by Betsy Taylor
Whether you are an avid wilderness hiker or an urban bird lover, you have surely noticed disturbing changes in the natural landscape. The losses and threats to our environment are evident from coast to coast. Countless farms and streams are forever gone. Fresh water is growing scarce in parts of the American West. Forests from Tennessee to Oregon have been logged at an alarming rate and air quality is below EPA standards in many urban areas. Climate change, and its capacity to disrupt natural ecosystems, looms ever larger.
We all know the bad news. But what do each of us know about how personal consumer choices can contribute to the problem … or the solution?
First the problem: The Earth is out of balance and our consumption of resources is a root cause of the problem. It seems everything but the planet is getting bigger: television screens, houses, vehicles, bathtubs, burgers, candy bars, waistlines and credit card debt. Meanwhile wilderness areas, grasslands and underground aquifers continue to shrink.
There is a connection. With just 5 percent of the planet’s global population, Americans consume some 30 percent of the world’s material resources and 40 percent of the gasoline. If everyone consumed like the average American, some scientists predict that we would need at least four more planets to provide the necessary resources and absorb the waste.
Our work-and-spend consumer lifestyles not only contribute to the decimation of planetary resources, they also contribute to personal and family stress. Consumer spending has been rising for decades. Yet polls indicate that we are not getting any happier. Indeed, after a certain level of material security is achieved, there is little correlation between expansive lifestyles and increased contentment. Nowadays, a typical couple spends 12 minutes a day in actual conversation, apart from getting laundry done or talking logistics. Average working parents spend just 40 minutes a week playing or being with their children in a non-goal or task-oriented way. In short, many Americans have more stuff … but less fun.
Last year, some 1.6 million families went too far with the “buy now, pay later” approach to life and had to declare bankruptcy. Nearly one-half of all Americans don’t get enough sleep and, each year, Americans on average work 350 hours – nearly nine weeks – more than Europeans. Three in five Americans report feeling pressure to work too much, and in an August 2004 survey, one in two Americans reported that they would willingly accept less money in exchange for more time.