Sustainable living should be our national priority

By By Deen Chatterjee

By Deen Chatterjee

We need to consume in order to live. In a consumer culture, however, we live to consume. Consumption as a way of life is what we call “consumerism.” Its most intense manifestation is in today’s America, where our overwhelming consumption of resources defines our society and culture.

The drive toward consumerism is based on the belief that consumption leads to well being-thus the idea is that the more we consume, the better we live. It is indeed true that mindful consumption, within limits, enhances the quality of life. But a myth has been created-call it the American sacred cow-that the higher the standard of living, based on consumption and material possession, the higher the quality of life. But this is misconceived and we pay dearly for it.

Consumerism diminishes the quality of life. Material goods as a substitute for personal well-being take us away from developing meaningful human relationships, leading to alienation, fear and distrust. This insecurity ensures further addiction to consumption.

In our consumer culture, human good is understood in consumer terms, which ill-serves genuine human needs. The consumer model as the standard of human good is one-dimensional. It leads to a commodification of all aspects of life. Not only does it diminish the quality of life, but it is not sustainable, thus harming the planet and future generations.

The corporate-conservative agenda that shreds the social safety net at the same time encourages debt and consumerism. Our needs, wants and desires are manufactured and manipulated in order for corporations to sell products. In extolling consumerism as a patriotic virtue, as President Bush does when he advises people to shop more to help the ailing economy, this weapon of mass destruction is turned into a weapon of mass deception.

But we must resist this trend. Nothing less than our own well being, the well-being of the planet and that of all future generations are at stake.

One way out of this compulsive mindlessness (or madness, if you like) is to initiate some authenticity and critical reflection in our consumer habits. Not only should we ask ourselves whether we really need something that we are bent on buying, but we should also be aware of how it is manufactured.

However, though mindful consumer habits are a good start, to be truly effective we need to go for far-reaching changes both in our personal lives and in institutional policies. This requires that we make sustainable living a national priority. This is not easy, though the ideas are rather simple. Here is a broad sketch.

Sustainable living refers to a lifestyle that can be maintained collectively by the available resources, both human and natural. The application of this concept requires far-reaching adjustments that are both personal and political.

Stated simply, sustainable living requires putting human welfare over corporate profit. Though “freedom” is a buzzword in America, our consumer culture has made the freedom to consume the only viable freedom, which has led to a neglect or denigration of other forms of freedom in important areas of life, such as politics, religion, sexuality and eating habits. Genuine options in these areas-usually missing in the American life-would questionand limit the all pervasive consumer model of freedom and human good, thus promoting sustainable living and leading to a flourishing life.

For instance, true political freedom would require genuine options within a diversity of political ideologies, which is non existent in America. In lifestyle choices, viable options in religion, food, sexuality and marriage are very limited. Genuine options in religion should not only mean religious diversity but freedom from religion as well. However, religious fundamentalism and religious encroachment on the political and public arena are on the rise in America.

Freedom in food habits should include vegetarianism as a realistic and affordable option. Yet in contrast to the ready availability of meat everywhere in America, one needs to go an extra mile to ensure the availability of vegetarian foods.

In sexuality, freedom should not only mean sexual freedom, including women having control over their own bodies, but also free expression and societal acceptance of diverse sexual orientations. But this is still rare in puritanical America. With regard to marriage, there should be viable options to the dominant nuclear-family paradigm, as opposed to the cultural pressure to get married and have children. However, to remain single, especially for women, remains a difficult choice in America.

Overall, the American norms of credibility and acceptability are still too narrow. Such narrow and rigid options in important areas of life limit human potential and diminish the quality of life. The glorification of consumer lifestyle is meant not only to maintain corporate coffers but to cover up this sterility, to provide specious choices instead of real ones, and to make us unaware of our loss. Consumerism does this by identifying consumer values as human values and the all pervasive American consumer norm as the global norm.

This has far-reaching harmful impact on global resources and, ironically, leads to greater poverty worldwide, as well as an impoverished spirit. On the other hand, to promote sustainable lifestyle is to promote viable options in other spheres of life which would liberate us from our obsessive consumption and open up a whole new world of human growth and spiritual renewal. It would challenge us to explore new directions and moral outlook that reflect the interconnectedness of lives and events on a dense, high-technology planet.

Currently, American-style excessive consumerism has created a world in which there are islands of affluence in a vast sea of poverty. This is not right, nor is it sustainable. Consequently, sustainable living should be our highest national priority. There is no greater national interest than to save our planet and promote global justice.

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