Although, as humans, we are biologically predisposed to be interested in snazzy stuff, the current hyper-consumer lifestyle didn’t just happen as a natural result of our biology. It is a cultural phenomenon, as much as anything—the result of the particular economic system that we have created. In this vein, consider that marketers in the United States now spend in excess of $200 billion a year (equivalent to $600 per capita) to convince Americans that they need what they, the marketers, have to sell. No surprise then that many people find themselves buying products that they didn’t even know they needed. For example, today, more than half of all Americans drink bottled water. In other words, they pay top dollar for something that is available for a fraction of a penny per glass from the tap.
Most of what people pay for when they buy bottled water is the container and the cost of transport. After all, bottled water usually comes from hundreds, even thousands, of miles away. All this transport combined with the manufacture of the plastic bottles requires fossil fuels. It is estimated that a half cup of oil is required to produce a one-liter plastic water bottle. Ironically, approximately two liters of fresh water are also used in the manufacture of each one-liter plastic bottle. Here is a further irony: It turns out that 25 percent, or more, of the bottled water that is sold comes from the tap, with a few minerals added.
And the story doesn’t end there. What happens to all those plastic bottles after the water is consumed? The majority are discarded and end up in landfills where they may require thousands of years to biodegrade. As for the ones that get recycled, there is a good chance these days that they will be exported as far away as China for resource recovery.
I have singled out bottled water for illustrative purposes but there are thousands upon thousands of other products and gizmos put on the market each year, each one whispering: “Buy me!” “You need me!” Simply visit a nearby mall or a superstore and cruise up and down the aisles perusing the myriad offerings. As you go along, ask yourself, could I live without this product? Will it truly enhance my well-being? Will it bring me genuine happiness? When I did this recently at my local big-box store I was amazed to realize that much of what I was seeing didn’t even exist as a product category when I was growing up: In other words, I was being told that I needed things that until recently have not even existed!
In sum, the so-called environmental crisis is not simply the result of rapid human population growth. Consumption, it turns out, is the more critical factor. Each item that we buy—whether it’s a pack of gum, a car, or an iPod—comes from Earth and goes back to Earth, leaving a trail of impact in its creation, use, and disposal.