In an ecologically stressed world, we cannot entrust our future to an economy based primarily on people buying a lot of resource-intensive goods that they really don't need, often can't afford, and--if they reflected at any length--actually don't want. Our country must change the face of commerce by shifting away from reliance on the sale of consumer items built for abbreviated durability and one-time disposal. The U.S. economy must depend more heavily on the marketing of technological innovation. Expansion and maintenance of municipal and transportation infrastructures and alternative energy systems should be major new sources of jobs. Other avenues of employment that should assume a larger role are the agricultural sector and labor-intensive service/entertainment industries, ranging from education and health to arts and recreational pursuits. Our factories should concentrate more on the manufacture, repair, recycling, and reuse of essential products, especially big-ticket items.
As much as possible, all goods should be produced with recycled materials that when exhausted or outmoded could be recycled once again, perhaps for some lesser use. Raw materials utilized in manufacturing should, when feasible, be of the renewable kind, and extracted at a rate that allows adequate time for regeneration.
One way to expedite the transition to sustainability would be to integrate the environmental costs of production (i.e. energy use, pollution impacts, etc.) into the final price of merchandise. The higher price would dampen--perhaps greatly--the impetus for instant gratification and conspicuous consumption.
While monetary disincentives are likely to lead to a decrease in compulsive shopping that squanders resources, such deterrents alone cannot rid our society of its well-entrenched, profligate addiction to materialism. These cash disincentives can lose their clout, at least temporarily, because of a currency devaluation, an artificial supply glut, or some other form of price manipulation. Even more to the point, the acquisitive side of human nature is a product of our innate competitiveness, honed by the driving force for survival that is the essence of evolutionary natural selection and behind virtually all that we do. What's therefore needed is a cultural shift in which achievement is determined more on the basis of personal inner development and intellectual accomplishment than the size of a bank account. Greater value must be attached to the acquisition of knowledge and cultivation of high-quality individual relationships than to ownership of a closet full of designer clothes. The rapid integration of the Internet into virtually every facet of daily life is an ideal catalyst for facilitating this cultural transition. Pervasive computer use invariably has elevated the societal importance of information gathering and retention, with no end in sight.
For an environmentally sustainable value system to gain ascendancy, the notion must be dispelled that moderation is tantamount to penury. Conservation must not be viewed as a dressed-up version of deprivation. Instead, it should be regarded as an affirmation of the truism that less can be more, and recognized as a national status symbol. If you visualize conservation in those terms, what could instill a greater sense of achievement than to obtain more with less?
To reiterate, material acquisition should be de-emphasized by stressing quality over quantity of goods that are purchased. Planned obsolescence should be rendered obsolete. Recycling and reusing should become a way of life rather than a passing fad.
Some exponents have labeled this salutary lifestyle "voluntary simplicity" and have waxed lyrical about its relatively benign impact on the Earth's biosphere. Their words deserve our undivided attention and subsequent activist response, for if some variant of this lifestyle doesn't gather momentum in the first few decades of the 21st century, the future will be bleak.
Edward Flattau is an environmental columnist residing in Washington, D.C. This is an excerpt of his forthcoming book, Green Morality, due for release at the end of the summer.