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Insights 25 Aug 2010

A Twelve Step Program for Unsustainable Consumption?

By Preetum Shenoy

Last week, during its AM Fix broadcast, CNN re-aired a clip from part of its original series, Addicted, sharing the plight of a teenage American girl, Melissa, who had been battling a near lethal addiction to prescription drugs. Despite making multiple public commitments and efforts to kick the habit, she found herself enslaved by the vicious cycle of addiction.

Many were quick to judge – how could Melissa be so weak? Why can’t she just commit to quitting knowing that her addiction had put her in a downward spiral of chronic illness and depression, trouble at school and in the community? The issue here was that despite her awareness and stated ambition, Melissa had yet to actually admit that she had a serious problem and seek support.

That didn’t happen until she was rushed to the hospital following a massive overdose, and declared about “15 minutes away from death.” Miraculously, she survived the incident, admitted she had a problem, and vowed to clean up her life.

I can’t help but draw some parallels between her story, and the plight of our modern society (and particularly that of America) and its seemingly insatiable appetite for ever more stuff. Our consumption of food, energy, water, and various “creature comforts” – beyond the earth’s carrying capacity, beyond many people’s financial capacities, and in ways that endanger our livelihood and that of future generations — is not so unlike a deeply rooted addiction.

But just as in Melissa’s case, lack of awareness here is not the issue, but waking up to the gravity of the reality and admitting that we have a dependency problem, is.

Over the past few years, we’ve witnessed a surge in public interest in sustainability. More than ever, people around the world are defining themselves as “green” and “conscious” consumers, claiming a desire to live more lightly and responsibly on the earth. Companies have noticed too, launching new “green” product lines, touting the socially and environmentally conscious attributes of their wares and services. But despite the exponential increase in social and environmental consciousness, recent research shows that only modest gains – if any – in shifts toward more sustainable behavior. (Note the US was ranked lowest of 17 countries in sustainable behavior).

So why the large gap between the awareness, stated desire, and actual behavior? According to the GreenIndex research, consumers commonly blame the following: the perceived inconvenience, the lack of adequate action on the part of governments and industries, and the belief that the seriousness of the environmental problems is exaggerated.

So basically, we’re not so unlike the old Melissa, in that we are:

  • Unwilling to admit we have a serious problem (“The American way of life is not negotiable”)
  • Too busy distracting ourselves from it by deflecting the blame and responsibility elsewhere (i.e. with governments, companies, and consumers claiming to await guidance from one another, while simultaneously resisting it), and
  • Taking others down with us in the process (thereby hindering the passage of any adequately ambitious regulation, nationally or internationally, to incentivize progress).

This has left us in a holding pattern, where we are just barely addressing the issue, while allowing ourselves to reinforce our bad habits, instead of trying to liberate ourselves from them.

Like Melissa, perhaps what we really need to overcome our addiction is a “twelve step program” with the first, most critical step being the admission that the American way of life is unsustainable.

Unlike Melissa though, we don’t have the luxury of waiting for a “near-death” experience to act. Mother Nature has been sending us plenty of wake-up calls over the years – with an alarming number in just the past few months alone. How many more lives, human and otherwise, will have to be lost in this vicious cycle of addiction — through tragic oil spills, coal mine explosions, increasingly strained foreign relations, volatile climate patterns, (record-breaking heat, drought, flooding, mudslides), and spreading disease – before we as a society stop snoozing and truly take responsibility and action towards our sustained wellbeing?

Melissa was lucky enough to beat the odds – let’s not leave our collective future to chance.



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