A man sits on the muddy sand along the river, watching a band of turkey vultures dip through the sky. He takes the hand of his companion, a young woman whose face is ruddy from walking against the wind. They bow their heads toward the water and listen to it sing.
The whole day they sit there, lying in the sun until the clouds are pink again. When the birds stop whistling at dusk, they gather their bundled blankets, ride on rusty bicycles to the bridge, and set up camp underneath. In the morning they will search the dumpster behind the grocery store for lightly bruised produce and bread without mold.
Why are such people viewed with a varying admixture of disdain, fear, and pity? Homelessness is often associated with drug-use, crime, and laziness. However, it is seldom brought into question why the homeless lifestyle is considered inferior to the conventional American existence.
Being homeless certainly lacks convenience, luxury, and stability, and healthcare could be difficult to obtain. Contrarily, the homeless usually do not spend their days sitting in an office, or watching television, like many other Americans do. While the homeless have gained some burdens, they have lost many others.
If they have the necessities—clean, tasteful water; warmth from clothes or shelter; the ability to maintain personal hygiene; fulfilling personal relationships; and nourishing food—as some homeless people likely do, what is really so different about them?
They don’t have as many things. The homeless do not contribute to the economy. So even if they have everything else that makes life full— emotionally, spiritually, and physically— if they do not have it possessively, in the form of cars and homes and stereos, they are still looked down upon by the majority. It would be unheard of to consider a homeless person better-off than an overworked, lonely, tax-paying individual with a full bank account.
American culture values material and monetary wealth above all else. This is the core problem in contemporary American society; this is what has led to unsustainable, growth-driven excess.
The U.S. economy needs to grow in order to be healthy, but even moderate growth will reach ecological limits. According to Annie Leonard in The Story of Stuff, our economic system is in crisis because it “is a linear system and we live on a finite planet and you cannot run a linear system on a finite planet indefinitely”.
Despite this fact, our capitalistic society retains the property of necessary growth, as well as an emphasis on consumption. We are encouraged by advertisers to purchase as much as possible. In order to afford such expenditures, we work long hours. As Leonard puts it, “we’re on this crazy work-watch-spend treadmill.”
Pollution, deforestation, soil erosion, climate change, and social injustice result from current methods of industrial production and disposal. This is especially true in externalized factories, where environmental laws are more relaxed and production is cheaper.
The degradation of the natural world needed to sustain our lifestyle is readily known, yet Americans continue along the same path. Slight alterations to the system serve as distractions from the larger issue. Higher efficiency for energy and fuel appear beneficial; we could live the same lifestyle and improve the economy, just by buying green.
In her book True Wealth: How and Why Millions of Americans Are Creating a Time-Rich, Ecologically Light, Small-Scale, High-Satisfaction Economy, Juliet Shor states that “efficiency improvements actually increase the demand for energy… [there is a] tendency to buy more of a product when its price is lower… people increase their purchases of energy because the cheaper price effectively raises their real income and allows them to buy more” (73).
Buy a hybrid and you will save enough money on fuel to drive farther and longer. This is known as Jevon’s paradox. Individuals often think it is enough to pursue energy efficiency. Such a mindset ignores Jevon’s paradox as well as the underlying issues making our society unsustainable.
Schor argues that the average American works too many hours because they feel the need to spend money unnecessarily (84). If one worked less, they could use their extra time to increase self-reliance and develop community connections so that their standard of living would not decrease.
In fact, despite the lowered income, one’s happiness levels would increase. Both Leonard and Shor mention studies which state that after affluence reaches a certain level above the poverty line, happiness levels remain static (144). Money and well-being are not intrinsically correlated.
Through careful manipulation, a select group of wealthy corporations encourage us to believe otherwise. In their book Stop Signs: Cars and Capitalism on the Road to Economic, Social and Ecological Decay, Yves Engler and Bianca Mugyenyi explain the influence of the automobile industry on American culture. Through planned obsolescence, automobile manufacturers long ago planted seeds of discontentment within consumers (143).
