In just a few generations the industrial revolution, along with the freedom and entrepreneurial spirit that grew out of the American Revolution, spawned what can only be described as an avalanche of new and wonderful things. Better farm equipment, time-saving appliances, automobiles, telephones, televisions, La-Z-Boy recliners, plastic in all its many forms, countless electronic devices. The list is endless.
These amazing devices make life more convenient and, in many ways, easier for people around the world, and their production has been the major driver of the U.S. and other economies since before Henry Ford figured out how to mass produce cars.
But here’s a hard fact. There’s a disastrous fallout from this wondrous era. You can see it in the Eastern Pacific Garbage Patch, a floating garbage dump two times the size of Texas that floats between Hawaii and California. You can see it in mounds caught behind downed limbs in rivers. You can see it littering beaches, in unregulated heaps in cities around the world, in the bellies of dead whales. You can see it in the junked cars and piles of plastic toys and broken furniture in a host of North Carolina yards. What you can’t see is the microscopic bits of plastic falling to the ground when it rains.
That’s right. A federal research report published in July, based on analysis of 300 rainwater samples collected in 2017 at six urban sites in the Denver and Boulder areas in Colorado, found microscopic fragments of green, blue, purple, red and silver plastic. There are no federal regulations to prevent this type of pollution and the implications for the health of the environment or of its human and other animal inhabitants are unknown.
The amount of solid waste generated by consumerism, the big driver of our economy, is unsustainable not only because it pollutes the environment, but because it is an inexcusable waste of natural resources. The amount of metal in rusting cars sitting in front yards and junkyards in North Carolina alone would build an untold number of battleships.
It’s no use blaming people for not recycling or for just tossing things instead of properly disposing of them. Even those responsible consumers who put their garbage on the street for pickup or haul it to the nearest convenience center contribute to the high cost of building and maintaining costly landfills that are increasingly hard to site. And now that China will no longer take much of our recycling, many municipalities are just throwing it away.
There needs to be a fundamental shift in how we view consumerism and real consequences for heedless consumerism. Former President Jimmy Carter once said, “In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but (what) one owns. But we’ve discovered that only things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose. “
Most studies of what makes people happy indicate that spending time with those they love, meaningful work and a positive attitude are at the top of the list. Religious belief, giving to others, gratitude, forgiveness, personal freedom and health are also high on the list. That suggests that excessive consumerism and the debt, overwork and isolation that often results would be counterproductive to health and happiness. Yet, Americans are constantly enticed by advertisements that imply a new car, a bigger house, or the latest, greatest gadget are the ticket to a blissful life.
Measuring wealth in relationships, job satisfaction and the ability to maintain healthy attitudes and always balancing that against the need for things is tough in such a cultural environment, but it’s a shift worth striving for.
Government at every level can help to encourage such a shift by creating tax breaks and other incentives for companies to become circular, as the furniture company Ikea has announced it plans to do by 2030. The company’s goal is to design every product it makes to be reused, repaired, upgraded, and ultimately recycled.
Local governments can begin charging for garbage and recycling the way they charge for water use. Those who throw away more, pay more. Unofficial garbage dumps on private property also need to be regulated because they pose a public health problem. Rather than being punitive, government should offer incentives to help people who would otherwise be unable to clean up or remove such piles of garbage.
Coming to terms with the unsustainable use of resources and the enormous impact of unbridled consumerism on the state, national and world environment poses one of the most complex and daunting challenges of our time. It was an unintended consequence of inventive and entrepreneurial forces that led to a better quality of life for many. Ikea’s decision to become a circular company hints that those same forces are waking up to the need to meet this challenge.
All of us should do what we can to promote government policy that encourages and supports such initiatives.