Month 2, Day 19: Consumption Used to Mean You Went to Switzerland or Arizona

This one goes to both of my Elected Representatives. I had the germ of an idea about providing more useful environmental information on the things we buy. I know my purchasing habits would be very different if I knew how much ecological devastation had gone into the manufacture of some geegaw I was ogling, or how many thousands of miles a package of strawberries had to travel. Why not get that information, apply some sort of scoring algorithm, and incorporate it into product labeling?

Dear Representative Markey and Senator Kerry — I write as a citizen concerned about the looming climate crisis. It is my belief that many ordinary people would like to do more — both to help forestall the disastrous effects of climate change, and to help make our culture more environmentally conscious in general. I have a suggestion for a program which could have an impact on the way Americans think about the environment and our role in transforming it.

Our national purchasing habits could be dramatically altered if Environmental Impact information was displayed on product labels. We require such statements for large-scale construction and civil engineering projects; the “Energy Star” labeling program has had a demonstrable impact on consumer buying habits for household appliances — why not make this part of our purchasing equation for foodstuffs and consumer goods? An “Environment-friendly” scoring system would take into account the amount of waste involved in production, packaging and shipping; the sources of raw materials involved, and the likely lifespan of the product. A negative rating would describe an overpackaged product that used many toxic or ecologically detrimental raw materials, which required extensive transport before arriving at the point of purchase or warehousing, and which had a short expected lifespan before disposal; a positive rating would reflect minimal packaging, sustainable use of raw materials and efficient use of transport.

A measure such as the one I’ve suggested will help change attitudes and purchasing habits. Ultimately, of course, that won’t be enough. Our national habits must change profoundly. To be a “consumer” can no longer reflect a positive American value, because the word implies a “taking out” without a corresponding “giving back.” In the nineteenth century, “consumption” was a euphemism for tuberculosis: a wasting disease, almost always fatal. For the long-term health of our planet, human beings in general (and Americans in particular, since we are the examples held up to the rest of the world) must stop taking out without giving back. We have seen the results of ungoverned consumerism emerge in the catastrophic synergy of environmental degradation, oceanic acidification, soaring GHG levels and an ecosystem under assault from thousands of varieties of toxic trash — and we can no longer afford it. Granted, our population may not be emotionally ready to end consumerism as it exists today…but make no mistake, if we don’t end it, it will surely end us.

Thank you for your consideration.

Yours Sincerely,

Warren Senders