News & Politics

How We Can Live with Less and Still Feel Rich

Here's how government can help curb America's seemingly endless appetite for "more."


On a sunny weekday morning late last spring at the Mall at 163 St. in North Miami Beach, Fla., in the parking lot outside The Home Depot, Hector Portillo is loading an LG Electronics window air conditioner into his Ford F-150 pickup. Portillo, a 34-year-old who emigrated from Cuba 12 years ago, says the $279 unit (on sale) will replace a smaller one in his family's two-bedroom apartment.

The rest of the tax rebate check he just received -- a tiny part of the $152 billion economic stimulus Congress approved this year -- will soften the blow of high gasoline prices and other day-to-day expenses, including new clothes for his two children and, perhaps, a necklace for his wife. "We're supposed to spend it, right?" he says, smiling.

Inside the mall at the discount clothing retailer Steve & Barry's, Janice Jenkins is shopping for a new outfit. She used part of her $600 tax rebate to pay down credit card debt, but now she's holding two pairs of backless shoes and a blouse; three flower-print sundresses designed by Sarah Jessica Parker are draped over her shoulder. Each item -- like nearly everything in the store -- is just $8.98. "I needed a new dress," says Jenkins, a 26-year-old nursing assistant. "For that price, why not three?"

A good deal, indeed, and perhaps a short-term boost to the economy. But as designer sundresses fill our closets, the world drifts deeper into what environmental economists are calling "ecological deficit." Simply put, too much of the Earth's biosphere is engaged in production and not enough is set aside to regenerate and to accommodate the resultant waste.

By any measure, America consumes a disproportionately high share of global resources. While accounting for just 5 percent of the world's population, the U.S. burns nearly 25 percent of the world's energy and is the No. 1 user of virtually all traded commodities like corn, copper and rubber. Americans consume, on average, three times more meat than the rest of the world. The U.S. uses about one-third of the world's paper. In the end, the U.S. produces 30 percent of the world's waste (including 25 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions) and throws out a staggering 96 billion pounds of edible food each year. By one estimate, if all 6.7 billion people on Earth raised their living standards so they consumed like Americans, the present population would feel like 72 billion.

And the consumption imbalance may increase: While populations of other industrialized nations are leveling or declining, the U.S. is growing -- about 10 percent over the last decade compared with 1 percent in Europe.

To be sure, there's no general consensus that America's appetite for world resources is cause for alarm. Spending keeps our economy robust, generating jobs and new business investments. Indeed, consumer spending -- that second iPod (for the office), new Reeboks for the kids, a night out with the boys -- accounts for roughly two-thirds of all economic activity in the U.S. After 9/11, President Bush famously urged Americans to keep on shopping.

"Nobody really wants to talk about consumption, itself, as the issue," says Michael Maniates, co-editor of Confronting Consumption, a scholarly dissection of the origin and politics of America's consumer society. "We talk about ways to save, ways to conserve, ways to be more efficient, but when we do, we don't get at the heart of the problem: Our demand is simply too high." Only when the question is placed directly on the table, he says, will government consider measures to reduce consumption. And only then, he says, will Americans confront the fundamental assumptions of economic policy that underlie their consumer behavior.

Can low consumption and high prosperity coexist? In theory, yes, Maniates says, but in practice, it won't happen until U.S. policymakers begin pondering how it might, in the real world. "The world is looking at how forcefully and effectively we respond to these challenges," he says. "If not us, then who? If not now, then when?"

If there's one thing Michael Maniates wants you to know, it's this: "After a point, life is not better when you have more stuff." Not that he scorns the good life, he's all for it; he enjoys fine California wines and the time it takes to fully appreciate a glass with friends. Yet if we opt to live with less, he argues, the world can be saved, one consumer at a time. "We are chewing through the planet, destroying it, and we know, empirically, that we're not better off; we are not happier for it," Maniates says.

Maniates, 50, a joint professor of political science and environmental science at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania, may be the nation's leading authority on the politics of consumption. On funded leave this past year, Maniates spent much of his time writing and speaking to academic audiences around the country, making the case that the battle against climate change (and the related challenges of resource depletion and environmental degradation) will be won or lost not through government edict but when people choose lifestyles that lead to real reductions in how much they spend, acquire, drive and, in general, consume. And those reductions, he insists, must be substantive, not superficial symbols like recycling newspapers or switching to low-watt light bulbs. He's trying to shift the public discourse away from these baby steps of conservation and toward what is, to many, the unthinkable: steep, absolute declines in per-capita consumption of oil, food, minerals, timber products, fresh water and other finite resources.

