Jan 152010
courtesy roberthuffstutter via flickr

Erik finds himself siding with Rush. Is Doomsday closer than he realized?

On Tuesday we launched State of the World 2010 and I wanted to share a bit of the ripples the report made–both good and bad.

There were lots of positive news stories that allowed us to convey the key message of the report: that we need to intentionally transform cultures–making it as natural to live sustainably as it is to live as a consumer today. I won’t go into these though as they’re all on the Transforming Cultures News page. Enjoy!

But I did want to share with you one article that has led to interesting ripples, that of The Guardian’s “US Cult of Greed is Now a Global Environmental Threat.”

Unfortunately, this misrepresents the report quite significantly. Greed is not a concept discussed much in State of the World 2010. Never in the overview chapter and doing a search of the PDF, while it came up a few times in discussions of ethics and voluntary simplicity, most of the times the word greed was found in the report, it was in the form of “agreed.”

To put it simply: whatever culture you’re part of, that culture shapes your reality. If dogs are seen as pets, the odds are you’ll like dogs, and even perhaps own one, fall in love with one, and spend tens of thousands of dollars on it over its life. If, on the other hand, you live in a culture where dogs are seen as food, you’ll probably never think twice about eating them. We are pretty much blank slates at birth and cultures–through social interactions with parents, teachers, friends, the media, objects, and all other human-created elements–shape our realities.

Thus, people aren’t consuming massive amounts of stuff because they’re greedy, but because it’s “natural” for them to do so. They don’t think about the fact that their pets have more ecological impact than people living in developing countries because that’s not even on their radars. Greed doesn’t play into this for most people, and this is certainly not just a U.S. phenomenon. Consumerism is now a cultural pattern that circles the whole world.

So, with that said, I find myself somehow agreeing with Rush Limbaugh’s attack of The Guardian’s interpretation of State of the World 2010. Weird, isn’t it. Responding to The Guardian, Rush lambastes the idea that America is to blame:

RUSH: As if on cue, from the UK Guardian, a liberal rag: “US Cult of Greed is Now a Global Environmental Threat.” I’m going to read this story, or excerpts of it, and I want you to understand something as I read this to you. This is exactly what President Obama believes. This is exactly what all leftists, wherever you find them in the world, believe. This is what all leftists are taught from the earliest moments they start school all the way up to institutions of higher learning. What you’re going to hear here is exactly what Obama believes….

So again, it’s America’s fault, we are stealing the world’s resources, we’re using far more than our share, we’re destroying the climate, we are creating pollution, we are depleting the earth of its resources. And this has been the case since Paul Ehrlich came out with The Population Bomb. Every prediction in it false, did not come true. But this is part and parcel of what President Obama believes. He believes this country is guilty. He’s a leftist, this is what he does; this was what he was taught. This is why he’s cutting this economy down to size.

To clarify I don’t agree that this is what Obama believes—if he did he would have focused his first year more strongly on climate change and truly shifting America’s economy away from consumerism and unsustainable lifestyles (for example rolling out a “Cash for Clunkers” program that paid people simply to get rid of old cars, not trade them in for new ones).

But what I do agree with is that this isn’t “America’s fault” meaning Americans‘ fault. Consumerism is at the heart of our culture. We’re not greedy, we’re just living how we’ve been taught to live–by parents, teachers, our country’s mythology (follow the “American dream” we’re taught from childhood), Hollywood, and of course, by marketers. As Jonah Sachs and Susan Finkelpearl discuss in their article, we’ve been sold stories for decades telling us that our happiness, identity, and success stem from what we wear, eat, own, and use. How can that not lead us to defining ourselves through our consumption patterns?

The sad truth is that we can’t keep defining ourselves as consumers on a planet that is finite and fragile. If we don’t move beyond consumerism, the climate will change, as will other ecosystem services that humanity depends on, and we–not the Earth–will suffer the consequences. It seems the right loves to bash Malthus and Ehrlich, but of course they were right (another point of disagreement with Rush so maybe my reaction is not so strange after all). Malthus and Ehrlich were not wrong on content, just off by a time factor. They underestimated human ingenuity on providing food and goods for our growing population. This delayed the inevitable. But eventually the pressures on the planet have built up and thus, sadly, the crash will be even greater when it comes. That won’t mean the end of humanity, but it will probably mean centuries of insecurity as the human population adjusts to a new ecological reality.

Finally, so you can see it for yourself, there is a link to the press release, press conference statement, and accompanying slide show under the new website section: For the Media. Note that greed isn’t mentioned anywhere in these.

So again, it’s America’s fault, we are stealing the world’s resources, we’re using far more than our share, we’re destroying the climate, we are creating pollution, we are depleting the earth of its resources.  And this has been the case since Paul Ehrlich came out with The Population Bomb.  Every prediction in it false, did not come true.  But this is part and parcel of what President Obama believes.  He believes this country is guilty.  He’s a leftist, this is what he does; this was what he was taught.  This is why he’s cutting this economy down to size.
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  10 Responses to “A True Doomsday Scenario: Agreeing with Rush…”

  1. I take your point that consumerism is a cultural thing and not directly related to individual greed, but wouldn’t we say that greed is a factor in forming that culture. Why do already wealthy business owners and shareholders want to continuously increase growth of consumption of their products and services if not to have even more wealth. If you already have more than enough stuff and you want even more, is that not an indication of greed? I can see why we would not want to accuse people of the sin of greed, but on the other hand, sometimes one must call as spade a spade.

