Human World

State of the world 2010. Can consumer culture be transformed?

I don’t think of myself as a material girl, but this morning an online quiz told me that three planet Earths would be needed to support my lifestyle. That scares me.

I’ve learned that – in terms of material consumption – it’s not easy, no matter how hard you try, to consume differently from the culture in which you live.

The United States is a culture of consumption. And so it’s interesting when a U.S. organization like the Worldwatch Institute – an independent research organization in Washington D.C. – releases an annual report with the title State of the World 2010: Transforming Cultures: From Consumerism to Sustainability.

I haven’t yet received a copy of the report, which is said to include 26 articles from more than 50 eminent researchers and experts on consumerism, sustainability and cultural change. Worldwatch says the report will “provide information on how we can make the needed shift from consumerism to sustainability.”

According to Worldwatch, the report has at its heart a profound question: how do we transform consumer cultures into cultures of sustainability?

Let’s assume that question is meaningful enough – for enough of us – to make that transformation a possibility. Personally, I believe it’s one of the most meaningful questions around, but the reality is that we live in a world where consumer culture is a goal, not something to be transformed. To me, it’s only logical that our finite world can’t support infinite consumption of natural resources, and so the question to me is, simply, when will we reach the point of consuming more than Earth can provide, assuming we haven’t already reached that point? Many experts say we have reached it already. Every year now, the Global Footprint Network marks the annual Earth overshoot day, the day each year on which, according to the calculations of the Global Footprint Network, humanity has placed more demand on ecological services – from filtering CO2 to producing food, fiber and timber– than nature can provide in a single year.

Have we reached the point of unsustainablity already? The Global Footprint Network and the Worldwatch Institute say yes. If it’s true, what will happen? On the upside, new technologies will surely lead to ever more efficient use and recycling of resources. On the downside, there is the possibility of a global pandemic and ensuing population loss – and/or of massive economic disruption – leading to the use of fewer resources.

Worldwatch says that over 2 billion of Earth’s nearly 7 billion inhabitants are now considered to be in the global consumer class. Chances are – if you’re reading this – you belong to that class, as I do. In our world of consumer culture, we are encouraged to define happiness and success through the consumption of goods and services.

Is that me, I wonder? Is it you? What would it be like to transform our consumer culture? What would it like to live with less?

If you’re interested in this question, you might take a look at the State of the World 2010 report from Worldwatch. Go to Amazon and tell them you want to see the report available on a Kindle! Or start by reading Worldwatch’s blog on this subject – or join their Facebook page, which is called Transforming Cultures.

January 8, 2010
Human World

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