There is ample reason to think current consumption patterns are unsustainable. Using a complex set of data compiled in 2003, scientists with the California-based Global Footprint Network have quantified an impressive imbalance: Total worldwide human demand on the environment -- through farming, fishing, harvesting and the ensuing pollution and waste production -- exceeds the planet's regenerative capabilities by 23 percent. That figure, at present growth levels, could reach 100 percent by midcentury, meaning we'd be consuming resources at twice the rate at which the Earth can recover. To see it in financial terms, the human population has been living off the Earth's interest income and is now drawing down its capital.

To be sure, some countries are drawing down much more than their share. While most countries (even relatively industrialized ones like China) consume at levels below the per-capita threshold of ecological regeneration, a handful of countries vastly exceed it. The U.S. (surpassed in appetite only by the oil-rich United Arab Emirates) impacts the biosphere at a rate more than four times the world average and more than five times the rate at which the Earth can regenerate.

The clearest example of this impact, and the most widely reported, is the accumulation of greenhouse-gas emissions -- the principal contributor to global warming. To stabilize the concentration of such gases in the atmosphere, scientists say, overall global reductions in emissions of carbon dioxide and other harmful pollutants must drop at least 50 percent by midcentury, with the largest decrease coming from the U.S. But at present levels, overall world emissions could increase 90 percent by 2030, precipitating cataclysmic change: rising sea temperature, mass extinctions of plant and animal species, shifting weather patterns, drought, famine and the human conflict spawned by such dramatic disruption to our ecosystems. Meanwhile, resource scarcity will further degrade the environment. As demand for meat rises, for instance, tropical rainforests give way to farmland for raising (and feeding) cattle; and pollution, climate change and unregulated fishing threaten a key source of food for many of the world's people. (One recent study predicts the collapse of virtually all commercial fisheries by 2048.)

Maniates points out that many of the world's most intractable environmental challenges can be directly linked to resource demand in the U.S. and a handful of other high-consuming nations. According to the most recent United Nations Human Development Report, the world's wealthiest 20 percent account for 86 percent of total private consumption; the poorest 20 percent account for 1.3 percent.

Such disparities come as no surprise to Moses Nkhoma, an urban planner in Kitwe, Zambia, who recently completed a two-year stint in the U.S. as a Fulbright scholar. The consumptive contrasts were dramatic, he says -- daily water and energy rationing back home; in America, an endless landscape of suburban malls and SUVs parked outside them. "The American lifestyle is just so wasteful," he says, fully accepting the notion that he may have had a greater impact on the environment during his two years in the U.S. than he did his entire lifetime back home in Zambia.

Ecologists are quick to attribute the gap between human demand on the biosphere and Earth's regenerative capacity as a measurable foundation for both environmental challenges, such as global warming, and economic ones, like rising food and energy prices. "We have been living beyond our means, and the consequences are evident all across the planet," says Global Footprint Network Executive Director Mathis Wackernagel, the 45-year-old, Swiss-born economist who helped design the group's consumption metric. "As we move deeper into ecological deficit, the risks are tremendous -- prices go up, supplies collapse, conflicts arise and the environment's ability to recover greatly diminishes." Wackernagel points to recent food riots in Haiti, Egypt, Bangladesh and elsewhere and ever-rising gas prices in the U.S. as examples of the political and economic disruption that sudden, rising demand can precipitate.

Most economists agree that unprecedented demand for raw materials in the developing world -- China, India, Thailand, Brazil and other fast-growing economies -- is driving up food and energy prices across the planet. "The Chinese are tired of rice; they want beef and pork," says Fariborz Ghadar, professor of global management policies at Penn State University and director of its Center for Global Business Studies. "The rest of the world is getting wealthier, and that's good. I'd rather have a world where everybody is fat, not one where only (Americans) are fat and the rest of the people are hungry."

And therein lies the rub: The world fancies our waistlines: "People all across the globe see what we have, and they want it, too," Maniates says. "How can you blame them? But we've realized there is not enough, and never will be enough, to go around." The Washington, D.C.-based Worldwatch Institute reports that if China and India, for example, consumed as much per capita as the United States, by 2030, those two countries alone would require one additional planet Earth to meet their needs.

