Overconsumption is wrecking the systems of natural life on this planet and robbing young people of their future. There is no way around this truth. Carbon is produced and methane is released in excess as some maintain extravagant lifestyles and others attempt to acquire that extravagance. We are far out of balance when it comes to taking only our fair share of resources and our population is massive, to boot.
Furthermore, our lifestyles of consumption are supported by a system entrenched in incredible inequality. Costs of material goods are kept low by underpaying workers worldwide, who often make these cheap goods in unsafe and inhumane work environments.
The system must crumble, whether because we chose to abandon reckless overconsumption and as a desirable lifestyle or because the impacts of climate change force that crumble. We have a limited window in which we could chose the dismantling of consumption-driven society and instead reclaim a relationship with the rest of life – including both fellow humans and other species – that is governed by reciprocity and respect. In short, we could start taking only what we need, work to cultivate thriving in all living beings, and reorient our values, aspirations and sense of worth and meaning away from material goods and onto something deeper and more lasting.
Therefore, one of the greatest things you can do, with yourself, with your family and with your community is attempt to truly address overconsumption and the underlying systems of inequality, exploitation, and extraction.
How might this look? Well, here’s how we are beginning. Every single time we are about to make a purchase, we ask ourselves: Do I need that item? If the answer is yes, can I it second-hand? And what is the packaging factor involved? If the answer is no, and this is an item I want, why do I want it? Our goal is not to ignore all desires. If we can fuel the desire in some other way, that’s great. Maybe what we are really longing for is a sense of connection, belonging or something novel in our lives. Can we meet those desires without consumption? Occasionally, we treat ourselves to something new. But when we do, we do it mindfully, aware of the negative impact involved. We try to source such items from responsible companies. We try to limit packaging.
We swap clothes with friends. We hand down clothes. We frequent libraries and consignment shops. When we hold birthday parties for our kiddos, we say no thank you to gifts. At birthdays and Christmas, we try to limit gifts to one special item, filled with thought and ideally something that is needed. An experience is even better.
We repurpose. Old glass jars recently became Christmas gifts as decorated lanterns. Vitamin bottles are the best toys. Ripped clothing can be mended and when beyond repair, can become dust rags or handkerchiefs.
Do we do this perfectly? Absolutely not. But we try.
Avoiding stores is not a bad idea while you try to break old habits. Avoiding messages that cater to overconsumption in general is a great idea while you rework your understanding of what you want vs. what you need.
This may all sound a bit undesirable. But actually, the benefits outweigh the burden. First, of course, is the essential benefit of saving the livability of this planet. (“Saving the planet” doesn’t resonate quite as truthfully. The planet will continue. We – and millions of other species – might not.)
But beyond the obvious are the more subtle but incredibly rewarding benefits. We save money. Some of which we can donate to efforts to address climate change, particularly those focused on just transition. Or put into the solar panels on our roof. Or put towards the EV we plan to purchase.
Beyond the financial side of things, we reconnect to a sense of self-worth that is disentangled from material goods. And we get to model that sense of worth for our children.
Because overconsumption is such a significant contributor to climate change, it is essential to question anyone and any source recommending that you buy something as part of the solution. Obviously, there will be certain places that you absolutely want to place your money behind worthy solutions – like solar panels and electric vehicles and weatherizing your home. However, a vast market in “green” goods has sprung up. Some of these items are truly wonderful. For example – anything that reduces packaging from something you truly need, like toothpaste or laundry soap or bulk grocery bags, is great. But do you need all those flashy, cute lunch containers? Why not repurpose a glass jar? Did you know that vinegar and water cleans just about everything? Yes, I know some of those “green” cleaning products are super cute. But maybe, just maybe, they aren’t needed.
All in all, be very wary of anything that suggests that we can buy our way out of this problem. We must invest in renewable technology and energy optimization. We must electrify transportation and, even better, use buses and trains. But alongside investing in technological solutions we must, we absolutely must, consume less. Filling our lives with cute “green” products will not help.