Minds over Matter

by Carolyn Chase


ow much stuff do you have? Columnist Brad Knickerbocker posed this question last week in the Christian Science Monitor. "Do you think in terms of everything inside your house or apartment - your clothes and furniture, your collection of Van Morrison records, the letters from Mom, and all the other essential belongings? Don't forget your car, plus the camping gear and ice skates and gardening tools." But don't stop there, he points out.

"Let's be really hard-nosed about this and include everything you use up in a day, everything
that defines you as a "consumer." There are the obvious things - newspapers, toothpaste, the wrapper around your morning doughnut (and the donut itself, however briefly). Then there's the one-day's worth of big-ticket items you own, say 1/8,000th of a washing machine that lasts 22 years.

Add your portion of the wood, concrete, steel, and other stuff it took to build your dwelling, plus the waste created in the process.

But you can't stop there. You also have to include your share of the material that went into the road you drove to work on and the building you work in, not to mention the factories that made your stuff and the stores where you got it. Oh, and the coal, oil, or whatever energy source it took to make them.

Tote it all up, divide by how many days it lasts, and it comes to more than 200 pounds a day. Tomorrow, another 200 pounds. By the end of the year, 37 tons of stuff has your name on it.

Feeling a little weighed down, are we?"

Consumption of materials in the United States has grown some 18-fold since 1900, and the average American now uses 101 kilos of materials daily. If developing countries continue to embrace the industrial-country model of materials-intensive growth, the human impact on the natural world will only become more severe and widespread. A long list of environmental ills, from deforestation to species loss to climate change, are due in part to our gargantuan appetite for materials this century, especially in industrial countries.

The Worldwatch Institute, a private research organization in Washington D.C., recently published a report called "Mind Over Matter: Recasting the Role of Materials in Our Lives." It notes that Americans as a group consume nearly 10 billion tons of material every year.

The massive flows of materials this century endanger human and environmental health at every step of the economic process, from extraction to production to waste disposal. Mining has contaminated more than 19,000 kilometers of rivers in the United States. The gold in a single wedding ring generates 3 tons of mining waste. Logging for wood products eliminates species habitat, contributing to what biologists agree is a mass extinction of species. Synthetic chemicals used in pesticides, solvents, and cleaning products are linked to health problems ranging from cancer to reproductive disorders in humans and animals.

Recognizing that continued "business-as-usual" practices are unsustainable, some nations, international organizations, and environmental groups are calling for major reductions in materials use--often by as much as 90 percent. Incremental efficiency gains will not do the job. Instead, an imaginative remaking of the material world--one that aligns economies with the natural environment that supports them--is the sustainable way forward.

"Groups as different as neighborhood associations and corporations are discovering economic well-being is not necessarily linked to using vast quantities of materials," says Gary Gardner, a senior researcher at Worldwatch. "In fact, getting more of what we want through smarter use of materials is a winner for the bottom line and the environment."

Another recent Worldwatch publication asks the eternal question: "How Much Is Enough?" Consumption is described by author and economist Alan Durning as "the neglected god in the trinity of issues the world must address if we are to get on a path of development that does not lead to ruin. The other two - population growth and technological change - receive attention, but with consumption there is often only silence."

That's because breaking this silence requires us - the richest one-fifth of the globe - to question our own lifestyles and come to grips with our "more is better" philosophy. The publication of "The Overworked American" by Harvard University economist Juliet Schor points to a culture wanting to get off the treadmill. She points out that since the middle of this century, people have consistently chosen more money over more time for leisure and family. Yet has this made Americans happier? Polls indicate the answer to this is no, and many are beginning to look for ways to break out of the treadmill of more work, more stuff and more destruction of the earth.

Durning calls for a "culture of permanence" and "a society that lives within its means; that draws on the interest produced by the earth's resources, not its principal; that seeks fulfillment in a web of friendship, family and meaningful work....a way of life that can endure through countless generations."

Adapting and lowering our materials use need not deprive us of the goods and services that really matter. To the contrary, life's most meaningful activities are often completely environmentally friendly. Conversation, family and community gatherings, religious practices, theater, music, dance, literature, sports, education, appreciation of nature and all manner of creative pursuits all fit into a culture of permanence. Other practices can evolve with the right investments and design.

Governments can accelerate the trend toward reducing materials consumption by adopting policies that create incentives to diminish materials use. Individuals can begin to understand and think about our impacts and adjust them. The future of life on earth depends on whether we, the wealthy of the world, having fully met our material needs, can turn to non-material sources of fulfillment and craft new ways of life and of business.

Henry David Thoreau had it right when he observed, "A man is rich in proportion to the things he can afford to let alone."