But such doomsaying focuses debate on future consumption patterns of the developing world while avoiding a more immediate problem: present consumption by the world's most affluent nations. "Sustainable development" -- the vague environmental cure-all of op-ed punditry -- is only half the equation. The other half lies in economic models and their supporting policies that will allow high-consuming societies to reduce their appetites for energy and raw materials now.

Do such models and policies exist? Maniates says they do but questions whether our public officials here in the U.S. have the backbone to encourage meaningful sacrifice. Thus far they have not, he says, allowing marketers to co-opt the debate, framing the challenge, paradoxically, as one of consumer choice -- consuming less through smarter consuming: energy-saving appliances, hybrid vehicles, shopping bags made from recycled ... shopping bags.

Maniates calls these proposals "eco-efficiencies" -- small steps to consumer savings that do nothing to stifle demand or change lifestyles and that, in the end, may have little or no net effect on consumption levels. For example, studies show that when people switch to more fuel-efficient vehicles, they often increase their driving, offsetting any reduced consumption. Among his pet peeves, Maniates often tells audiences, are the ubiquitous lists promising "10 Simple Things to Save the Planet." There are no simple things, he insists, unless you care to consider these: 1) Get rid of your car; 2) consume only locally grown organic foods; and 3) stop buying stuff you don't need.

With rising concern for the global environment, Maniates believes the time is right for government leaders to acknowledge the long-term threats to American ecological well-being -- and national security -- posed by over-consumption. Wackernagel agrees, noting that while some European countries are openly debating across-the-board declines in energy and resource use, America keeps its head deep in the consumer sand. (The Netherlands and Japan, despite living standards among the world's highest, consume at barely half the U.S. per-capita rate.)

"When our leaders acknowledge the problem and engage us all in finding a solution, there will be no shortage of ideas and innovation," Maniates suggests. We must recycle more, invest in alternative energies and commit to public transportation, he says. Also, the government could tax consumption, rather than income -- and the list goes on. But Maniates and others believe a lasting solution requires more than simply taxing undesirable choices (like SUVs and luxury goods) and offering incentives for desirable ones (like solar energy and organic farming). Real change -- steep declines in per-capita consumption of energy and raw materials -- will occur when Americans are allowed to choose lifestyles that initiate low-consumption patterns of behavior. Invariably, those lifestyles are the consequence of trading a degree of work (and pay) for time -- a tradeoff that Maniates and others say plenty of Americans are willing to make. The equation is simple: Less work = less money = less consumption.

Maniates says government must make it easier for workers to make those choices: "We need to allow people to do the right thing -- policy measures that allow them to follow their noses to happiness and satisfaction."

John de Graff, co-author of the book and PBS documentary Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic, is national coordinator of "Take Back Your Time," a Seattle-based advocacy group that promotes flexible work options and employee benefits like guaranteed vacation time and maternity leave. He speaks to audiences around the country, arguing that Americans have fallen into a high-consumption trap, working more, acquiring more but reporting declining levels of satisfaction. It's no surprise, he says, that people are recognizing the so-called "simplicity movement" -- less work and money, more family and leisure time -- as a convenient intersect with America's growing environmental consciousness. "The message is this: You can trade your stuff for time," he says. "By making that decision yourself, there is no apparent sacrifice. It's all by choice, but the outcomes are positive -- for the environment and the individual."

De Graff, who's lobbying for a bill that will make it easier for part-time workers to receive health insurance and other employee benefits, notes that countries with the most progressive worker-benefit laws -- Iceland, Denmark and the Netherlands -- also rank the highest in surveys of happiness and satisfaction. (The U.S. ranks 13th, just behind the Philippines.) "I think it's pretty clear that a higher quality of life -- as measured by far more than just income -- will actually reduce the desire to spend and consume," de Graff says.

That's the argument of Barry Schwartz, professor of psychology at Swarthmore College and author of The Costs of Living: How Market Freedom Erodes the Best Things in LifeandThe Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. He says Americans are caught in a work/consume spiral -- the more they work, the more they feel a need to spend their way to happiness and satisfaction. "If you can't have the things in life that really matter, like time with friends and family, you look for a substitute," Schwartz says. That emptiness (and the urge to consume) is compounded, he argues, by the well-documented civic disconnect taking place in American life in recent decades. "Spending becomes like a drug," he says, "a quick and easy fix to make you feel better."

Like Maniates, Schwartz sees folly in "government-directed behavioral change" aimed at curbing consumption. Individual expression and personal choice are woven tightly within the fabric of the American character. The only lasting cure, he says, is case by case, in 12-step fashion, when people choose to alter their lifestyles and their consumptive behavior.

