Attics, basements, and garages are loaded with the plunder of past shopping. Some people rent storage lockers just to hold all their extra stuff. Dumps are filling up with brand new items, never used, but tossed out. There’s even a TV show called “Hoarders” – a reflection of the national preoccupation. Do all these THINGS really make us happier?

In this Radio Ecoshock program, we examine the two extremes of consumption: the Americans who use up more of the world’s resources than any other people; and the slum dwellers who use practically nothing.

The World Watch Institute has released it’s annual report. “State of the World 2010, Transforming Cultures: From Consumerism to Sustainability” is 262 pages of solutions from around the world. You can buy it from worldwatch.org for $19.95 as a paperback, or $9.95 as a downloadable “.pdf” file (requires the free Adobe Reader).

I interview the project director, Erik Assadourian. We start by noting the total disconnect between governments and economists encouraging consumers to get out and buy to save the economy – versus the plain facts that resources are getting harder to find, the forests and land are being devastated, and the atmosphere is damaged by all the useless spending.

Why do we do it? We were raised to shop. Kids grow up with millions, if not billions of ads everywhere we look. Why do we wear corporate logos on our clothes, like walking billboards? Why do we need walk-in cupboards, multiple shoe racks, garages full of big-boy toys seldom used?

Rush Limbaugh nearly had a heart attack when the sacred advertisers were threatened by this rather brave World Watch report. It didn’t help when the British Guardian newspaper came out with the headline “US cult of greed is now a global environmental threat, report warns.”

The sub-head was “Excessive consumption has spread to developing countries and could wipe out efforts to slow climate change, Worldwatch Institute says.”

Assadourian replied, saying the report wasn’t trying to blame Americans – who were simply indoctrinated into a culture developed since World War II. The answer isn’t blame, but a willing shift, a transformation to a survivable way of life.

Here is the Earthscan blog entry where Assadourian (sort of) agrees with Rush.

In our Radio interview, Erik and I discuss a little of the psychology, and the horrible statistics. But we spend longer looking at key institutions that could help us move away from shop-till-the-planet-drops lifestyles.

These include the greening of world religions, early childhood education (keep those toddlers away from TV!), the way Universities groom us to accept corporate symbols as self expression, the role of media, and so on.

But Worldwatch goes further, with chapters on things like converting agriculture to Permaculture (with Albert Bates), and a lot of other good ideas from all over.

Counter-consumerism hasn’t exactly caught on, but there are some examples we can try. Of course, our previous week’s guest Keith Farnish says this is all window-dressing for a civilization that has to collapse to save the biosphere. You decide.

Incidentally, Keith’s blog entry for February 9th is titled “Monthly Undermining Task, February 2010: Time To Break The Ads.” Whether is straight sales, or “green” products, Farnish says it’s time to end advertising, before it ends us.


Then we look at the other part of the world, the 3 billion people who create hardly any carbon emissions. Most of them live in “illegal settlements”, with no government services, no police, no fire, no hospitals, no schools, and little hope.

Except, as our next guest David Satterthwaite tells us, the so-called “slum dwellers” are self-organizing to improve their lot, in many parts of the world.

Dr David Satterthwaite is a senior urban planner for the International Institute for Environment and Development, a non-profit based in the UK. He’s traveled to the poorest parts of cities all over the world. He’s the editor of the Earthscan Reader in Sustainable Cities, and co-author of many other books, including “Adapting Cities to Climate Change: Understanding and Addressing the Development Challenges.”

Satterthwaite has also researched the role of consumerism, in the developed versus developing world. If you were wondering, when it comes to climate change is it “them” (increasing population in the “Third World”) or is it “us” (Western-style consumers) – the verdict is in: it us!

Here is a link to a press release from the IIED “Study shatters myth that population growth is a major driver of climate change.”

Here are a few factoids from that press release:

“Dr David Satterthwaite of the International Institute for Environment and Development analyzed changes in population and in greenhouse gas emissions for all the world’s countries and found that between 1980 and 2005:

* Sub-Saharan Africa had 18.5% of the world’s population growth and just 2.4% of the growth in carbon dioxide emissions

* The United States had 3.4% of the world’s population growth and 12.6% of the growth in carbon dioxide emissions

* China had 15.3% of the world’s population growth and 44.5% of the growth in carbon dioxide emissions. Population growth rates in China have come down very rapidly – but greenhouse gas emissions have increased very rapidly

* Low-income nations had 52.1% of the world’s population growth and 12.8% of the growth in carbon dioxide emissions

* High-income nations had 7% of the world’s population growth and 29% of the growth in carbon dioxide emissions.

* Most of the nations with the highest population growth rates had low growth rates for carbon dioxide emissions while many of the nations with the lowest population growth rates had high growth rates for carbon dioxide emissions.”

Asked about the human failure (so far) to tackle either carbon emissions or urban poverty, Satterthwaite said we have a duty to keep on trying, even when facing apparently hopeless situations. I agree.


Almost every question and answer period I record, on climate change, has at least on guy (and it’s always a man) who stands up and says (somewhat angrily):

“Why don’t the Greens every tackle population growth. That’s what is causing climate change. Why are the enviro’s always afraid to tackle the real cause of it all?”

Well, angry guy, now you know. That’s just a slick denial in the West, to avoid taking responsibility for our own role. Blame the brown person on the other side of the world for our climate-wrecking, planet-draining need to shop.

Or check out this column by the UK journalist George Monbiot, titled “Stop blaming the poor. It’s the wally yachters who are burning the planet.”

It’s the rich bastards that do the most damage, with those multiple monster houses, big SUV’s, flying around the world. What about limiting the rich? There’s a campaign you won’t find in mass media – even if it has to happen.

Alex Smith