Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Mindful Consumption

Mindful Consumption. We must consume consciously and with restraint, in ways that nurture the Earth. When this is not possible and we truly cannot go without consuming a harmful product, we must choose to consume goods and services that hurt the Earth and humanity as little as possible.

“Live simply so that others might simply live.”“The Earth has enough for everyone’s needs, not everyone’s greed.” These quotations from Mahatma Gandhi demonstrate just how wise Gandhi was. They summarize important lessons on how to consume in a world that is overtaxed by human consumption patterns, and where 2 billion people are barely surviving because of the inequitable distribution of resources. But how to live out this wisdom?

We must find a way to consume as little of the world’s resources as possible in our pursuit of a high quality of life. Yet how do we judge what is a sustainable high quality of life versus the pursuit of unnecessary, unsustainable wants? The ecological philosopher Arne Naess once said, “Live at a level we wish others to attain.” Do we really expect that the Earth can provide everyone with a car? A wide-screen TV? A dog? A second home? If you answered no to any of these, you should ask yourself, can you in good conscience own one? And if not, then comes the challenge of extricating oneself from this “essential” product.

There are many opportunities to make changes with minimal effects on one’s current lifestyle. One can purchase clothing, appliances, furniture, and other needs from secondhand stores or networks like Freecycle. By getting a “new” shirt from Goodwill you’ll be supporting a social enterprise while preventing creation of a new piece of clothing, most likely made in a sweatshop of unsustainable materials and toxic dyes.When buying second-hand is not an option and you must buy new (e.g., soap), try to buy a sustainable version. Most products today have an ecologically friendly variant.

Over time, you can find ways to change your lifestyle so certain goods become unnecessary altogether. Take the car, for example. By living two blocks from my workplace and four blocks from a grocery store, I have dispensed with a car for the past seven years. The flip side is that I can only afford a small place to live, but that means less cleaning, less stuff to buy, and less money spent on heating and lighting. And if you truly can’t give up your car (for example, because your office is in a town without good public transit), then walk or cycle whenever you can. Why drive to the gym, then run on a machine for 40 minutes? Simply biking or running a few kilometers to the grocery store and back would have achieved the same thing, while saving time, money, and fossil fuels.

More “radical” changes might even do more: inviting our aging parents to live with us might sound like a chore (and at times it certainly will be), but merging households can lower everyone’s ecological footprint and provide a free source of childcare (on top of the more important benefit of tying a family together more closely).

One more tool to help in this process: turn off the TV. Advertising and shows have a direct influence over buying patterns (even if we like to believe we’re immune to these persuasion tactics). The more television we watch, the more money we spend, even though we have less time to spend it! (See Juliet Schor's The Overspent American for evidence on this.) Spending leisure time in ways that reconnect us to friends and family rather than electronic gadgets is a key way to increase wellbeing while lowering consumption. Try it!

First printed in World Watch Magazine, Jan/Feb 2009 issue.

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