THE BLOG
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Consumed With Guilt

Cross-posted with Finch's Quarterly Review.

The current financial crisis has taught us many things about our consumer behavior -- the most important lesson might just be the one that could save our planet. The lesson is this: the world cannot support a consumer-based economy. With the human population continuing to explode, we are quickly running out of the raw earthly materials needed to manufacture consumer goods. Not to mention the fact that there is almost no place left to dispose of all our "things" once they wear out or become redundant. The cycle continues when advertisers cleverly produce ads that create grief holes in our psyches, cunning spots that convince the consumer that these empty feelings can only be filled by purchasing what they are selling. The question is: can we break the cycle and learn to live with less and be happy? I think we can.

I grew up surrounded by farms. My father was a drive-in movie theater manager. Drive-ins were built far away from city streetlights and neighborhoods because they needed space and darkness. Drive-ins were a romantic part of rural America. In the Sixties and Seventies cars were built big -- a physical expression of the liberty to which Americans believed they held the copyright. They could drive their big cars to the movies that glorified their independence and dominance of the West: cowboy films that showed white men defeating "Savage Indians"; Pioneers crossing the Great Plains, fulfilling their manifest destiny over nature and the lowly animals God had put on earth for their consumption; World War II movies that depicted the US Army and the American military as the most powerful force on earth; Good triumphing over Evil. Hollywood's version of the American history.

I lived in Utah from the age of five until my 15th year. Sensuous years. The drive-ins were slow and cold during the Rocky Mountain winters. In the spring there was the sweet smell of turned soil and fertilized fields. In the fall, there was the smell of harvest and wet fallen leaves melting back into the earth. My walks to school would be through groves of apples and pears. It was during those walks in the fall and winter months that I would try and recall the wonder and strange magic of hot summer nights at my father's drive-in. The crowds of people and the nights when the drive-in reached capacity, filled with almost 700 cars. And the smells from the snack bar, hot popcorn and fresh-baked hot dog buns. That's all gone now. Where once there were some 4,000 drive-ins, there are now fewer than 400 left throughout the US. In Utah there is one. The others were torn down to develop the land. Houses, malls and department stores now stand where I spent my youth. The orchards and farmland are gone too. Utah, a state that was once self-sufficient, a state that grew all its own food, raised its own poultry and livestock, now imports almost everything it consumes. It has become a consumer economy. The simple pleasures of life disappeared at the speed that the open farmland was disappearing. I was a witness to this change, not just in Utah, but across America. As the United States has moved from a self-sufficient, producing culture to a culture of consumers, its citizens have become more irritable, obese and, ironically, found the need to consume ever more. We are caught in a vicious cycle of buying to fill up the ever-increasing hole which is lined with unreasonable fears and spells of panic and nervousness. This is all bad news for the consumer, but great news for the people who manufacture and sell what we are consuming. This has to stop.

Forty years ago, man walked on the moon. For me, the image of our home from its surface was overwhelming. From more than a quarter of a million miles away, I saw how fragile and far away from everything in the universe the earth really is. It's believed that the universe is between 13.5bn and 14bn years old -- give or take a few million. Our little blue ball in the sea of ever-expanding (or contracting) universe is around 4.5bn years old, unless you hold steadfast to certain religious beliefs and, if so, you'll argue that the world is an infant of only 8,000 years or so, carbon dating be damned. Around 8000 BCE, man began to understand how to grow crops. We lived harmoniously with the seasons of the earth for thousands of years; our religions were centered on the growing seasons. The earliest agriculturists worshipped the sun and the elements, nature and all the forms of life with which we shared the world.

About 200 years ago -- at the start of the Industrial Revolution -- our machines made us more powerful and we no longer needed to follow or obey the rules of nature. We began to understand how to alter life by genetically engineering crops and the animals we consume. Along the way, we have always behaved as though the resources of the world were created for us to use and exploit. We have behaved as if those resources were infinite. Today we understand that those resources are finite. We are killing our planet with dirty fuels that we burn to power our consumption.

