Matthew McDermott


If Consumerism is Destroying the Planet How Can I Opt Out?

On Friday over at TreeHugger I wrote that the new State of the World 2010 report was just released by the Worldwatch Institute and the gist of it is something which TreeHugger and Planet Green have said a number of times: You simply can't extend the resource consumption of the United States, or even Europe, to all the world's people.

The State of the World report shows that a per capita income, and the associated resource consumption, of about $5000 per year could sustainably be extended to some 6.2 billion people. Consider that we're going to go past that, and then some by 2050.

That means that we're talking about a level of consumption less than that of the average person in Thailand or Jordan.

Pretty daunting, right? I know when I hear that my head gets a little foggy and my eyes glaze over a bit. And I not only get paid, but enjoy reading and writing about this stuff.

But if you're the average, non-wonky Planet Green reader, what should you do with that information? How do you start thinking about reducing your ecological footprint? You can certainly start with any of the number of simple green tips we've put out there, but I urge you to go deeper than that.

Satish Kumar, editor of Resurgence magazine and one of my personal green heros, writes in his book "Spiritual Compass" about the Jain concept of Sanyama. Hinduism and Buddhism have similar concepts as well. Kumar defines this is as simplicity, self-restraint, sufficiency, frugality. It is the quality of being sattvic for those of you familiar with Ayurveda or hatha yoga.

Fellow PGer Lloyd Alter has written a good deal about frugal green living, but this idea goes a bit deeper than that conceptually, and for me wraps around the notion of frugality.

"We need to learn to be satisfied with less," Kumar says. Rather than being a constraint this is a great freedom.

Obviously, being satisfied with less doesn't apply if your basic needs of food, shelter, and clothing aren't being met--as they aren't for millions (billions!) of people around the world--but past that level, which I imagine every single reader of Planet Green has reached, really consider the notion of being satisfied with less. Satisfied with what you have, in this moment.

Kumar sums it up:

Every morning after meditation practicing Jains put a limit on the number of items they are going to eat or wear, the distance they will travel, and the things they are going to purchase. Their aim is to reduce their consumption from the previous day, and find satisfaction using a few things well rather than many things carelessly.

This is not say that one has to be extreme and give up everything; the intention is to appreciate the importance of frugality and give proper value to the things upon which we depend, rather than being wasteful.

The point is not to become obsessed with the limits one has set for oneself, and suffer guilt if the aim is not achieved; the true meaning of restraint is to be mindful of our relationship with the material world, and to create a better balance between material needs and spiritual needs.

While I don't expect you to go this far at first I think this is a worthwhile goal. The types of changes we will all have to make to create a sustainable civilization aren't easy to make. They require decided self-examination. But that self-examination, that self-imposed restraint and effort, is the most liberating thing you can do.