I remember the first time I saw George Carlin do his brilliant routine on “Stuff” – and how what we considered necessary stuff could be pared down to a small handful of essential items. I was reminded of this when we remodeled our bathrooms, taking everything we had in them, placing them in boxes, and ended up living for six months out of the small toiletry kit of the kind airlines used to hand out on international flights. After the workmen had gone and we could reclaim our old territory, we were struck by the fact that we never once missed the contents of all those boxes we had packed away, and how superfluous they were to our lives. Why did we buy them? Why did we keep them?
Rather early in my life and career, I was fortunate to find myself working and teaching in Southeast Asia where my “pay” consisted of being able to live in a single room with a metal cot, a single bulb hanging from a cord on the ceiling, and one table with a chair. I had the use of a large, cold basin of water for my morning ablutions, food on the table prepared by my hosts, and a sense that what I was doing was useful and worthwhile. Though my conditions of living would be considered primitive by most standards, I was very happy. More importantly, when I eventually returned to the States, and received much greater compensation for my work allowing me to have a life style that would place me in the upper middle class of our country, I can’t say I was any happier than when I lived in my former circumstances.
For many of us, acquiring “things” comes almost without thought or reflection as to “is this something I really need, something that will make my life happier and better?” Driven by the power of advertising and our consumer culture, we are voracious utilizers of all that the culture produces. We rarely, if ever, reflect on what our ever growing appetites are doing to ourselves and the planet we all share.
There was an interesting article in Science by John Holdren, now President Obama’s science adviser, titled “Science and Technology for Sustainable Well-Being” in which he makes the case that when you measure human harm in years of life lost (e.g., a child cut down by disease loses decades; a grandmother dying of a stroke loses a few years), the major afflictions of poverty and affluence do us in at roughly equal rates. There is something poetically democratic in wealth and affluence killing us off at equal rates with poverty and malnutrition.
The central issues for us, and to a much greater degree our children, determining the quality of our lives and the environment in which they will be lived are the answers to the following two questions: “How many people will inhabit the Earth in the next few generations?” and “How much stuff – energy, land, water, and animal life – will they consume?” Herein lays the crux of the sustainability puzzle.
The rising demand and lagging supply of fossil fuels will shape everything from economics to international conflict. The amount of coal extracted and burned will influence the climate for centuries. The extent of land use to grow food, fuel and fiber will determine the cost of these necessities and the fate of the world’s last unspoiled ecosystems.
What qualities do we need to learn and instill in our children in order to preserve a world that can sustain life as we now know it?
We need to have a sense of purpose larger than our own needs and desires. Desires are never ending. Fill one, and a new one pops up to take its place. The satisfaction from fulfilling a desire is notoriously short lived. Having a sense of purpose (or “mission” in business parlance) focuses your attention to only those things will advance your cause – be it raising children, building a school, or growing a garden.
We need an internal measure of our fulfillment. We can’t judge if we have enough based on what others have or have not. We need to be able to look inside ourselves and know what is essential to our happiness as opposed to something to just buy, then store, insure, forget about and eventually try to sell at a garage sale.
We need to be able to account for our money. We need to know how much we are spending, and what we are buying. We need to know how much we are saving, and how much we will need to save for a secure retirement.
We need to have a sense of responsibility for the world, and to be able to see how our choices and lives fit into the fabric that we all weave to try and give our children a world fit for the lives we want them to have.