19 The Ecology of Giving and Consuming

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What one person has, another cannot have. . . . Every atom of

substance, of whatever kind, used or consumed, is so much

human life spent.

—John Ruskin

How do we sell more stuff to more people in more places?

—IBM advertisement

Don’t try to eat more than you can lift.

—Miss Piggy

Some years ago a friend of mine, Stuart Mace, gave me a letter opener

hand-carved from a piece of rosewood. Over his 70-some years Stuart

had become an accomplished wood craftsman, photographer, dog

trainer, gourmet cook, teacher, raconteur, skier, naturalist, and allaround

legend in his home town of Aspen, Colorado. High above

Aspen, Stuart and his wife, Isabel, operated a shop called Toklat,

which in Eskimo means “alpine headwaters,” featuring an array of

woodcrafts, Navajo rugs, jewelry, fish fossils, and photography. He

would use his free time in summers to rebuild parts of a ghost town

called Ashcroft for the U.S. Forest Service. He charged nothing for his

time and labor. For groups venturing up the mountain from Aspen, he

and Isabel would cook dinners featuring local foods cooked with style

and simmered over great stories about the mountains, the town, and

their lives. Stuart was seldom at a loss for words. His living, if that is an

appropriate word for a how a Renaissance man earns his keep, was

made as a woodworker. He and his sons crafted tables and cabinetwork

with exquisite inlaid patterns using an assortment of woods

from forests all over the world. A Mace table was like no other, and so

was its price. Long before it was de rigueur to do so, Stuart bought his

wood from forests managed for long-term ecological health. The calibration

between ecological talk and do wasn’t a thing for Stuart. He

paid attention to details.

I first met Stuart in 1981. I was living in the Ozarks at the time

and part of an educational organization that included, among other

things, a farm and steam-powered sawmill. In the summer of 1981

one of our projects was to provide two tractor-trailer loads of oak

beams for the Rocky Mountain Institute being built near Old Snowmass.

Stuart advised us about cutting and handling large timber, about

which we knew little. From that time forward Stuart and I would see

each other several times a year either when he traveled through

Arkansas or when I wandered into Aspen in search of relief from

Arkansas summers. He taught me a great deal, not so much about

wood per se as about the relation of ecology, economics, craftwork,

generosity, and good-heartedness. I last saw Stuart in a hospital room

shortly before he died of cancer in June 1993. In that final conversation,

I recall Stuart being considerably less interested in the cancer

that was consuming his body than in the behavior of the birds outside

his window. He proceeded to deliver an impromptu lecture on the

ecology of the Rocky Mountains. We cried a bit and hugged, and I

went on my way. Shortly thereafter he went on his.

Every time I use his letter opener I think of Stuart. I believe that

he intended it to be this way. For me the object itself is a lesson in giving

and appropriate materialism. It is a useful thing. Hardly a day

passes that I do not use it to open my mail, pry something open, or as

a conversational aid to help emphasize a point. Second, it is beautiful.

The coloring ranges from a deep brown to a tawny yellow. The wood

is hard enough that it does not show much wear after a decade and a

half of daily use. Third, it was made with great skill and design intelligence.

The handle is carved to fit a right hand. Two fingers fit into a

slight depression carved in the base. My thumb fits into another depression

along the top of the shank. It is a pleasure to hold; its

smoothness feels good to the touch. And it works as intended. The

blade is curved slightly to the right, which serves to pull the envelop

open as the blade slices through the paper.

Had Stuart been a typical consumer he could have saved himself

some time and effort. He could have hurried to a discount office supply

store to buy a cheap and durable chrome-plated metal letter

opener stamped out by the tens of thousands in some third world

country by underpaid and overworked laborers employed by a multinational

corporation using materials carelessly ripped from the earth

by another footloose conglomerate and shipped across the ocean in a

freighter spewing Saudi crude every which way and sold by nameless

employees to anonymous consumers in a shopping mall built on what

was once prime farmland and is now uglier than sin itself making a

few shekels for some organization that buys influence in Washington

and seduces the public on TV. But you get the point.

In other words, had Stuart been a rational economic actor, he

would have saved himself a lot of time that he could have used for

watching the Home Shopping Channel. He could have maximized

his gains and minimized his losses as the textbooks say he should do.

