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We Are Consumers

The all-singing, all-dancing crap of the world

We’re consumers. We are the byproducts of a lifestyle obsession. Murder, crime, poverty—these things don’t concern me. What concerns me are celebrity magazines, television with 500 channels, some guy’s name on my underwear. Rogaine, Viagra, Olestra…fuck Martha Stewart. Martha’s polishing the brass on the Titanic. It’s all going down, man. So fuck off with your sofa units and strine green stripe patterns.

The headline reads, Increased Fears About Environment, But Little Change In Consumer Behavior. This is from the most recent National Geographic Greendex survey, which surveys 18 countries to measure and monitor consumer progress toward environmentally sustainable consumption. The key objectives of the survey are to provide regular quantitative measures of consumer behavior and to promote sustainable consumption.

To explain the headline above, 61% of consumers said they are "very concerned" about environmental problems, and 51% believe that climate change will negatively affect their own lives. These stats increased between 2012 and 2014, but despite the growing concerns, the US actually got worse in their sustainable behavior from 2012 to 2014. We are only getting worse.

The US ranks dead last compared to the other 18 countries surveyed in our overall sustainable behavior. Yup, dead last. We rank dead last in a handful of categories actually... American consumers are among the least likely to feel guilty about the impact they have on the environment. Americans are the least likely to frequently use their own durable bags when shopping, and we are among the least frequent consumers of fruits and vegetables. (Don't worry though, we rank way above average in meat consumption and are the most frequent consumers of convenient (prepared/processed/packaged) foods.)

Since 2012, there has been an increase in the proportion of Americans who feel owning a big house is a very important goal in their life. And there are more shopping malls than high schools in the US.

Goddammit, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables—slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need. We’re the middle children of history, man: No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war; our Great Depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off. 

Moving beyond the Greendex now, here are some other crazy stats:

  • Americans constitute 5% of the world's population but consume 24% of the world's energy.
  • On average, one American consumes as much energy as

    o 2 Japanese

    o 6 Mexicans

    o 13 Chinese

    o 31 Indians

    o 128 Bangladeshis

    o 307 Tanzanians

    o 370 Ethiopians

Americans eat 815 billion calories of food each day - that's roughly 200 billion more than needed. We throw out 200,000 tons of edible food daily. The average individual daily consumption of water is 159 gallons, while more than half the world's population lives on 25 gallons. Eighty percent of the corn grown and 95% of the oats are fed to livestock. Fifty-six percent of available farmland is used for beef production. All while 700 to 800 million people, perhaps even as many as a billion, don't get enough food to support normal daily activities. 1.7 billion people lack access to clean drinking water, and by the year 2020, the number of urban dwellers without access to safe water and sanitation services is expected to grow by 80%.

How embarrassing—a house full of condiments and no food.

Enough stats, I think we get the point: Americans are consumers, we consume way too much, and we don't seem to care. The current dictionary definition of a consumer is "a person who acquires goods and services for his or her own personal needs." But original definitions of a consumer include "one who squanders or wastes" and "one who destroys, or expends by use." I think we should go back to the old definitions, maybe then we could get Americans to feel more guilty about the out-of-control consumption, waste, and damage to the environment we are causing.

Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia, says "It would take 7 earths for the rest of the world to consume at the same rate we Americans do... It's no wonder we are no longer called citizens but consumers. And consumer is a good name for us, and our politicians and corporate leaders are reflections of whom we have become." Yvon also says, "The Zen master would say if you want to change government, you have to aim at changing corporations, and if you want to change corporations, you have to first change the consumers. Whoa, wait a minute! The consumer? That's me. You mean I have to change?" Yes, consumers are the ones who have to change. The way we spend our money needs to change. Our habits and daily actions need to change.

Hey, you created me—take some responsibility!

In Leonardo DiCaprio's film Before The Flood, there is the scene when he travels to India and speaks with Sunita Narin, the director of the Centre for Science and Environment in India. She says to him, "I'm sorry to say this and I know you're American, so please don't take this the wrong way, but your consumption is really going to put a hole in the planet. I think that's the conversation we need to have. I'll show you charts from this perspective. [Shows page from a book]. Electricity consumed by one American at home is equivalent to 1.5 citizens of France, 2.2 citizens of Japan and 10 citizens of China, 34 of India and 61 of Nigeria. Why? Because you're building bigger, you're building more and using much more than before. The fact is we need to put the issue of lifestyle and consumption at the centre of climate negotiations."

Leo's response to her is, "Look, there's no way I don't agree with you. Absolutely correct. Yes, it's a very difficult argument to present to Americans that we need to change our lifestyle and I would probably argue that it's not going to happen."

