Is Consumption an Endangered Species?

The financial debacle has many tentacles, each threatening to strangle our sense of security and plans for the future. Jobs are in jeopardy because the credit crunch stops the normal pattern of business borrowing dead in its tracks. The typical assets of saving families have lost 20-30% of their value. Maybe the rise over the past few years was illusory but that matters not at all when the investors have to readjust their present spending and plans for the future.

Fears of a recession are fueled by a drop in consumer spending which sends signals to producers to reduce output which causes job loss which leads to lower consumption which continues on and on, hopefully not ad infinitum.

The lower levels of consumption might be seen as a positive change by those concerned about sustainability. With the emphasis on consumption as a primary factor in leading to unsustainability in my book, some will be tempted to say maybe we can now reduce our level of concern. I say to them that such an attitude is ungrounded. Yes, lower consumption should, in turn, lower the negative impact on the planet and reduce unsustainability. But it does little or nothing to create sustainability.

Lowering consumption as a result of an economic turndown is only a temporary measure. All the rescue measures and stimuli are aimed at restoring the level of consumption to previous levels as fast as is possible. Too bad as this is an opportunity being missed. A chance to turn lemons into lemonade. Think what might happen if our leaders everywhere—in the government, in the pulpits, at the helm of business, in the classroom—would ask everyone to examine what is important to them. When one cannot find instant satisfaction at Wal-Mart or, perhaps they will recognize that relationships are more important than things, or that their health comes from their way of life, not from a shelf full of prescription bottles and the magic of an MRI.

I raise these questions, not to belittle the hardships that so many now have encountered, but rather to argue that, like in all crises, what really matters can rise to the surface of our consciousness. This could be a moment of reflection and a fundamental shift toward those values and beliefs that underpin true sustainability. We are not individuals swimming by ourselves in a murky sea, but are part of a community that ultimately fills the whole surface of the globe. We are integrally a part of the world, not some detached self looking at it through a soda straw. What I do matters to everyone.

It is ironic that the word, economy, comes from the Greek word for house, since houses are arguably the triggers of the present crisis. I do hope that the economy can be restored quickly, restoring both our collective house and our individual homes. But I also hope we will use this opportunity to reflect on what matters to each and everyone of us.