Had he done so, he would have been participating in the great scam

called the global economy, which means helping some third world

country “develop” by selling the dignity of its people and their natural

heritage for the benefit of others who lack for nothing. And he

would have helped our own gross national product become all that

much grosser.

A great global debate is under way about the sustainability and fairness

of present patterns of consumption (Myers 1997, Sagoff 1997,

Vincent and Panayotou 1997). On one side are those speaking for the

poor of the world, various religious organizations, and the environment,

who argue adamantly that wealthy Americans, Japanese, and

Europeans consume far too much. Doing so, they believe, is unfair to

the poor, future generations, and other species of life. This consumption

is stressing the earth to the breaking point. Others, who believe

themselves to be in the middle, argue it is not that we consume too

much, only that we consume with too little efficiency. Below the surface

of such views there is, I suspect, the gloomy conviction that short

of an Ayatollah it is too late to reign in the hedonism loosed on the

world by the advertisers and the corporate purveyors of fun and convenience.

Human nature, they think, is inherently porcine, and given a

choice, people wish only to see the world as an object to consume and

the highest purpose of life to maximize bodily and psychological

pleasure. For the managers, a better sort, a dose of more advanced

technology and better organization will keep the goods coming. No

problem. This view of human nature I take to be a self-fulfilling

prophecy of the kind Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor would have appreciated.

At the other end of the debate are the economic buccaneers

and their sidekicks who talk glibly about more economic growth

and global markets. A quick review of the seven deadly sins reveals

them to be full-fledged heathens who will burn for eternity in hellfire.

I know such things because I am the son of a Presbyterian preacher.

Because I believe that it is right and because I know it needs help,

the first position in this debate is the one for which I intend to speak.

I must begin by noting that “consume” as defined by the New Shorter

Oxford English Dictionary means “destroy by or like fire or (formerly)

disease.” A “consumer,” then, is “a person who squanders, destroys, or

uses up.” In this older and clearer view, consumption implied disorder,

disease, and death. In our time, however, we proudly define ourselves

not so much as citizens, or producers, or even as persons, but as consumers.

We militantly defend our rights as consumers while letting

our rights as citizens wither. Consumption is built into virtually

everything we do.We have erected an economy, a society, and soon an

entire planet around what was once recognized as a form of mental

derangement. How could this have happened?

The emergence of the consumer society was neither inevitable

nor accidental. Rather, it resulted from the convergence of a body of

ideas that the earth is ours for the taking, the rise of modern capitalism,

technological cleverness, and the extraordinary bounty of North

America where the model of mass consumption first took root. More

directly, our consumptive behavior is the result of seductive advertising,

entrapment by easy credit, prices that do not tell the truth about

the full costs of what we consume, ignorance about the hazardous

content of much of what we consume, the breakdown of community,

a disregard for the future, political corruption, and the atrophy of alternative

means by which we might provision ourselves. The consumer

society, furthermore, requires that human contact with nature,

once direct, frequent, and intense, be mediated by technology and organization.

In large numbers we moved indoors. A more contrived

and controlled landscape replaced one that had been far less contrived

and controllable.Wild animals, once regarded as teachers and

companions, were increasingly replaced with animals bred for docility

and dependence. Our sense of reality once shaped by our complex

sensory interplay with the seasons, sky, forest, wildlife, savanna,

desert, rivers, seas, and the night sky increasingly came to be shaped

by technology and artificial realities. Urban blight, sprawl, disorder,

and ugliness have become, all too often, the norm. Compulsive consumption,

perhaps a form of grieving or perhaps evidence of mere

boredom, is a response to the fact that we find ourselves exiles and

strangers in a diminished world that we once called home.

