How much is enough? The consumer society & the future of the earth

Alan Durning, Worldwatch Institute 1992

By Anne Hansen (reviewer)

Henry David Thoreau said that a man (what about a woman?) is rich in proportion to the things he can afford to be without.

In How Much Is Enough?, Alan Burning describes how we, the "richest" fifth of humanity, have become impoverished by our affluence.

In a few generations, we have become car-drivers, television watchers, mall shoppers, and throwaway buyers. In so doing, we are not any happier than our predecessors, and have poisoned the air and water, changed the climate, destroyed habitats and washed away topsoil.

Consuming is the organizing principle of North American life, our leading pastime and primary means of self-expression. Burning says that, since 1950, humanity has consumed as many goods and services as all previous generations put together (measured in constant dollars). And, since 1940, Americans alone have used up as large a share of the earth's mineral resources as did everyone before them combined!

This trend has occurred at great expense to most of humanity, whose basic needs of food, clothing, and shelter go unmet.

We in the "consumer class" (whose members have an income of over $7,500 a year) live in climate-controlled buildings with abundant hot water. Consumers travel in cars and planes, use throw-aways, and feed on a high meat/sugar/fat diet of processed food and soft drinks. (There's also the "rich"-the top corporate executives who "earn 93 times as much as the factory workers they employ"!)

Burning wrote How Much Is Enough? because he saw consumption as the sacred cow of the three most serious issues facing humanity. Population and technological change are frequently discussed, but the subject of consumption is usually met with silence.

Breaking the silence requires us to question the prevailing definition of progress: evermore consumption. We must also reject television and advertising as our dominant cultural force.

Burning is hopeful that, because of its shallow historical roots, consumerism will be a passing fad. "One way or the other-either because we choose to abandon it, or because it devours its own ecological supports-consumerism is likely to be a short-lived value system", he says.

Peace Magazine Jun-Jul 1993

Peace Magazine Jun-Jul 1993, page 29. Some rights reserved.

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