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State of the World 2010: From Madison Avenue to Mad Max?

WASHINGTON - Without an intentional cultural shift that values sustainability over
consumerism, no government pledges or technological advances will be
enough to rescue humanity from unacceptably hazardous environmental and
climate risks, concludes the Worldwatch Institute in the latest edition
of its flagship annual report, State of the World 2010. The book, subtitled Transforming Cultures: From Consumerism to Sustainability,
defines "consumerism" as a cultural orientation that leads people to
find meaning, contentment, and acceptance primarily through what they

"We've seen some encouraging efforts to combat the world's climate
crisis in the past few years," says project director Erik Assadourian.
"But making policy and technology changes while keeping cultures
centered on consumerism and growth can only go so far. To thrive long
into the future, human societies will need to shift their cultures so
that sustainability becomes the norm and excessive consumption becomes

In 2006, people consumed $30.5 trillion worth of goods and services, up
28 percent from just 10 years earlier. This rise in consumption has
resulted in a dramatic increase in resource extraction; the world digs
up the equivalent of 112 Empire State Buildings worth of materials each
day, with the typical American consuming an average of 88 kilograms
(194 pounds) of stuff daily-more than most Americans weigh. If the
whole world lived like this, Earth could sustain only 1.4 billion
people, or just a fifth of the current population, the report notes.

"Cultural patterns are the root cause of an unprecedented convergence
of ecological and social problems, including a changing climate, an
obesity epidemic, a major decline in biodiversity, loss of agricultural
land, and production of hazardous waste," says Assadourian.

The report's 60 authors present strategies for reorienting cultures
that range from "choice editing"-deliberately striking options from
consumer menus-to harnessing the power of religious groups and rituals
to internalize sustainability values. Some examples from State of the World 2010 include:

  • School menus in Italy and elsewhere are being
    reformulated to use healthy, local, and environmentally sound foods,
    transforming children's dietary norms in the process.
  • In
    suburbs such as Vauban, Germany, bike paths, wind turbines, and
    farmers' markets are not only making it easy to live sustainably, but
    are making it hard not to.
  • At the U.S.-based carpet company
    Interface Inc., CEO Ray Anderson radicalized a business culture by
    setting the goal of taking nothing from the Earth that cannot be
    replaced by the Earth.
  • In Ecuador, rights for "Pachamama" (Mother Earth) have entered into the Constitution.

The report examines the institutions that shape cultural systems.
Business has played the leading role in shifting cultures to center on
consumerism, making an array of resource-intensive products such as
bottled water, fast food, cars, disposable paper goods, and even pets
seem increasingly "natural."

Government has also promoted consumerism as a lynchpin of policy, often
making it synonymous with national well-being and job creation. As the
global economic recession accelerated in 2009, wealthy countries primed
national economies with $2.8 trillion of new government stimulus
packages, only a small percentage of which focused on green

Today, an intentional shift is necessary and is already taking root
thanks to cultural pioneers around the world who are starting to use
six culture-shaping institutions-education, business, the media,
government, traditions, and social movements-to reorient cultures
toward sustainability.

In 26 articles and 23 short text boxes, the report details dozens of
innovative efforts that are tapping these key institutions, from
changing business cultures and starting social enterprises to
cultivating social marketing efforts, shifting family-planning norms,
and tapping the power of primary schools, universities, and even school

"As the world struggles to recover from the most serious global
economic crisis since the Great Depression, we have an unprecedented
opportunity to turn away from consumerism," says Worldwatch President
Christopher Flavin. "In the end, the human instinct for survival must
triumph over the urge to consume at any cost."



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The Worldwatch Institute is an independent research organization recognized by opinion leaders around the world for its accessible, fact-based analysis of critical global issues. Its mission is to generate and promote insights and ideas that empower decision makers to build an ecologically sustainable society that meets human needs.

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