Since stupidity is usually sufficient to explain what goes wrong in

human affairs, a belief in conspiracies that require great cleverness is

both superfluous and improbable. In this case, however, there is good

reason to think that both were operative. Clearly we were naive

enough to be suckered by folks like Lincoln Filene and Alfred Sloan

who conspired to create a kind of human being that could be dependably

exploited and even come to take a perverse pride in their

servitude. The story has been told well by Thorstein Veblen (1973),

Stuart Ewen (1976),William Leach (1993), and others and does not

need to be repeated in detail here. In essence, it is a simple story. The

first step involved bamboozling people into believing that who they

are and what they owned were one and the same. The second step

was to deprive people of alternative and often cooperative means by

which they might provide basic needs and services. The destruction

of light rail systems throughout the United States by General Motors

and its co-conspirators, for example, had nothing to do with markets

or public choices and everything to do with back-room deals designed

to destroy competition with the automobile. The third step was to

make as many people as possible compulsive and impulsive consumers,

which is to say addicts, by the advertising equivalent of daily

saturation bombing. The fourth step required giving the whole

system legal standing through the purchase of several generations of

politicians and lawyers. The final step was to get economists to give

the benediction by announcing that greed and the pursuit of selfinterest

were, in fact, rational. By implication, thrift, a concern for

others, public mindedness, farsightedness, or self-denial were oldfashioned

and irrational. Add it all up and Voila! the consumer: an indoor,

pleasure-seeking species adapted to artificial light, living on

plastic money, and unable to distinguish the “real thing” (as in “Coca-

Cola is . . .”) from the real thing.

Do we consume too much? Certainly we do!

Americans, who have the largest material requirements in

the world, each directly or indirectly use an average of 125

pounds of material every day, or about 23 tons per year. . . .

Americans waste more than 1 million pounds per person per

year. This includes: 3.5 billion pounds of carpet sent to landfills,

25 billion pounds of carbon dioxide, and six billion

pounds of polystyrene. Domestically, we waste 28 billion

pounds of food, 300 billion pounds of organic and inorganic

chemicals used for manufacturing and processing, and 700

billion pounds of hazardous waste generated by chemical

production. . . .Total wastes, excluding wastewater, exceed 50

trillion pounds a year in the United States. . . . For every 100

pounds of product we manufacture in the United States, we

create at least 3,200 pounds of waste. In a decade, we transform

500 trillion pounds of molecules into nonproductive

solids, liquids, and gases. (Hawken 1997, 44)

Does compulsive consumption add to the quality of our lives?

Beyond some modest level, the answer is no (Cobb et al. 1995). Does

it satisfy our deepest longings? No, and neither is it intended to do so.

To the contrary, the consumer economy is designed to multiply our

dissatisfactions and dependencies. In psychologist Paul Wachtel’s

words: “Our present stress on growth and productivity is intimately

related to the decline in rootedness. Faced with the loneliness and

vulnerability that come with deprivation of a securely encompassing

community, we have sought to quell the vulnerability through our

possessions” (1983, 65). Do we feel guilty about the gluttony, avarice,

greed, lust, pride, envy, and sloth that drive our addiction? A few may.

But most of us, I suspect, consume mindlessly and then feel burdened

by having too much stuff. Our typical response is to hold a garage sale

and take the proceeds to the mall and start all over again. Can the U.S.

level of consumption be made sustainable for all 6.2 billion humans

now on the earth? Not likely. By one estimate, to do so for just the

present world population would require the resources of two additional

planets the size of Earth (Wackernagel and Rees 1996).

If there ever was a bad deal, this is it. For a mess of pottage we

surrendered a large part of our birthright of connectedness to each

other and to the places in which we live, along with a sizable part of

our practical competence, intelligence, health, community cohesion,

peace of mind, and capacity for citizenship and neighborliness. Our

children, consumers in training, can identify over a thousand corporate

logos but only a dozen or so plants and animals native to their region.

As a result they are at risk of living diminished, atomized lives.

We consume, mostly in ignorance, chemicals like atrazine and

alachlor in our cornflakes, formaldehyde in our plywood and particle

board, and perchloroethylene in our dry-cleaned clothing (Fagin and

Lavelle 1996). Several hundred other synthetic chemicals are embedded

in our fatty tissues and circulate in our blood, with effects on our

health and behavior that we will never fully understand. Our rural

landscapes, once full of charm and health, are dying from overdevelopment,

landfills, discarded junk, too many highways, too many

mines and clear-cuts, and a lack of competent affection. Cities, where

the civic arts, citizenship, and civility were born, have been ruined by

the automobile. Death by overconsumption has become the demise

of choice in the American way of life. The death certificates read “cancer,”

“obesity,” and “heart disease.” Some of our kids now kill each

other over Nike shoes and jackets with NFL logos. Tens of thousands

of us die on the highways each year trying to save time by consuming

space. To protect our “right” to consume another country’s oil, we

have declared our willingness to incinerate the entire planet.We have,

in short, created a culture that consumes everything in its path including

its children’s future. The consumer economy is a cheat and a

fraud. It does not, indeed cannot, meet our most fundamental needs

for belonging, solace, and authentic meaning.

