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  • Finding Enough:Confessions of a Secular Missionary
  • William Powers (bio)

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Consider this radical notion: the environmental crisis is not all about gloom and doom. Instead, it is a door that opens up to a renewed vision of how we live and find happiness. It starts with a conversation about the question, "How much is enough?"

This conversation is vitally important because of some bad news. Technology alone won't save us from environmental collapse. It will take four to five generations of technological innovation to achieve carbon-free production. Alas, we don't have that much time. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says the atmosphere's tipping point could come within the next few decades. If climate change is not reversed swiftly, its effects could prove irreversible.

The human population will hit seven billion within the next year. From remote Umbrian villages to the sprawling cities that house China's growing middle class, many of the world's inhabitants dream of more. [End Page 7] But the road to more leads only to collapse. If everyone in the world consumed the way an average American consumes, we would require an additional five planets' worth of resources. More than an ethical imperative, the need to reduce our material expectations and consumption is essential for the very survival of our species.

The good news, however, is that consuming sustainably doesn't have to hurt. I've spent a good part of the last 15 years as an aid worker and analyst, traveling to some 50 countries and examining how human civilization can get back into harmony with our biosphere, by aligning our consumption with our real needs. What I've found has left me surprisingly optimistic.

The Gospel of More-Is-Better

Perhaps you've heard the story of the indigenous man whistling his way through the jungle around his village when he comes upon a well-dressed aid official with a clipboard in hand.

"What are you doing?" the official asks.

"Walking in the forest," the man replies.

"You should be working," the official says, suggesting the man and his fellow villagers cut down the forest and build a profitable cattle ranch. When the indigenous man asks him why, the official says, "To earn money."

"Why do I need money?" the man asks.

"So that you can have assets and savings."

"Why do I need to have those things?"

Exasperated, the official blurts out, "So that someday you can retire and stroll happily through the forest!"

"But that's what I'm doing right now," the man says, continuing on his way.

For a long time, I was that aid official. That was my clipboard.

I spent years as a secular missionary, preaching the gospel of more-is-better. Like missionaries of all stripes, my deeds sometimes failed to match my words. As a fellow at the World Bank, I flew business class to a sustainability conference in India. As an aid worker in war-ravaged Liberia, I lived in a handsome villa on the coast. In Bolivia, my fellow development experts and I admired one another's luxury apartments while the Illimani glacier melted above us—a victim of the global warming caused in part by our own appallingly large carbon footprints.

In short, I've been a poster child for the slogan: GOT FOUR MORE PLANETS?

How could it be otherwise? Consumption is bound up in America's cultural DNA. One of my earliest memories is of July 4, 1976. I was five years old. My parents took my sister and me from our Long Island home into Manhattan to see the fireworks extravaganza celebrating the American bicentennial. I can still see the color and feel the firepower that rose from the dozens of barges in the Hudson and East Rivers, our collective national pride blooming so colorfully in the sky.

Eating hot dogs in fluffy white buns, drinking Coke, and watching fireworks, I knew my country was great. I'd help my dad hang the Stars and Stripes in front of our comfortable suburban home, then watch him get the grill going. [End Page 8] He...


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