As Leonard elaborates in The Story of Stuff, if one doesn’t keep up with the trends— whether automotive, electronic, or fashion oriented— they are apt to feel alienation from their peers. We don’t purchase based on where our products come from, who assembled them, how far they had to travel, what resources were utilized in their formation, or how easy their disposal will be. Nor do we typically buy something because it is well-made and will last long.
We buy because we want to belong. We buy because we have been taught to express ourselves that way. Which car we drive says a lot about us. How large our house is serves as a reflection of our success in life. The clothes we wear dictate our social circle. Few products are bought solely out of need.
With our lives spent working to uphold social (material) standing, little time is left to connect with others. Judgments, therefore, are made briskly and shallowly. We judge by appearance because we don’t have time to look beyond it.
Nor do we have time to define ourselves. Most adults in the United States have no time, or energy, for hobbies, civic engagements, intellectual pursuits, or familial connection. Schor’s model of Plentitude would tell us to work less, increase self-sufficiency, and revel in the richness of abundant time (103).
Some would complain of having insufficient funds for “going green”. They can’t afford Energy-Star rated appliances, organic bananas, and a brand new hybrid car. Perhaps that is a good thing. If they are looking to reduce their ecological impact, they should not be asking what they can buy, but what they can do without. Use a clothes-line instead of a dryer, buy local food from the farmer’s market, and walk, bike, or ride the bus instead of driving. If all of these are impossible, then simply buy less.
We have been told that we, as consumers, vote with our purchases. We determine who stays in business and who succumbs to obsolescence. This is only true if we release ourselves from the values advertisers have instilled in our culture; to buy blindly, cheaply, and often; to define ourselves primarily by how much we own.
There is a limit to how much action citizens can take regarding corporate influence on governmental decisions; oil subsidies, weak pollution laws, habitat destruction, road-building, and lack of public transportation are all defended by corporate interests. These corporations, including Ford, GM, and BP, have the money to convince politicians to vote in a way that benefits profit over all else (Mugyenyi and Engler 151).
Oligopolistic corporations persuade both government and citizen to over-consume. Energy-efficiency and the “green economy” satiate those who are guilty of their impact but remain afraid of drastic change. Drastic change, however, is necessary.
Before governmental policy can change, before our economy can morph from industrialized capitalism into something simple and sustainable, we must change our perception of the world. Should we not value the world itself, nature and life, over the rapidity with which we destroy it? How close to inevitable destruction will we creep before we realize what sustains us?
Water, air, soil, sunlight, and all the living beings around us bond to make the Earth our home. Perhaps the luxuries of industrialized modernity make our lives cleaner and more convenient, perhaps they allow us to stay inside and keep our minds numb, but without these natural processes, none of our luxuries would exist. Neither would we.
Energy efficiency, renewable energy, recycling, and green products will never be enough on their own. Without changing our mindsets, we would still feel the drive to use more and buy more. We would still measure our success by the size of our homes.
Success could be so much more than money and possessions. Success could be defined by what one has learned. Success could be defined by being full and warm and breathing in the air.
Or, we could forget success and all its connotations. Why not chase simplicity rather than “success”?
The simplest things are often the most important; family, health, nature, life. Once this is understood, it is easy to relax upon the muddy sand, to greet the turkey vultures high in the air, and to simply sit and watch the sunset.
Schor, Juliet. True Wealth: How and Why Millions of Americans Are Creating a Time-Rich,Ecologically Light,Small-Scale, High-Satisfaction Economy. Penguin Books, 2011. eBook.
Engler, Y., and B. Mugyenyi. Stop signs: Cars and capitalism on the road to economic, social and ecological decay. Fernwood Publishing Co., Ltd., 2011. eBook.
Leonard, A.. N.p.. Web. 5 May 2013. <http://www.storyofstuff.org/movies-all/story-of-stuff/>.