Not everybody is convinced that droves of Americans will sign up for the less-is-more club, living without the comforts of consumer choice that have become deeply identified with personal well-being. Penn State's Ghadar says Americans naturally will look first to greater efficiencies and increased production to offset resource scarcity and the effects of pollution. Others say that mass, self-imposed shifts in the work/play balance may require a generation or two of distance from the postwar work ethos that defines baby boomers and their depression-scarred parents. Andy Hines is an analyst with Social Technologies, a global research and consulting firm that helps corporate clients identify emerging trends in social attitudes and behaviors. Hines says conscripts to the work-and-spend-less army -- more popularly termed the Voluntary Simplicity Movement — may seem likely to appear within blue state pockets of aging hippies but in reality are more likely to arrive from the ranks of the über-indulged Generation Y crowd. "For them, raised with plenty of security, money is not the key," Hines says. "They want a cool job with interesting people, and they want to be doing something that will make a difference in the world. They collect experiences, not material possessions. And yes, for them, choosing a less-demanding, less-consumptive lifestyle is not unthinkable."

Of course, it's easy to take a vow of poverty when your parents are covering your broadband bill and making payments on your Scion tC. What about America's less-privileged classes, for whom stuff still trumps making a difference? With them in mind, some scientists argue, it's easy to see how the less-is-more lifestyle may fly in the face of human nature. Jay Phelan is an evolutionary biologist at the University of California, Los Angeles and the author of Mean Genes: From Sex to Money to Food,Taming Our Primal Instincts. Phelan believes the human urge to shop, eat, spend and consume in general is deeply embedded in our DNA. Yes, he acknowledges, we can opt for less-consumptive lifestyles, but we'll be battling millions of years of evolution. The formative millennia that produced modern humans were ones of great peril and unpredictability. "The early humans who had a predisposition to consume, consume, consume were more likely to survive disease and famine and, thus, more likely to pass on their genes." In essence, it paid to be fat and greedy. Phelan adds: "You'll never get rid of your instinct to consume."

Others who study evolutionary psychology attribute "excessive consumption" to our desire for acquiring group status and, similarly, for attracting a mate -- a lesson rarely overlooked on Madison Avenue. Gad Saad is an associate professor of marketing at Montreal's Concordia University and the author of The Evolutionary Bases of Consumption. He says numerous studies illustrate that the drive for social status often trumps bedrock urges, like eating or sleeping. He tells of a study in Chile that found many "low-status males" would drive with their car windows up, in blazing hot temperatures, rather than signal their inability to afford air conditioning. In another study, researchers found that low-income American teenagers often were willing to forgo food in exchange for the latest name-brand sneakers. "America is an affluent country," Saad says. "People have money, and they use it to display high social status. It's ridiculous to assume that as humans we are impervious to millions of years of evolutionary forces."

Nevertheless, Phelan believes we can outmaneuver evolution. As with other intrinsic, biology-driven impulses (like cheating on your spouse or enslaving your enemies), the consumptive itch can be suppressed by manipulating the environment. On a personal level, Phelan enlists a host of "out-of-sight-out-of-mind" strategies to reduce his urge to spend: His paycheck is direct deposited; he has no ATM card; and he uses credit cards for emergencies only. Government, he argues, can do the same, adopting laws that make it harder to spend and easier to save. In his book, Phelan proposes tighter credit requirements, greatly limiting consumer borrowing through credit cards, home-equity loans and other consumer-lending vehicles. He'd also like an increase in contributions to Social Security and new government programs (and institutions) to encourage thrift. (In Italy and Japan, where per-capita consumption is barely half that of the U.S., personal savings has hovered around 10 percent of annual income. In the U.S., the savings rate, for only the second time since the Great Depression, is in negative figures -- meaning as a nation it is spending more than it earns.)

Saad, too, remains hopeful of overcoming what he calls "maladaptive consumption." Humans may be hardwired to impress others with consumptive prowess, he says, but they're also biologically conditioned to cooperate when times are tough. Evolutionary psychologists call this "reciprocal altruism," which means humans (and other animals) will lend assistance -- sharing food or battling a common enemy, for instance — with the expectation of payback, if needed one day. Although the world is a patchwork of tribal conflict and nationalism, Saad believes the whole of humanity is not beyond cooperation on profoundly menacing issues like global warming and resource scarcity. "American consumer behavior may change when Americans begin viewing other people throughout the world as their kin," Saad says. "But it won't be easy — I'm not sure we can just sing a John Lennon song and suddenly all start sharing."