Is he right? Is changing our lifestyle impossible?

After meeting with Sunita Narin, DiCaprio meets with Gidon Eshel, a professor of environmental science and physics at Bard College in New York, Eshel said: "Of all the reasons for tropical deforestation, the foremost is beef. Beef is one of the most inefficient use of resources on the planet. In the U.S., 47 percent of land is used for food production and, of that, the lion's share is just to grow feed for cattle. The things that we actually eat—fruit, vegetables, nuts—it's a percent. Most importantly, cows produce methane. And methane is a powerful greenhouse gas … About 10-12 percent of total U.S. emissions is due to beef. It's staggering … Maybe not everyone is ready to eat tofu 24/7. I get that. But even if you just have to have some flesh between your teeth, if you switch to chicken, you will have eliminated 80 percent of what you emit, depending on where you are coming from."

Sticking feathers up your butt does not make you a chicken.

Towards the end of 2014 I started to rarely eat meat, and I'll tell you that it's not that hard. And some good news, many other Americans agree. Meat consumption has been steadily declining the past few years, at a rate of about 10% per capita, and it's mostly coming from red meat. The amount of people who identify themselves as vegetarian has not gone up, so the decrease in meat consumption is mostly coming from non-vegetarian consumers. Why? According to Patty Johnson, global food analyst at Mintel: “Health trends motivating consumers to cut fat and cholesterol intake are by far the most dominant factors affecting the red meat market.” Professor Robert Lawrence, director of the Center for a Livable Future at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, told NPR that his research agrees with this conclusion: “Health concerns still remain the No. 1 reason people might consider cutting back on meat.”

But here is what this tells me. People are consuming less meat because selfishly, they are realizing that it is healthier for them, not necessarily because they are worried about the environmental damage and waste caused by eating meat. Many people will not change their behavior unless it will benefit them in the short term. Americans are trending the right way with meat consumption, but the wrong way with sustainable behavior and overall consumption. This will be a difficult transition for Americans to make, because sustainable behaviors and reducing consumption seem to have negative personal impacts, and also, governmental regulations have painful economic impacts. I read an article this morning in the LA Times called California's Climate Fight Could Be Painful–especially on job and income growth. The article starts off by saying: "Californians are likely to pay more for gasoline, electricity, food and new homes — and to feel their lives jolted in myriad other ways — because their state broadly expanded its war on climate change this summer. The ambitious new goals will require complex regulations on an unprecedented scale, but were approved in Sacramento without a study of possible economic repercussions. Some of the nation’s top energy, housing and business experts say the effort may not only raise the cost of staples, but also slow the pace of job and income growth for millions of California families." Definitely read the whole article, but what it comes down to is 2 sides. On one side (and this side is far more present and vocal in the comments section of the article) are people who think that that these regulations will result in economic armageddon and do not want to let go of the status quo. On the other side are people that see it risker to continue to ignore the environment and climate change, and see short term pain that will eventually become long term benefits to Californians, like cleaner air, more walkable and bikeable cities, and a head start to a vibrant and thriving green economy.

Governmental regulations are a starting point for behavior change, especially at the corporate level, and as a Californian who will feel the effects of the climate plan, I'm fine with it. But with a climate change denier headed into the White House, we obviously shouldn't expect other states or the federal government to follow California's lead. Just like Yvon Chouinard said, if we want to change governments and corporations, it's the consumers, not the rules, that have to change. And this is going to be very difficult, because here is a quick snapshot of what we are up against, from the comments section of the LA Times article:

  1. "Keep it up California; cram all of these regulations down the throats of taxpayers without any thought as to implementation or subsequent consequences, and you just might see a revolution similar to the one on November 8."
  2. "My wife and I are both small business owners and we're making the move out of California this Spring. The weather and the beach isn't enough to keep us here." 

You’re not your job. You’re not how much money you have in the bank. You’re not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You’re not your fucking khakis. You’re the all-singing, all-dancing crap of the world.

Are we really just taxpayers, business owners, consumers? Is that what we have become in this consumer-driven economic-based society that we live in?

I get it. I want to grow my business too. I want to make more money too. But if more money is really the answer, then we are all asking the wrong questions. Here are some new questions to ponder:

  • If money was irrelevant, how would I want to spend my days? 
  • If money was irrelevant, how could I make the world a better place? 
  • And if money isn't important, what is? 

The answers to those questions are a lot tougher to find. One thing is certain though, life is slowly ending and the earth is slowing dying, and when it's all over, our legacy will be the Greatest Consumers of all Time.

This is your life, and it’s ending one minute at a time.

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