Less is More: Bringing Down Consumption

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Attempting to be an environmentally conscientious American can prove as frustrating as being on a diet. No sweets, no fried foods, easy on the carbs. Likewise, you’re careful about what you put in your home: recyclable materials, fair-trade goods, organic, all-natural. Then the holidays come, and a heap of post-holiday trash shows up on your curb. Your conscience weighs as heavy as those extra pounds on the bathroom scale.

Is it time to sell the house and go homestead, far away from the temptations of civilization? Hardly. Being green doesn’t have to mean extreme deprivation. Any doctor will tell you the best way to successfully lose weight and keep it off is to change your lifestyle in little ways. The same holds true for sticking to a naturally “lite” way of life: Consume a bit less, reuse a bit more, make deliberate decisions about your purchases. Make every purchase count, and you’ll have less waste.

Weighing in

To begin, let’s compare the American standard of living today with that of half a century ago. In 1950, the average household consisted of almost four people. Most new homes were less than 1,200 square feet (62 percent) and had one or two bedrooms (66 percent), fewer than two bathrooms (96 percent), and no air conditioning, according to the National Association of Home Builders. A “dishwasher” meant two hands in the sink; most families had only one car (if any); and television was a newfangled idea. Yet many folks thought they had achieved the American Dream.

By 2003, the average household size shrank to 2.6 people. Only 5 percent of new homes built now are less than 1,200 square feet, but 37 percent have more than twice that–with at least four bedrooms. About 95 percent have two or more bathrooms and 88 percent have central air conditioning. And practically everyone who builds a house–93 percent–installs a dishwashing appliance. Americans own twice as many cars per person, plus multiple TVs, computers, and cell phones.

None of this is, in itself, bad. Along with American prosperity come wonderful benefits–public utilities, education, vaccines against diseases–but just how much is enough? And at what price do we slave to attain it all? Do we keep too-long hours at work, barely see the kids, and run up the bills? Are we stressed out? Sick from exhaustion? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then maybe we’re doing more than making a comfortable living. Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin, in their life-altering book Your Money or Your Life (Penguin, 1999), aptly called the detrimental pursuit of more stuff “making a dying.”

Dominguez and Robin suggest that with our insatiable desire for more, we lose the ability to identify the point of sufficiency. So perhaps we need to rediscover “enough.” As an exercise over the next few weeks, figure your net wage per hour (or the average of yours and your spouse’s), then ask yourself these questions each time you contemplate a purchase:

1. Is this item necessary?

2. Is it in line with my values for myself, my family, and the earth?

3. How many hours must I work to pay for it? Will it bring satisfaction in line with the amount of work spent?

If you answer no to any of these questions, walk away from the item–or the store–long enough to reconsider. In time, you may even forget you wanted it.

The point is not to eliminate joy from life, but to heighten appreciation of the value of some items and magnify the worthlessness of others. We feel less guilt by avoiding impulse buying. The bank account grows. Free time may too. And slowly but surely our consumption–and ultimately, trash–will shrink.

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