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.