It's the Economy, Stupid

12/21/2011 12:19 pm ET | Updated Feb 20, 2012

Recently, conservative radio talk show host Sean Hannity unwittingly promoted the idea of transforming our conspicuous consumption-oriented society into an environmentally sustainable one.

Hannity would probably cringe at the thought, but if he had gone more than halfway during his broadcast, he would have ended up on the same wavelength with progressives, his arch ideological foes. In the midst of his daily monologue excoriating President Obama for the sluggish economy, Hannity paused long enough to commiserate with those who were too fiscally-strapped to buy the Christmas gifts they desired for their families. Don't despair, he counseled, who needs all those expensive presents anyway? For gifts, he suggested that people write letters of endearment, compose poems, make something with a do-it-yourself kit, perform good deeds in behalf of loved ones, or set aside some quality time to spend together. These actions, he declared, would be much more appreciated and remembered in the long term than any acquisition of "stuff" during the holidays.

Hannity's recommendations for those down and out were on the mark as far as they went. He failed to close the circle as environmentalists have done by recognizing that this low impact consumptive pattern is desirable, and in the long term, ecologically imperative for all Americans, regardless of their financial status.

Seventy percent of our current economy stems from our shopping for "stuff," a ratio that makes the system environmentally unsustainable. Our materialistic addiction is depleting the planet's finite raw materials at an alarming pace. Discarded items are filling our waste dumps instead of being recycled for repeated use. Renewable natural resources are being utilized at a faster rate than they can regenerate. If these trends continue unabated, future generations are in for a rough ride.

To make matters worse, we are buying a lot of resource-intensive goods that we really don't need, often can't afford, and if we reflected at any length, actually don't want. Our brief attention span with new products is cultivated by manufacturers who deliberately make the items short-lived (planned obsolescence) so that we are soon back in the hunt for another purchase.

Does this mean we should forego gift giving? Shopping? Could a more environmentally sustainable economy replace the loss of conspicuous consumption revenue and just as importantly, give us a satisfying quality of life? The response to the first two questions is in the negative, to the third in the affirmative.

We can't suppress our acquisitive instinct. It is an elemental part of human nature. But it can be steered in an environmentally sustainable direction by tax incentives and disincentives, pricing items to reflect the cost of pollution damage incurred in their production, and employing education to inculcate the distinct advantages of qualitative over quantitative values.

What would such a society look like? There would be a major shift away from consumer items built for one-time disposal. Goods would be manufactured for durability and eventual recycling, mimicking the basic modus operandi of nature. Whole new industries would open up to repair and reconstitute essential products The economy would rely more heavily on technological innovation as a catalyst. Expansion and maintenance of municipal and transportation infrastructures would be major sources of employment. Other sectors that would assume a larger role in the job creation picture would be agriculture and the labor intensive service and entertainment industries, ranging from education and health to arts and leisure.

A cultural shift would gradually take place in which greater value would be attached to retention of knowledge and cultivation of high quality individual relationships than ownership of a closet full of designer clothes. Conservation would be embraced as a national status symbol, putting to rest any perception of it being a dressed-up version of deprivation.

Poor Hannity never dreamed he was espousing the enemy camp's framework for a restructured economy and cultural revolution. But no need to feel sorry for him. In the words of the 18th century bard Thomas Gray, "Ignorance is bliss."