Indeed, the '60s are over and measures of civic connectedness in the U.S. are lower than ever. How can Aunt Millie in Paducah feel that fuzzy bond with, say, a pig farmer from Montevideo when she barely knows the name of her next-door neighbor? Maniates, ever the optimist, says the connections are happening. Environmental consciousness -- spawned by fears of $5-a-gallon gasoline and global warming -- is providing American political leaders with the unprecedented opportunity to place the consumption question on the national agenda.

But Maniates is also a realist, recognizing the entrenched assumptions framing economic thought in the U.S.; principal among them is the gross domestic product indicator as the undisputed barometer of national well-being. GDP is the market value of all goods and services sold in a given period, typically a fiscal quarter or year. When the value is up, the economy is considered strong; when it's down, everybody panics. About two-thirds of the GDP is calculated from consumer spending -- those window A/Cs and designer sundresses -- leaving regulators and public officials worried that policy measures to reduce consumption may drive down the GDP, sending the country into recession or worse. Keep in mind, our government pays us to go shopping; why would it suddenly encourage parsimony?

Calls to shelve the GDP are not new. Shortly after its introduction in the 1930s, one of its creators, economist Simon Kuznets, cautioned that "the welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measurement of national income."

But, of course, the GDP will never disappear; it's just a number. The challenge is in developing alternative indicators and elevating their importance at the public policy table. A few float about, like the Human Development Index, which includes such factors as life expectancy and education levels, and the government of Bhutan's Gross National Happiness, which calculates things like ecosystem diversity, cultural vitality, good governance and psychological well-being.

Another candidate, and perhaps the most vetted by the academic community, is the Genuine Progress Indicator, which takes into account not only economic activity but the costs it incurs, such as pollution, the loss of cropland and resource depletion. It also factors in non-monetary transactions like volunteerism. John Talberth, an economist with Redefining Progress, an Oakland, Calif.-based economics think tank that touts the GPI, says these kinds of holistic measurements allow a look beyond consumer spending as the principal driver of the nation's economic strength. "It's very possible that as a nation we can reduce overall consumption but still show positive growth in our GPI," he says.

Nova Scotia and Alberta, Canada, have adopted the GPI for regional policy initiatives, and, earlier this year, the Alaska Legislature agreed to measure the short- and long-term impact of a proposed $30 billion gas pipeline project using a modified Gross Progress Indicator model. Rick Steiner, the professor and conservation specialist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks who leads that effort, believes the GPI and similar indicators can help reveal the hidden costs of over-consumption. "Traditional economics got us into this mess," Steiner says. "We'll need something new and different to help us out of it."

Indeed, economists across the political spectrum accept the shortcomings of the gross domestic product measure, often laying blame with the media or elected officials for oversimplifying a complicated science. "The GDP is a useful number, but it's only one of many that you need to gauge how well things are going," says economist Desmond Lachman of the American Enterprise Institute. He notes that China, for example, has notched impressive gains in GDP, but nowhere does the growth, as measured, reflect the costs in the form of pollution or income disparity. Like many economists, he likes the idea behind the GPI -- a broad measure of welfare -- but he prefers policymaking the old-fashioned way: after careful review of a variety of data. Obsession with GDP often prevents that from happening. "There's a lot of value judgments to be drawn -- education, satisfaction, for example," Lachman says. "Why not lay out all the numbers and let people draw their own conclusions?"

According to the World Bank, more than 400 million Chinese climbed out of poverty between 1990 and 2004. Each day, many more join them, across the planet. Even countries once considered among the most desperate -- Uganda and Mozambique, for instance -- are taking strides toward meeting the United Nations' ambitious Millennium Project goals for vastly improving global living conditions by 2015. Yet continued economic growth will place new pressures on an already overtaxed biosphere.

The urgency to deal fundamentally and globally with consumption is growing with each new factory and office tower built in India or China. Lan Xia, a 39-year-old assistant professor of marketing at Bentley College near Boston, moved here from Beijing in 1996. She returns each year to visit friends and family and is increasingly shocked by the consumptive frenzy on display. "I think my friends and colleagues back in China act more like Americans than I do," she says. "The Chinese culture, like America's, is becoming defined by consumption."


David Villano is an award-winning, Miami-based journalist who has contributed to dozens of publications, including The Miami Herald, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Newsweek, Mother Jones and the Columbia Journalism Review.