If all humans consumed as much food and resources as people in the United States do, the Earth could sustain only about a quarter of the current population. Humanity as a whole is becoming more wasteful as people across the globe define themselves and their successes by what they own and what they consume. In State of the World 2013: Is Sustainability Still Possible?, contributing authors discuss ways that we can move away from the consumer culture that is undermining the planet we live and depend on.
Cultures are constantly evolving, and perhaps one of the biggest cultural transformations was the advent of consumerism not too many generations ago. Erik Assadourian, senior fellow at Worldwatch and co-director of State of the World 2013, highlights the changes that advertising and marketing brought to society.
“When first-generation factory workers received raises, they chose to work fewer hours, not buy more stuff,” Assadourian says. “Over time, people got used to new products, some of which did indeed improve life quality and many of which were marketed as such by clever entrepreneurs and a new advertising industry. Eventually, we could hardly imagine life without an abundance of products.”
Yet just as humans became consumers, so can we revamp our behaviors to prevent further damage to the planet. Among the ways that our cultures can be transformed to make consumption patterns more sustainable, Assadourian suggests, are policy changes, such as shifting taxes on unsustainable practices like carbon emissions, plastic bags, and junk food; as well as shifts in infrastructure, such as facilitating car-free lifestyles by building bike lanes and shared bike systems, as many U.S. and European cities have done. Members of organizations, such as churches, schools, and businesses, can promote sustainable living in their communities. And media and entertainment have the potential to change our society by subtly modeling sustainable living with films, stories, and social marketing.
Ultimately, we must understand that long-term changes in our communities are not going to be brought about by individual actions alone. Indeed, too much focus on changing individual behavior can inadvertently redirect energy from the cultural, business, and political changes that are necessary. Although corporations have supported some conservation efforts by individuals—sometimes in ways that strategically redirect blame from themselves—the amount of damage done by people and households is only a small fraction of the total waste produced by industries every year.
Annie Leonard, co-director of The Story of Stuff Project and contributing author of State of the World 2013, explains the problems that arise when individuals, rather than large-scale waste producers, take blame for the planet’s deterioration. “Describing today’s environmental problems and solutions as individual issues has a disempowering effect,” says Leonard. “Even if we really do decrease our driving, stop littering, and refuse plastic bags, the broader impacts are still negligible. Society-wide, we need to implement new technologies, cultural norms, infrastructure, policies, and laws.”
Leonard advocates for widespread public action to make sustainable living a way of life, rather than a trend. Millions of people are aware of the climate problems that we face, but the impetus to make the adjustment to sustainable living has yet to be made. The sooner we face the challenges involved with moving toward a sustainable society, the better chance we have to prevent further environmental decay.
“The good news is that we have everything we need to make big change in the years ahead,” explains Leonard. “We have model policies and laws. We have innovative green technologies to help with the transition. We have an informed and concerned public; millions and millions of people know there is a problem and want a better future. The only thing we are missing is widespread citizen action on the issues we already care about.”
By implementing new technologies, shifting cultural norms, building a sustainable infrastructure, and creating new policies, people will be able to make the society-wide changes that are imperative to humanity’s success. This means calling people to action within broader political campaigns that engage people to work together using the full range of tools available to them, including organizing, lobbying, legal actions, economic sanctions, and civil disobedience.