When I was young, I used to eat food taken from a supermarket's garbage bin. We first came to America from Vietnam in the mid-'70s as refugees, and my eldest brother got a job working in a supermarket across from our crowded, ramshackle apartment. Among his many chores he found one particularly distasteful: throwing expired food into the garbage bin nightly, then pouring Clorox on top to discourage scavengers and the poor. So without fail he would call friends and relatives to come over in the dark of night and salvage whatever we wanted before he poured the chemical over perfectly preserved bags of cookies, frozen dinner trays, cans of tuna, bags of flour and a myriad of other edible goods.
After a while the supermarket manager caught on to this scheme and had a new trash bin installed with a padlock. My brother was soon thereafter out of a job.
Not much has changed since then, as far as being wasteful goes. In fact, it's gotten worse. Sure, we recycle, we talk green, and we want to save the polar bears. But Americans still remain as wasteful as ever.
A study by the Natural Resources Defense Council released recently found that Americans "waste 10 times as much food as someone in Southeast Asia, up 50 percent from Americans in the 1970s." We are throwing away up to 40 percent of our food, the research finds. That is estimated to be around $165 billion in wasted food each year. And even if we suffer from a long drawn recession, the average family of four winds up throwing away the equivalent of up to $2,200 in food a year.
But then there are the side effects: garbage production in the United States has doubled in the last 30 years. In Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life Of Garbage, Heather Rogers reported that approximately 80 percent of U.S. products are used once, then thrown away, while 95 percent of all plastic, two-thirds of all glass containers, and 50 percent of all aluminum beverage cans are never recycled, but instead get burned or buried. Indeed, the average American discards almost seven pounds of trash per day. Of all people on earth we produce the most waste.
The United States has less than 5 percent of the world's population, yet it consumes more than 30 percent of the world's energy resources, and generates 70 percent of total global toxic waste. "If everyone on the planet consumed at U.S. rates, we would need 3 to 5 planets to support our consumption!" notes Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives.
Not long ago, frugality was a virtue. Now, two-third of our economy is based on consumption. In the age of melting glaciers and rising sea levels, in an age where polar bears drown and frogs die en masse and coral reefs disappear and biodiversity dwindles along with forestland -- in the age, that is, of global warming, where hurricanes ravage cities and towns -- our way of life has become unsustainable. It has created an unprecedented crisis on a planetary scale.
"When consumption becomes the very reason economies exist, we never ask, 'How much is enough?' 'Why do we need all this stuff?' and 'Are we any happier?'" writes David Suzuki, author of The Sacred Balance: Rediscovering Our Place in Nature.
"Our personal consumer choices have ecological, social, and spiritual consequences," Suzuki writes. "It is time to re-examine some of our deeply held notions that underlie our lifestyles."
More Americans are beginning to ask these same questions after Katrina. But materialism is a powerful force, and when elevated into a concept called consumerism, refined by the genius of advertising and given the title "American Dream," few can resist. Consumer spending makes up more than 70 percent of our economy. We know we need to change, but like many an overweight person who wants to diet and exercise, we, as a nation, haven't found the will to break the habit. And it doesn't help that we're told all that consumption is good for the American economy.
As it is garbage has become the legacy of our era. The largest man-made structure? It used to be the Great Wall of China. Today's largest man-caused structure is now by far the Eastern Great Garbage Patch -- swirling plastics that gather in a gyrating movements of ocean currents -- between California and Hawaii that some scientists believe to be the size of Texas.
Back in the '70s when my brother worked in the supermarket and we were impoverished, I remember hauling some of the supermarket's expired food home to my family with giddiness. What Americans threw away was sustenance back home in Vietnam, where children scavenged through piles of garbage for anything salvageable and people canvassed the neighborhoods buying old papers and magazines to recycle or begged for slop to feed their pigs.
My own family and relatives, too, have moved on from our humble beginnings as refugees in America to become middle-class Americans whose motto, at times, seems to be "shop 'til you drop." The latest technology, the latest trend in fashion, the newest cars, the best laptop, the latest iPads and iPhones -- we've got to have them all. And yes, though I try to be frugal, I am part of that equation. I have thrown away good food after a dinner party, have bought more than I can eat. I own the latest technology. I am, too, part of the statistics.
Alas, I am not alone. Even as Americans are beginning to wonder if our way of life has a direct consequence on the weather, everyone else wants to become us. From China to Bombay, from Cape Town to Rio de Janeiro -- everyone wants a piece of the good life a la American style, and our collective desires are putting more pressure on ecosystems already on the brink.
A while back, walking home, I saw two old Chinese ladies looking for aluminum cans and plastic bottles in a garbage bin behind a restaurant near my home. One of the workers came out and yelled at the old ladies to stop.
As I watched the two old ladies scurrying away into the shadows, I thought of my own humble past. But I fear that, with the way things go, with global warming threatening to undermine our civilization, those two old scavengers may well represent our own retro-future.
New America Media's editor, Andrew Lam, is the author of "East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres," and "Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora." His next book, "Birds of Paradise Lost," is due out in Spring, 2013. Listen to his recent radio interview about being an immigrant and writer.