The Green Upside to the Meltdown

While there's little to like right now about what's happening to the global economy, or about the government's never-ending rescue efforts -- did you really want to become an owner of Citigroup? -- there is this: The possibility that Americans will at long last rethink our habitual consumption. I stopped by my local mall (for a haircut) the other day, and it sure looked busy, but the statistics tell a different story. Consumer spending fell by 1 percent in October, the largest drop since the 2001 terrorist attacks, according to the Commerce Department. November is likely to be worse.

This is welcome news. While I'm mindful that a pullback on consumption will claim some victims -- shop clerks, fashion designers, Chinese laborers who make toys or electronics for the global market, maybe even a U.S. automaker or two -- and while people losing their jobs is always regrettable, the rate at which we Americans have been spending money is unsustainable both in economic and environmental terms. To put it simply, we've been living off cheap credit and cheap energy, neither of which can last.

U.S. financial markets collapsed for many reasons -- the recklessness and greed of lenders and mortgage brokers, the willingness of investment banks to repackage and sell junk, the breakdown of the bond ratings agencies which are supposed to investigate the value of securities, the ineffectiveness or indifference of government regulators and the blind faith that markets will take care of everything. But one more very big reason that we are in such trouble now is that is that Americans have borrowed a lot more money than they could afford to repay to buy bigger homes and cars, and more stuff of all kinds. As a government and as individuals, we're borrowing more each year just to stay even. This massive intergenerational transfer of wealth -- from our children and grandchildren to ourselves -- is not only unjustified but certain to end badly.

Environmentally, we quite literally cannot fuel our current levels of consumption without destroying the planet, until we radically transform the way we use energy and materials, a process that will take decades. "Sustainable consumption" is, for now, pretty much an oxymoron -- just think about how much gasoline, coal-fired electricity and plastic you use every week. Deforestation, the depletion of the ocean's fisheries, loss of biodiversity and, of course, climate change are all driven by the fact that we are living beyond our collective means.

OK, enough of a rant. Now I want to pose a question, and humbly make a suggestion as the holiday shopping season kicks off. (Friday, November 28, was Buy Nothing Day and Black Friday.) The question is, why don't the U.S. environmental groups talk more about consumption?

I don't know the answer (and I will try to ask Fred Krupp of Environmental Defense Fund or Frances Beinecke of NRDC, next time I run into them) but I think it's in part because they are focused on policy and they don't want to place too much of the blame for our environmental crisis on consumers. They also don't want to come across as scolds (Unlike me!) because that hasn't been an effective message for environmentalists. I can't help but wonder if it is also because they depend on the kindness of rich people to stay afloat. Their boards and major donors come from Wall Street, corporate law firms and big companies. (Check out the EDF board and the NRDC board.) This leaves the consumption issue to much smaller groups like the Center for the New American Dream, which has found creative ways to get people to think about their buying habits. The economist Juliet Schor, who is co-chair of the New Dream board, has an article on the group's website calling for "a local, frugal, just, and fun holiday season" filled with more music and less wrapping paper!

I'd like to suggest that you substitute a gift to charity for your next trip to the mall. This is a win-win-win-win because you can help out a nonprofit (and many are feeling squeezed right now), avoid purchases that deplete our natural resources, save on gas and lower your personal carbon footprint. There are many websites that can help with this, but you can start with Redefine Christmas. They have this eye-popping statistic on their website:

the amount of money spent on candy alone during the holiday season is greater than the annual budgets of the American Cancer Society, The American Heart Association and Habitat for Humanity combined.

Stunning, isn't it. Another site, Just Give, includes a database of 1,000 charities, grouped by category, that have met stringent reporting requirements, and makes it easy to send gift cards, collect tax receipts, etc. Still another nonprofit that does good work makes holiday giving easy with gift cards is Global Giving (disclosure: I'm friendly with its founder, Dennis Whittle), which enables you to directly support small NGOS all around the world. Imagine sending blankets and clothes to needy families in India or contributing to a school for AIDS orphans in South Africa instead of buying a new sweater or tie for a family member or friend.

Whatever you choose to do, I hope your holidays are filled with peace and love -- which, incidentally, are infinitely renewable resources.

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