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Buddhist-Christian Studies 20 (2000) 23-42

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Overcoming the Grip of Consumerism

Stephanie Kaza
University of Vermont

For fifteen years the Worldwatch Institute of Washington, D. C. has been publishing a review of the declining condition of the global environment (Brown et al. 1998). For the most part, the picture is not good. Much of the deterioration can be traced directly to human activities--urban expansion equates to species loss, industrial manufacturing to air pollution, factory farming to water pollution, chemical agriculture to poisoned soil. Accelerating these environmental impacts are rapidly rising population numbers, increasingly efficient technologies, and consumption rates beyond the planet's capacity. These three have been linked by the equation I=PAT, or environmental impact=population size multiplied by affluence (or degree of consumption) multiplied by technology. Reduce any one of these and the impact drops; increase one or all three, and the impact rises, in some cases dramatically.

Much of the conversation among scientists and technologists has focused on the P (population) and T (technology) parts of the equation, with grave concerns that rising population numbers are swamping earth systems, yet often with buoyant optimism that technological breakthroughs will solve everything. These two perspectives dominated political discussion for much of the 1960s and 1970s (Ehrlich et al. 1977 and Lovins 1977, among others). But by the 1980s the facts were incontrovertible: high rates of consumption were driving environmental destruction just as fast if not faster than rising population. At the 1992 Rio Summit in Brazil, representatives of southern countries demanded that high-consuming northern countries examine their own contribution to the environmental crisis rather than placing blame elsewhere. It is our obligation in the North to respond to these serious requests.

How much do people in northern industrialized countries consume? Here are some indicator figures: Americans consume their average body weight (120 pounds) every day in materials extracted and processed from farms, mines, range lands, and forests (Ryan and Durning 1997, 5). In the United States, the number of shopping malls (close to 35,000) eclipsed the number of high schools in 1987 (Dunning 1992, 130). Since 1950 the per capita consumption of energy, meat, and lumber has doubled, use of plastic has increased five times, use of aluminum seven times, and average airplane miles per person has soared 33-fold (Durning 1992, 29). As products have proliferated, we see the swelling ecological footprint behind each new thing: clear-cut forests replacing paper plantations in Thailand, toxic oil polluting native lands of Ecuador, women earning poverty wages assembling computer chips in [End Page 23] Malaysia--the stories are not as pretty as the products. Materials extraction, production, distribution, use, and waste disposal--all of these have ecological costs, many of which are life threatening.

Why should Buddhists and Christians address consumption? For starters, it is a nonsectarian issue; responsibility cuts across denominations and religious belief systems. Collaboration of all kinds is needed to take apart this juggernaut of complex causes and conditions. I believe the Buddhist tradition has powerful analytical tools and spiritual practices which may be helpful in this undertaking. These may aid or inspire similar efforts explored through the Christian heritage. A survey of the landscape and the literature shows it is shockingly clear: the challenge here is enormous. It will require all the spiritual insight, dedication, and sheer stamina we can bring to it. This work cannot be done alone; we need each other's help to keep going through the many obstacles.

To date, Buddhist initiatives in this conversation have been modest. Several popular books have brought Buddhist perspectives to bear on consumption issues, most notably E. F. Schumacher's Small is Beautiful (1975) and Gary Snyder's The Practice of the Wild (1990). Both works popularize practices of simplicity and restraint, flavored by the exotic Western fascination with Eastern thought. Several Buddhist teachers in the U.S. have taken up particular sub-themes addressing over-consumption. Philip Kapleau has sounded an ethical call for vegetarianism based on the first precept, "no killing" (1982). Robert Aitken has taken a stand for reducing wants and needs to simplify...