Human beings are part of the natural environment, whether they believe it or not. Every item that a person touches was derived, directly or indirectly, from nature. Nothing is truly man-made; rather, it is man-processed or man-transformed. Consumers typically refer to plastics, glass, paints, pharmaceuticals, computer chips, cell phones, and the like as being man-made and not natural, but the reality is that even these things consist of natural materials. The difference between “natural” and “not natural” products is that natural products have undergone far less mechanical or chemical processes than their counterparts.
Why does that matter? The average consumer is much less likely to be aware of what natural resources really go into making the products they take for granted. Their ignorance in turn stimulates a lack of concern for the environment and resource sustainability. One easily understands that automobiles use fossil fuels, but the same person is less likely to know or understand that the plastic in their kitchen utensils, furniture, computers, clothing, jewelry, etc., might also be a petroleum product.
In the 11th Hour, some of the speakers touched on this mentality of humanity being separate from and superior to the natural world, rather than being a part of it. One speaker also said something along the lines of, “nature will survive; humanity might not.” Throughout my academic career I have often emphasized the psychological reasons that a person may or may not do something, and the story of Easter Island is no exception. While ecological factors played a hefty role in the downfall of Easter Island, I believe that a shift in cultural values could have at least kept them holding on for much longer. Much of the resources went to moving the large statues, which ultimately served no functional purpose. I do believe that cultural and spiritual expression is crucial to any society; however, once the demands of this expression override basic resource management, problems are likely to arise.
The pursuit of status in developed nations has more to do with economic power and less to do with actually living and surviving, and the mark of higher status is high patterns of consumption. This consumption comes at the expense of natural resources that cannot be replaced in our lifetime. What purpose does this consumption really serve? People consume to feel more powerful, more influential, more important. They strive for a specific mindset and for a higher position within a society. Not only that, but humanity as a whole has come to view this power struggle and division in social classes as the natural order of things. They get caught up in the “bigger is better” mindset, but there is a question that most people do not consider – do they really need what they strive for? Just this weekend a family member asked about how my backpack (which was a Christmas gift last year) was holding up. When I told this person that the bag was holding up well and I enjoyed it, they proceeded to ask if I was ready for a new one. Why would I need a new one when I had just disclosed that my current bag was serving its purpose just fine?
In the last few years I have begun pursuing a minimalist lifestyle for a number of reasons: 1) living in a dorm room means there is limited space; 2) I like to be mobile and pack light, and going home for the weekend/moving in or out of the dorm is much easier when there is less stuff to pack; 3) by owning less items and consuming only what I need, I am doing what I can to reduce my impact on the environment. I have even begun to reduce my meat intake, which stemmed from a health decision and was further justified by learning that meat production used up so many resources. Psychologically I do not really need a lot of items. I am creature of habit, as most human beings are. I stick to the same main foods, the same hobbies, and the same spaces on a regular basis. If I feel like changing something up, I do. A lot of my friends and family keep the “just in case” items around and have multiples of the same thing but in different colors or styles, taking up space and creating a demand for unnecessary resource use.
I spent two years studying civil and environmental engineering. That perspective often demonstrated the post-consumption consequences of our high patterns of consumption, such as waste and pollution management. The need for space and land/water remediation might decrease if our society as a whole took a critical look at their consumption patterns. We as individuals would do well to ask ourselves when shopping, “Do I really need this? Will I actually use it? What are the long-term consequences of my using this product?” When consumption divorces the mindless pursuit of status and is joined with more forethought and intention, our environmental problems will not immediately be solved, but they may be lessened.