  2. Eric, I’ve been curious for years about why people like Rush Limbaugh think as they do. How can they think so differently from me? It’s like a separate reality. How can anyone live on our finite Earth and not understand that, indeed, that resources we need to survive and be comfortable are not infinite?

    Part of the answer is sure what you touched on in the post above: “Whatever culture you’re part of, that culture shapes your reality.” That statement is true for consumerism … and it’s true for the way people think generally. So it’s critical to keep fighting the good fight in terms of getting the sort of information presented in State of the Planet 2010 out there. For that … I salute you!

    And I also want to remind you of what you wrote in a post of mine a few weeks ago, when I was wondering what a transformed human culture might look like: “Sometimes that’ll be through big actions like working to extract fossil fuel subsidies or create a carbon tax, but at the same time the accumulation of many small actions will be as important–school garden programs, green curricula, social marketing campaigns, efforts to make it easy to bike and walk to work, creating green businesses, and so on. Together, over time, these will add up to a major transformation of human cultures.”


    Deborah Byrd

  3. I don’t understand the apologies of Erik Assadourian to Rush for telling the truth about devastating impact of American consumerism on everything (from environment to human health), and its contagious spread worldwide.
    Why syntactic triffles like word ‘greed’ used by Guardian, should be of any importance?
    Call it ‘obsessive, mindless consumption’, instead.
    In fact, the greatest danger to our world comes not from ‘consumerism’ per se (or our ‘culture’ of consumption and greed), but the ‘Rush’ and his righteous mobs.

  4. Haiti is a great example that Malthus was right in a limited way. Another example was in the Easter Islands. These are both examples of overpopulation creating terrible human conditions. Haiti will be saved by the charity of the others, but it is already bursting at the seams. You did not see starving people until the massive earthquake and destruction. The people look well fed, and as healthy as many other third world populaces. They live partially on charity however, and unless population is decreased greatly, will have a miserable future as a people. They should be an example of what overpopulation does to the land and to nations. It is unable to save itself, and in crueler times would be turning to cannibalism.

  5. […] via A True Doomsday Scenario: Agreeing with Rush…. […]

  6. Erik, I agree that Americans were manoeuvred into consumerism as Jeffrey Kaplan explained in his fascinating article “The Gospel of Consumption”:

    However, with regards to Rush Limbaugh’s statement, that the environmental degradation around the world isn’t America’s fault, that the US is not stealing the world’s resources and is not using far more than its share – are you sure you agree with that too?

  7. Thanks for clarifying, and your point is exceedingly well taken. How to build a resource conserving culture that creates RESILIENT SUSTAINABILITY is an absolutely key question, along with integrating the various clean/green technologies to achieve superior resource conservation and efficiency, AND getting the policies and capital flows right so they support and accelerate the transformation. BUT there is one point you in the US may not understand sufficiently well, which is that CHINA and its US/EU/PRC marketers have created the same story line, or something close to it. Consumerism is alive and well in the Middle Kingdom, and it is growing rapidly along with an expanding middle class whose disposable income is rising at orders of magnitude greater than local inflation. the US is no longer the determiner of the world’s fate. It is the conjunction between the US and CHINA that will determine the fate of humanity and millions of other species. I suggest your next STATE of the world go beyond borders to include the global view from a China perspective. In the meantime, best wishes for keeping up the good work you’re already doing! You might consider a chapter on Resilient Sustainability in the next issue as well. See the google docs folder link: http://docs.google.com/leaf?id=0B0NdbqiXpgrDYmU1NmU3M2MtN2NlNy00ZjVjLTg0ODYtNzI2M2FjOTRiYTRi&hl=en
    irv beiman, ph.d.

  8. The problem is more systemic than cultural in that consumerism was invented to mop up the excess productive capacity of industrial society. We first saw mass advetising and marketing appear in the “roaring twenties” of the last century. When this no longer sufficed to pull the world out of depression, consumerism and growth economics became institutionalised by the State and corporate sectors after Bretton Woods, Keynesian economics being the theoretical model for this new imperative. The dilemma seems to be that competition between firms and a growing availability of cheap fossil energy unleashed a surge of productivity. When combined with human population growth, these two factors drive up unemployment (which in turn erodes company sales and government revenue, thereby translating into systemic risk) all other things being equal. This is why we respond by increasing demand through whatever it takes, including mass advertising and fiscal and monetary stimulus. So I agree the problem is not greed per se, this behaviour is simply a reflection of underlying causes.

  9. What an absurd argument.
    Capitalism as a system is by its very nature greedy and unsustainable as resources are finite and unequally distributed.
    People have free will whether to adopt a consumerist lifestyle or not, even in the USA. We can make our own individual decisions.
    If we are to live in a sustainable world clearly something pretty major has to change. What is required is headlines and controversy to stimulate debate. the Guardian clearly generated this to some extent. What a pity that US ‘Greens’ don’t have the cojones to tell it as it is.
    The massive elephant in the room is of course that the US state has been captured my major corporations. Until decent Americans take their country back there will be no significant change of tack, whether Obama or anyone else is in power. Time for decent people to stand up and be counted, not for them to agree with Rush Limbaugh.

  10. […] help of the Worldwatch media team—and paved the way for broader coverage throughout the year. Rush Limbaugh’s discussion of the report was definitely a funny way to start the […]

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