It was from the moon that some people imagined our earth's history and its place in the universe. Environmentalists began to see the impact of human behavior and a glimpse of our future. We saw a beautiful blue ball. Land masses separated by seas, but connected by a very thin atmosphere. From the moon's surface we saw no borders. The atmosphere, the air, and the seas knew no boundaries. No political parties. No religious beliefs. We saw how precious and important our atmosphere is; a delicate layer of gases that protects us from the powerful rays of the sun and also separates us from the vastness of space. From the moon we saw the blackness and emptiness of space in a way we couldn't from earth. We saw how far away from other planets and distant stars we really are. We saw our home and realized, really understood, that it is the only home we have and the only place we will ever know.

This earthly miracle has taken care of an immeasurable number of species for an unimaginable number of centuries. To the emerging and eroding mountains and the vast seas and oceans, the human lifespan is but a moment. It is during this brief moment of human history that we have created what the Hopi Indians call Koyaanisqatsi, their word that means "life out of balance." The film by the same title, directed by Godfrey Reggio with a haunting musical score by composer Philip Glass, illustrates mankind's devastation and destruction. The film illustrates how the human population, swelling as fast as a dead animal's belly lying in the hot sun on a dirt road alongside one of the third world's many cardboard house slums, can be contrasted to the imbalance of Western wealth. The film exposes humans as slaves of their own manufactured material desires. We see how wealthy, well-fed and well-clothed humans suffer from a different kind of poverty. Since the film has no dialogue, it allows the viewer to interpret the story through powerful images and music. For some, the film is hopelessly negative because it offers no solution to the problems it presents. For others, it is a call to action. Koyaanisqatsi can make you wonder if humankind is simply instinct driven. It questions our ability to conserve, live altruistically and to take steps to protect the environment for future generations. It can make you wonder if taking real steps to protecting the environment is antithetical to human behavior.

Would that help explain human selfishness? Are our lives just a more excessive display of pride and appearance? Arrogance and self-importance? The answer is yes. And no. We have created weapons and industries, machines and tools capable of destroying everything on this planet. We have, in so many ways, become the stewards of life on this earth. Together, man and science have become God. Not mythical, but actual. We can now recreate life as easily as we can destroy it. So the question is: can we be more than slaves of our past behavior and current desires? Can we transform from a society of consumers to a culture of sustainability? I think we can because history has shown that the human spirit is capable of so many things. Like going to the moon. Yes, we can.

If the great Mike Nichols and Buck Henry got together to make a new version of The Graduate, "plastics" would be replaced with the word "sustainability." The consumer economy we have grown up with is going the way of the dodo. Evolution teaches that everything is in flux and continually evolving to the ever-changing world we share. The new economy is going to be difficult to accept for those unwilling to adapt, and profitable for those willing to alter the paradigm of consumerism. Values will change.

Creativity and intelligence will rise to the surface as indolence and leisure sinks into the mud and become fossilized reminders of the past. Communities will become stronger as they begin to contract, reversing urban sprawl. Neighbors will become neighbors again. Fences will be removed and communal gardens will be grown. Sharing and helping each other will bring out the best in individuals and our old will become assets instead of burdens. We will again realize that life is like the web of a spider: that what an individual does to a strand, he or she does to the entire web. The soil, the air and the water will be the new valued commodities and sustainability will become the new way forward. The newest and coolest thing to give a friend or family member will no longer be a "thing." Listening and paying attention, giving your love, support and encouragement... Being there, being present will now be the greatest gift. And it doesn't cost a penny. Evolution has taught us many things. Life that does not adapt and transform to the ever-changing environment runs the risk of extinction. Adapt, change, or disappear. It's our choice. It is exciting to think that my children's children will be able to have the sensuous experience of walking to school through an orchard of fruit. I'm going to do everything I can to make that future possible.