(The following presentation was given at 10th Annual Sustainability Summit and Exposition held in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on March 6-7, 2013 <www.sustainabilitysummit.us>)
Americans are not living in a very happy place right now. There are looming threats to an already problematic health care system. Wages have been stagnant for decades and two-income families struggle to keep their heads above water. Meanwhile, the 1% are making off like bandits. A spate of bad weather phenomena is making us uneasy about the developing apocalyptic dimensions of climate change. The American Dream seems to be slipping through our fingers.
There are many and complex reasons for these problems, but today I will focus on an issue that goes to the core of our unhappiness—consumerism. Seventy percent of our economy is driven by consumerism and the American consumer and the American economy supports a substantial proportion of the world's economy through our exports and imports.
There are two main problems with consumerism. First, our poor planet can't sustain the high levels of consumption in America and the rest of the developed economies. We are destroying the very fabric of our existence as we contaminate our air and water. We engage in ever riskier means of obtaining oil and gas; runoff of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides pollute our streams and rivers; and we are contemplating an open pit mine in northern Wisconsin that will destroy an entire watershed feeding into Lake Superior and sustaining an Indian tribe. The second major problem with consumerism is its very premise---you can buy your way to happiness This runs contrary to every form of perennial wisdom. “Can't buy me love!” the Beatles sang.
Why is consumerism so powerful? Again, there are many and complex reasons but, as I see it, there are two outstanding factors. The first major problem is the corporation as the dominant economic form. Corporations are given the rights of a person but international corporations are often more powerful than people's governments as they suppress worker's rights and environmental standards in the name of greater profits. Corporations are amoral at best; they have no concern for any children or grandchildren let alone the seventh generation. Their only concern is with making a profit for the shareholders in their quarterly reports, and most of the shareholders are very wealthy people.