Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we celebrated the planet, and all that it provides for us, 365 days of the year?
This Earth Day (April 22), we should all recommit to the everyday steps we can take to reduce our environmental impact.
How do we do this? By being more conscious consumers—by first consuming less overall, then buying only what we need, and then buying green. By using less energy, eating less meat, and conserving water (including kicking the bottled water habit). By avoiding packaging and bringing our own bags to the store. By biking, walking, and using public transit more.
We can also be more conscious citizens by taking action on environmental issues—like supporting efforts to expand renewable energy and reduce the impact of corporate spending in politics. We can raise our voices and let our leaders know how we feel about climate change, toxics in our products, and subsidies for fossil fuels.
Being a conscious citizen also means understanding the social and environmental justice issues in our communities, and making environmental issues relevant to everyone.
But what are the things we don’t often talk about on Earth Day, but should be? Here are six topics to consider:
Advertisers spend about $150 billion each year to make us feel inadequate. No longer do advertisements provide straightforward information about their products—huge sums are now spent exploiting the psychology of the consumer in order to manipulate us. Nothing is safe or sacred: public spaces, street signs, our children’s schools, even our bodies are becoming billboards. Americans now see 3,000 commercial messages a day, on average.
The increased focus of advertising on young children, “tweens,” and teenagers is particularly disturbing. We are not making progress if we let our next generation become mindless consumers. To break the cycle, we need to stop letting advertisers into every sphere of our lives, especially when children under the age of eight do not understand the difference between advertisements and content.
Very few environmental organizations talk about advertising or our consumer culture—why is that? It’s such a fundamental issue for reframing our culture in order to reduce resource use and overconsumption.
The Occupy movement reminds us of the extreme inequality in our country, not only in stark income disparity, but in power and control of politics. Mega-corporations and their powerful lobbyists distort our democratic process and help keep dirty and polluting systems in place.
The Supreme Court decision Citizens United opened the door to further distortion and imbalance in the political system. This stark inequality is also present in global consumption patterns, with 5 percent the world’s population consuming 33 percent of the world’s resources. But despite the imbalance in power and net worth, Occupy also reminds us that our voices can be heard, and that a small group can spark a movement for change.
Another important first step is to acknowledge that many of us are on a work-spend-consume treadmill that is hard to get off. This addictive treadmill leads us to pile up more and more debt to sustain our consumption of more and more material goods that do not lead to an equivalent increase in life satisfaction and well-being.
We are now a nation of debtors, which the recent mortgage crisis only intensified. Yet our economists, politicians, media, and mainstream culture continue to tell us, in every aspect of our lives, that we need more and more. On a finite planet, this kind of growth simply can’t go on indefinitely.
If the accumulation of more and more stuff does not lead to happiness, then what does improve life satisfaction? Spending time with family and friends, doing good deeds, being outdoors, and interacting with other people—research shows that this is what leads to a happier life.
By engaging our friends, neighbors and colleagues, we can make our communities better places to live. Social scientists have learned that our behavior is heavily influenced by social norms within the culture of our community, so if you commit to living sustainably, your behavior, along with others’, can begin to change social norms and have a significant impact on those around you.
Yes, I am advocating for more naps here—i.e., more leisure, however you define it. Let’s rethink our balance between work and leisure. Let’s imagine a future that makes us happier, that helps build social stability and reduces unemployment, that alleviates pressure on the environment and reshapes gender relationships.
Could a shorter workweek do that? It’s worth exploring, as many economists and others have proposed. It also means looking at a variety of flexible work setups—from virtual offices to telecommuting and job sharing—that can both reduce consumption and increase life satisfaction.
That basic lesson you learned in preschool, we now need to relearn as adults. Sharing + new technology = reduced consumption and environmental impact. We can change the way we consume so that we no longer need to own things like we used to—soon it will seem outdated to own so much “stuff.”
Imagine if you could look into the houses on your block or even just your street and see how many of us own identical things that we scarcely use. Those are underutilized resources. (Check out New Dream's Guide to Sharing, and our fun video Share Spray!)
We need to change the way we work, live, and play—to make ourselves happier and to relieve the stress on our natural resources and ecosystems.
Wendy Philleo is Executive Director of the Center for a New American Dream.