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Can We All Consume Like Americans?

We all know that infinite growth on a finite planet is impossible.  No secret there.  We can’t keep growing the way we have been over the last decades or centuries without any consequences whatsoever.  Now, by some measures, we are already using about 1.5 planets to support our current lifestyle.  And by current lifestyle, I mean the lifestyle of you and me, anyone with Web access and now living in cities like New York, having a pretty decent life. But I also mean the lifestyle of billions and billions of people who have next to nothing, who, if anything, consume too little at this point. 

Now, you put these two together and you have with a real problem.  We consume a lot, you and me.  Even though you are trying to do the right things as an environmentalist, you still consume more than the poorest of the poor.  

So, what do we do now?  Do we stop growth?  Do we stop developing?  Do we stop buying?  Do we stop consuming?  Well, maybe.  Part of the solution might be to try to tread more lightly on the planet.  But even if you, personally, try to do all of these things — you don’t drive, you don’t eat meat, you don’t eat out of season grapes, you carry your groceries home in an organically-sourced cotton canvas bag — you still wouldn’t make a difference.  

You personally, can’t make a difference here.  And more importantly, it is not about stopping growth, it is not about no growth.  It is about smart growth.  It’s about dematerialization. It’s about, consuming, enjoying life, and for many people — the poorest of the poor — probably consuming more than they really do.  

But for the rest of us, it is about consuming more smartly.  It’s about innovation, it’s about coming up with new ways of enjoying life, as it were, in the pursuit of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness here, but doing it with less material in a smarter way, by using new technologies, by using things that maybe haven’t even been invented yet. 

It’s about using technologies that maybe haven’t even been invented yet.  Ten years ago, think back, could you have dreamed of the iPad?  Probably not.  But it’s about these new technologies and making sure that we, as a society, move toward a low impact growth scenario, as it were, that allows us to grow as a society, grow as an economy, and do so with less impact on the planet.


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