Living Large vs. Living Green
Alex Matthiessen is the President of Riverkeeper, a New York State-based clean water advocacy organization widely considered to be among the most successful non-profits of its kind. Prior to his tenure at Riverkeeper, Mr. Matthiessen was a Special Assistant at the U.S. Department of the Interior, where he developed the Green Energy Parks initiative. He has also served as a macroeconomic policy analyst in Indonesia for the Harvard Institute for International Development and worked at the White House Council on Environmental Quality. He serves on the Board of Directors of the Hudson River Improvement Fund, Catskill Mountainkeeper, and Waterkeeper Alliance.
Question: Is living luxuriously incompatible with living green?
Alex Matthiessen: Yeah, I think there is a contradiction there and what I worry about and I think a lot of us environmentalists worry about is in this, you know, it feels very much like being green and living green has become this incredible fad and all the, you know, the good news is, is that, you know, consumers do have an enormous amount of power and there’s various ways to get corporations to move in a different direction and one certainly, you know, one, there’s certainly regulations and enforcement of the laws and a carbon tax and so on but another way is by consumers making a radical expression of we wanna do things differently, we want different kinda products, we want products that aren’t gonna pollute the environment and of course that gets corporations to move too.
So in a certain way you’re seeing, you know, real movement on behalf of some of these corporations but I think that the danger is, is that if we decide that we can consume just as much as we always have, we just have to consume products that have a slightly less damaging impact on the environment, we’re not gonna get there. We really have to change kind of how we live our lives in a more significant way than that and I think that part of that is asking ourselves is my level of consumerism really healthy for the planet, even if it doesn’t emit quite as much carbon and so on. There’s a certain point at which we have to maybe not consume so much. Now this can, you know, the danger of what I’m about to say is it can sound paternalistic but I would argue that actually consuming less is a recipe for happiness in this country in a certain way because I think we, first of all as Americans we run around with our heads cut off, we’re all so stressed, we work too hard, we’re running thin if you will and we don’t take as much time as we should to spend time with our friends and with our family and to get out in nature and do things that are spiritually fulfilling and sustaining and I think that part of it is that we’re all so kinda consumer addicted, we’re all kinda looking for the new X—iPod or the, you know, the new car or whatever it is and I think that detracts from our connection to nature which I think is a really, really important one that really gives-- that grounds people. I know that when I go out and do a back packing trip with my friends, I get way off in the desert, in the mountains or what have you, I’m never happier, I never feel more at peace with myself, I never feel kinda more connected to the world around me than I do in nature and I, you know, hesitate to sound paternalistic but I think that Americans frankly would find a more fruitful path to happiness if we could kinda back off on the kind of heavy-duty consumerism, I think it kinda gets in our way spiritually.
The American consumer lifestyle may be incompatible with a sustainable civilization. Then again, it may be incompatible with happiness as well.
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