Shopping till we drop is killing us

Climate Voices

Shopping till we drop is killing us

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American consumption has gone viral

When a cargo ship crumples a bridge like a child’s toy erector set, it raises many questions — like, what went wrong, and who is at fault? But what should also come to mind in the Baltimore Key Bridge disaster is what that massive vessel was moving and why. It seems to us that a bloated container ship smashing a key piece of infrastructure is a perfect metaphor for how out-of-control consumption is blocking our best efforts to make ourselves more resilient to the escalating violence of climate change.

The story of stuff

How Americans consume is a primary reason for the climate crisis. We fill our 3,000-square-foot “second homes” with more teak than Ecuador. We consume hamburgers the size of pizzas. We don’t have one Apple Watch; we have five to match our mood and style. Even in our pursuit of eco-friendly products, our bigger-is-better ethos surfaces: We build $90,000 electric vehicles the size of a Parisian side street that require a lithium battery the size of a Chinese EV.

However, our ravenous appetite for the biggest houses, biggest cars, and biggest bodies is not a topic Americans feel comfortable acknowledging. While there is endless debate on clean energy and net zero everything, discussing our bloated lifestyles is, as my old boss would say, like farting in a church. Dare mention our wasteful ways, and you are quickly shamed into being a granola cruncher, a fattist, an elitist, or, in the old days, a Communist.

Of course, it’s not all Americans, the majority of whom can barely afford a house. But, as Annie Leonard pointed out in her brilliant 2007 book and documentary The Story of Stuff, the U.S. consumes 25% of world resources with just 5% of the world’s population. We would need three to five extra planets if everybody consumed like Americans.

The U.S. consumes 25% of world resources with just 5% of the world’s population. We would need three to five extra planets if everybody consumed like Americans.

Worse, in recent decades, American consumption has gone viral. Remember that self-proclaiming capitalist tool, publisher Malcolm Forbes? One of his favorite sayings was, “he who dies with the most toys wins.”

For decades, America has been busy exporting the notion that more is better. Well, message received. In today’s global economy, there are no boundaries to where LVMH cannot sell a handbag or Nestle a chocolate bar. For the first time, the world now has four billion consumers. Consumer spending is set to increase by $2.3 trillion in 2024, which is equal to global military spending or adding another Germany to the global economy. That is why container ships like the one in Baltimore are three times the size they were when the bridge was built in the 1970s, and there are now many thousands of them on the seas, and still climbing.

Consumption was not always the national religion. It was not until the end of World War II that we developed the seemingly insatiable desire to buy more stuff. But our economy, built on these 80 years of consumption, is now torching the Earth’s atmosphere, denuding the oceans of fish, and relentlessly grinding once green land into a hellscape of concrete sprawl.

A new path

There is an alternative to fast consumption. Human civilization progressed for thousands of years without turning everything we touched into disposable plastic. The economics of value-added sustainable consumption are just as compelling as the economics of cheap, gluttonous consumption. Take a look at Sweden and a growing swath of Europe. The global economy will be just fine, and your friends will still like you if you drive a 20-year-old car, repair a well-worn sweater, or resole a pair of shoes. With all three, you make friends and keep mechanics, cobblers, and tailors employed. (Have you ever made friends with a salesperson at fast-fashion Zara?)

The reality is we can change our ways.

The reality is we can change our ways. We did it 80 years ago when we leaped from wartime scrimping to shopping till you drop. We can do it again. We complain all the time about how alienated and atomized society has become. If we stopped stuffing our faces with consumer-roid rage, we might remember the wise words of Buddha, Jesus, and Muhammad on how to live together on our planet.

While none directly addressed climate change, their teachings centered on foundational beliefs such as stewardship, care for the vulnerable, reverence for creation, and a call to action. The Quran speaks of humans as “khalifah” caretakers or stewards of the Earth. Muhammad is reported to have said, “The world is green and beautiful, and God has appointed you his stewards over it.” This sentiment is shared in the Bible.

All emphasized the spiritual over the material and prioritized moderation over consumption. Siddhartha Gautama, aka Buddha, focused on the interconnectedness of all life and the importance of living in harmony with the environment, recognizing that harming the environment ultimately harms all living beings, as we are all part of the same web of life.

What goes around, comes around

The world’s major religious traditions also share another concept: accountability. Buddha called it karma — actions have consequences. There was a reason the grotesque floating chalice of consumption barreled into our consciousness this week. Like that hopelessly unprepared bridge, we too are helpless against the gathering forces of nature unless we fundamentally change our ways — as a society and as individuals — and begin to respect the Earth and each other.

Featured photo source: Maryland National Guard / Reuters

Written by

Peter McKillop

Peter McKillop is the founder of Climate & Capital Media, a mission-driven information platform exploring the business and finance of climate change.