Environment and consumption: The dictatorship of the present at the expense of the future


The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 states: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, education, housing, medical care, and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his/her control.”

The DHR did not foresee 4000 square feet mansions, central air conditioning, 3 cars in the driveway, and walk-in closets with 200 pairs of shoes in them.

Europeans also count among their “musts” 3 or 4 vacations per year. Americans do not but their frugality in that department is not entirely voluntary. American capitalism has dictated so, not for the sake of the planet but for its own benefit.

There are 10s’ of millions of ubiquitous SUVs in both North America and Europe, and the notoriously environment-indifferent Chinese are as prone to buy them and the greenest Germans are. Even as Germany embraces a non-nuclear future, Germans bought 20% more SUVs in 2010 than during the previous year.

30 years ago, anybody was happy to drive a family of 4 in a tiny sub-compact with a 50 HP engine.

Nobody is more aware than I of the fact that consumption represents 70% of our economy. But I am also aware that consumption at the present rate is not sustainable. We are using up the resources of the planet without any compunction. Thus, we have a very serious contradiction in our economic system. In the not-so-long-term, capitalism as we know it runs out of raw materials and dies.

I do not want to add the issue of climate change because there seems to be significant controversy over the validity of the scientific data. Incidentally, I do believe the evidence is consistent with the theory that we are affecting the climate. But even if we by-pass that point, there is no question that the resources in the planet are finite. Furthermore, in more scientific terms, the amount of potential energy that can be harnessed is also finite.

Of course every developing nation has the argument that they want to live like we do. Will democracy be able to convince the spoiled westerner that he/she most give up the right to be wasteful and vane? I always marvel at the humming of the AC of my neighbors who cool their house all day, even when they won’t be in it until the evening – I presume they work long hours to pay their energy bill. Of course, they would say that it is their house and their money.

With the present political atmosphere in our country, any government-sponsored program of conservation would be attacked as big-brother meddling and as an infringement of the right of the individual to be selfish and oblivious of the right the next generations to live.

Saving the future is a political challenge. I fear the energy revolution isn’t enough. We need a new intolerance of our chronic violation of the human right to future survival. When the environmental movement rose in the 1970s it was far more political than it is today. We must not set our views on conservation of resources and energy only, but also on the social context in which they are used. Without a radical change in our economy and way of life, we may not make it through the 21st century.