Seeking a Cultural Revolution: From Consumerism to Sustainability

WASHINGTON - The last 50 years
have seen an unprecedented and unsustainable spike in consumption,
driven by a culture of consumerism that has emerged over that period,
says a report released Tuesday by the Worldwatch Institute.

This consumerist
culture is the elephant in the room when it comes to solving the big
environmental issues of today, the report says, and those issues cannot
be fully solved until a transition to a more sustainable culture is

of the World 2010", subtitled "Transforming Cultures: From Consumerism
to Sustainability
", tries to chart a path away from what Worldwatch
president Christopher Flavin calls "the consumer culture that has taken
hold probably first in the U.S. and now in country after country over
the past century, so that we can now talk about a global consumerist
culture that has become a powerful force around the world."

this culture, says the book-length report, people find meaning and
contentment in what they consume, but this cultural orientation has had
huge implications for society and the planet. The average U.S.
citizens, for instance, consumes more each day, in terms of mass, than
they weigh. If everyone lived like this, the Earth could only sustain
1.4 billion people.

Flavin admits consumerism is not the only
factor driving environmental degradation but says it is one of the key
root causes on which other factors are built - and, as a cultural
framework, it is expanding.

"In India and China, for instance,
the consumer culture of the U.S. and Western Europe is not only being
replicated but being replicated on a much vaster scale," Flavin says.

has risen sixfold since 1960, the report says, citing World Bank
statistics. Even taking the rising global population into account, this
amounts to a tripling of consumption expenditures per person over this
time. This has led to similar increases in the amount of resources used
- a sixfold increase in metals extracted from the earth, eightfold in
oil consumption and 14-fold in natural gas consumption.

total, 60 billion tons of resources are now extracted annually - about
50 percent more than just 30 years ago," the report says.

resource consumption has also led to unsustainable systems of
distributing and producing those resources. In the field of
agriculture, for instance, every one dollar spent on a typical U.S.
food item yields only about seven cents for the farmer, while 73 cents
goes to distribution, says the report's chapter on shifting to a more
sustainable agriculture system.

It points to this as one outcome
of increasingly unsustainable consumption habits. These habits have
formed only recently - the same dollar yielded 40 cents for the farmer
in 1900 - but they have now become ingrained, it says.

consumption is based on more than individual choices. As co-author
Michael Maniates says, "We're not stupid, we're not ignorant, we don't
even have bad values."

Rather, we are acting under the heavy
influence of cultural conventions that influence our behaviour by
making things like fast food, air conditioning and suburban living feel
increasingly "natural" and more difficult to imagine living without, he

To prevent future environmental damage, "policy alone will
not be enough. A dramatic shift in the very design of human societies
will be essential," says the report.

In terms of climate change,
for instance, the authors say that even if countries reach their "most
ambitious" emissions-reducing proposals, temperatures would still go up
by 3.5 degrees Celsius by 2100.

Flavin admits that cultural
shift is "arguably one of the most difficult" topics to tackle, but, as
project director Erik Assadourian says, "This shift is not only
possible, it is already beginning to happen."

Most of the
report, in fact, discusses action that has been and can be taken to
shift the cultural paradigm, rather than the damage the current
paradigm has done.

The 244-page report cites a wide variety of
examples such as the enshrining of the rights of nature into Ecuador's
constitution and schools pushing children to think more sustainably by
giving them healthy, locally-grown lunches and encouraging them to walk
or bike to class.

Everything from childbearing to burial
traditions can be done in a more sustainable way, it says, and should
be. In his foreword, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Muhammad Yunus points
to his experience developing the concept of microcredit and overturning
the cultural conception that poor people were not creditworthy as
evidence that such deep-rooted conceptions can, in fact, be changed.

I know that cultural assumptions, even well-established ones, can be
overturned," he says, "The book goes well beyond standard prescriptions
for clean technologies and enlightened policies. It advocates
rethinking the foundations of modern consumerism."

The report
also points to the roles different societal institutions can play in
spurring cultural shifts. Among these, religion, government, the media,
businesses and education all have key roles to play. Taken separately,
their efforts might seem small, admits Assadourian, but taken together
they can effect real change.

"Keep in mind that consumerism had
its beginning only two centuries ago and really accelerated in the last
50 years... With deliberate effort we can replace consumerism with
sustainability just as quickly as we traded home-cooked meals for Happy
Meals and neighbourhood parks for shopping malls," he says, alluding to
the tenuousness of what appear to be deep and solid cultural roots.

consumerism will buckle under its own impossibility," predicts
Assadourian. We can either act proactively to replace it with a more
sustainable cultural model or wait for something else to fill the void,
he says.

"Culture, after all, is for making it easy for people
to unleash their potential, not for standing there as a wall to stop
them from moving forward. Culture that does not let people grow is a
dead culture," concludes Yunus.

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