quicker than in the past. We suffer a pathological obsession with new electronics and gadgets, the next “must-have” item. We trade up cell phones and computers before the shine has worn off. We just don’t seem to make the connection that for every single thing that is produced (and tossed), there is a consequence.
Our appetite is also a problem. We like avocados and tomatoes in December, strawberries and apples in February. We like cheap meat and eggs year round. Schor does say that the food community is one area where sustainability is making great strides, but still it’s not enough.
Yes, great responsibility lies with government, to control the use and after-effects of nitrogen-rich fertilizers, to concentrate on alternative energy sources and to put the kibosh on unchecked profit-seeking Big Business (whatever the environmental cost). But we can’t push all the responsibility off onto someone else. The onus is on you, me and everyone else on the planet. If we stopped buying these things, there would be no market for crappy meat or roses grown in hothouses in Kenya (flown to the US in refrigerated jets!). They produce it because we buy it. We want it. We think we need it. How do we teach ourselves and our children to change our destructive appetites in a consumerist culture?
I came home from this particularly powerful session last week and said to Andy, “We have to do more.” His response was surprisingly quick and defensive, “What else do you want to do? We recycle. We eat vegetarian two days a week. We buy mostly organic produce and meat raised with standards. We don’t own a car and we use public transport.” True, I thought. But none of these things are particularly difficult. We recycle because our building has a place to put glass and paper/cardboard. We eat vegetarian two days a week (not a bad start) but that’s not hard either. I’m a good cook and we hardly miss the meat (but we sure do enjoy it the other five days a week). And we don’t have a car because we live in New York City. Just two months ago, when we didn’t think we’d be living in the city, we were standing in the GMC show room drooling over the 2010 Terrain.
The fact that there are easy ways to live more sustainably is good. But the problem is, that’s usually where it stops. The minute it makes life more difficult or inconvenient, we’re not interested. We justify it to ourselves.
I don’t imagine that one blog post will change the world, but that’s never been the way things change. The world changes . . . one person at a time. And then if we’re lucky we hit a critical mass and universal change becomes inevitable. We can change now, or we can change later (when the picture looks a lot grimmer and there is no other option), but ultimately, we will have to change. I vote for now.
I am not perfect. Far from it. I love my dishwasher, love paper towels, love a good bargain on a cheap pair of jeans and sometimes (in a pinch) buy Perdue. I’m trying to figure it out too. What are your thoughts? your ideas? What are you doing to live more sustainably? What do you find are your biggest challenges? What don’t you think you could live without? What are the alternatives?