Books

Your Money or Your Life: Why Work Yourself to Death?

Our affluent life-styles are having an increasingly devastating effect on our planet. We need to start answering for them.

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.

Is More Better?

Many of us are out there “making a dying” because we’ve bought the pervasive consumer myth that more is better. Even though Buckminster Fuller likened the Earth to a spaceship, we cling to the silver-screen images of the Frontier, where “there’s always more where that came from.”

We build our working lives on this myth of more. Our expectation is to make more money as the years go on. We will get more responsibility and more perks as we move up in our field. Eventually, we hope, we will have more possessions, more prestige and more respect from our community. We become habituated to expecting ever more of ourselves and ever more from the world, but rather than satisfaction, our experience is that the more we have, the more we want-and the less content we are with the status quo.

More is better; this is the motto that drives us. For Americans (and increasingly for consumers in other nations) this is the motto that leads us to trade in our car every three years, buy new clothes for every event and every season, get a bigger and better house every time we can afford it and upgrade everything from our stereo systems to our lawn mowers simply because some new automatic widget has been introduced.

According to psychologist David G. Myers, author of The Pursuit of Happiness, between 1957 and 2002, the average U.S. citizen’s buying power (adjusted for inflation) more than doubled. As a result, former luxury items became commonplace. Paul Wachtel noted in his 1989 book, The Poverty of Affluence, that:

In 1958, when economist John Kenneth Galbraith appropriately described the United States as “The Affluent Society,” 9.5 percent of U.S. households had air conditioning, about 4 percent had dishwashers, and fewer than 15 percent had more than one car. By 1980, when Ronald Reagan’s successful bid to replace Jimmy Carter was based on the widespread sense that people were suffering economically, the percentage of homes with air conditioning had quintupled, the percentage with dishwashers had increased more than 700 percent and the percentage with two or more cars had about tripled. Yet, despite the astounding economic growth-despite owning more of the gadgets, machines and appliances thought to constitute “the good life”—Americans felt significantly less well-off than they had twenty-two years before, polls showed.

Those trends have continued. Midway through the first decade of the 21st century, two-thirds of American households own two or more vehicles. Over one-third own three or more. More than half of American homes have dishwashers. Over three-quarters of new homes in the United States come equipped with central air. Meanwhile, National Opinion Research Center surveys reveal that the percentage of Americans that describe themselves as “very happy” has been steadily declining since the late 1950s. In 1957 the percentage was 35 percent. By 2002 it was 30 percent.

If you live for having it all, what you have is never enough. In an environment of more is better, “enough” is like the horizon—always receding. You lose the ability to identify that point of sufficiency at which you can choose to stop. This is precisely the psychological cul-de-sac Paul Wachtel describes, the invisible Catch-22 of the consumer myth of more. If more is better, then what I have is not enough. Even when I do get the “more” I was convinced would make life “better,” however, I am still operating out of the belief that more is better-so the “more” I now have still isn’t enough. But hope springs eternal. If I could only get more, then . . . and on and on we go. We get deeper in debt and often deeper in despair. The “more” that was supposed to make life “better” can never be enough.

Vicki Robin is the author of Your Money or Your Life (Penguin, 2009).