Your Money or Your Life: Why Work Yourself to Death?
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
This story is reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from Your Money or Your Life by Vicki Robin. Copyright © 2009 by Vicki Robin.
If this were just a private hell it would be tragedy enough. But it’s not. Our affluent life-styles are having an increasingly devastating effect on our planet.
Over two decades ago, The United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development warned that consumption patterns in the developed world were one of the primary engines driving global environmental damage. Since that time, it has only gotten worse.
We can all recite the tragic indicators of this disaster—from climate change to rainforest destruction to species extinctions. They are front-page news, transforming many of us into reluctant and frightened ecologists. And these conditions are made worse by an advertising industry that creates demand for products we don’t need that are using up natural resources at a rate far faster than the planet can replenish them.
We are piling up economic debt on top of our ecological deficit. As economic commentator Lester Thurow, speaking on National Public Radio, put it, it’s as if we borrowed up to our eyeballs for the greatest New Year’s Eve party ever. During the party everyone was happy. But come January 2, there was no more fun and only bills to pay. The last decades are like our blow-off bash, and it looks like “January 2” will be the reality for the next generation. This is particularly serious because by 2008 the United States had gone from being the world’s largest creditor nation to the world’s largest debtor nation. U.S. businesses, houses, land and government bonds are increasingly owned by foreign investors. We’ve mortgaged the farm, and the rent collector may come knocking any decade now.
Concurrently, we have seen an increasing gulf between the rich and poor, both within the United States and around the world. Millions are homeless for want of affordable housing, while others have millions to spend on luxury homes. Historically such disequilibrium is the forerunner of dramatic and even violent change.
Financially, socially, politically and spiritually we’ve rung up some serious debts in our post–World War II spending spree. One way or another, we will pay up—with interest.
The Biggest Loser in the Money Game
The pity is that many of us are not even aware of this debt because our primary benefactors don’t have a voice and we didn’t even know we were borrowing from them. We haven’t just borrowed from “the bank.” We’ve borrowed from future generations, and from our very generous planet.
As ecologist Garret Hardin pointed out, on our shrinking planet, nature is like the village commons where we all graze our sheep. If we respect each other and respect the commons, all our sheep get fed and the commons and the community thrive. But if some folks start looking out only for themselves, they may start grazing extra sheep. Suddenly, goodwill is gone, we’re all grazing extra sheep and the commons is destroyed.
Competing nations have depleted our planet’s common resources. Everything we eat, wear, drive, buy and throw away comes from the Earth. Many of these products are fabricated from nonrenewable resources. Once we throw them away, those pieces of the planet will not be available to support meaningful life for perhaps thousands of millennia. It’s a one-way trip from Earth to factory to store to our house to the dump. We have ignored the fact that we enjoy our current level of affluence by the good (and free) graces of nature-soil, water and air that cost nothing yet are being taxed to the limit. We now face the grim possibility that the Earth may one day no longer support life as we know it and need it to be. As civilized and advanced as we may have become, we still depend on breathable air, potable water and fertile soil for our daily existence. But we have done massive, perhaps irreparable, damage to our planetary support system.