“We must,” in Wendell Berry’s words, “daily break the body and shed

the blood of creation. When we do this knowingly, lovingly, skillfully,

reverently, it is a sacrament. When we do it ignorantly, greedily, clumsily,

destructively, it is a desecration” (1981, 281). Can our use of the

world be transformed from desecration to sacrament? Is it possible to

create a society that lives within its ecological means, taking no more

than it needs, replacing what it takes, depleting neither its natural

capital nor its people, one that is ecologically sustainable and also humanly


The general characteristics of that society are, by now, well

known. First, a sustainable society would be powered by current sunlight,

not ancient sunshine stored as fossil fuels. The price of an item

in such a society would reflect, in Thoreau’s words, “the amount of

life which is required to be exchanged for it” (Thoreau 1971, 286),

which is to say its full cost. This society would not merely recycle its

waste but would eliminate the very concept of waste. Since “the first

precaution of intelligent tinkering,” as Aldo Leopold (1966, 190)

once put it, “is to keep every cog and wheel,” a sustainable society

would hedge its bets by protecting both biological and cultural diversity.

Such a society would exhibit the logic inherent in what is called

“system dynamics” having to do with the way things fit together in

harmonious patterns over long periods of time. Its laws, institutions,

and customs would reflect an awareness of interrelatedness, exponential

growth, feedback, time delays, surprise, and counterintuitive outcomes.

It would be a smarter, more resilient, and ecologically more

adept society than the one in which we now live. It would also be a

more materialistic society in the sense that its citizens would value all

materials too highly to treat them casually and carelessly. People in

such a society would be educated to be more competent in making

and repairing things and in growing their food. They would thereby

understand the terms by which they are provisioned more fully than

most of us do.

There is no good argument to be made against such a society. All

the more reason to wonder why we have been so unimaginative and

so begrudgingly slow to act on what later generations will see as

merely an obvious convergence of prudent self-interest and ethics. It

is certainly not for the lack of spilled ink, conferences in exotic places,

and high-powered rhetoric. But sermons aiming to make us feel guilty

about our consumption seldom strike a deep enough chord in most of

us most of the time. The reason, I think, has to do with the fact that

we are moved to act more often, more consistently, and more pro-

foundly by the experience of beauty in all of its forms than by intellectual

arguments, abstract appeals to duty, or even by fear.

The problem is that we do not often see the true ugliness of the

consumer economy and so are not compelled to do much about it.

The distance between shopping malls and the mines, wells, corporate

farms, factories, toxic dumps, and landfills, sometimes half a world

away, dampens our perceptions that something is fundamentally

wrong. Even when visible to the eye, ugliness is concealed from our

minds by the very complicatedness of such systems which make it

difficult to discern cause and effect. It is veiled by a fog of abstract

numbers that measure our sins in parts per billion and as injustices

discounted over decades and centuries. It is cloaked by the ideology of

progress that transmutes our most egregious failures into chromeplated


We have models, however, of a more transparent and comely

world beginning with better ways to provide our food, fiber, materials,

shelter, energy, and livelihood and to live in our landscapes. Over the

past 3.8 billion years, life has been designing strategies, materials, and

devices for living on earth. The result is a catalog of design wisdom

vastly superior to the best of the industrial age that might instruct us

in the creation of farms that function like prairies and forests, wastewater

systems modeled after natural wetlands, buildings that accrue

natural capital like trees, manufacturing systems that mimic ecological

processes, technologies with efficiencies that exceed those of our

best technologies by orders of magnitude, chemistry done safely with

great artistry, and economies that fit within their ecological limits

(Lyle 1994;Van der Ryn and Cowan 1996;Wann 1990). For discerning

students, nature instructs about the boundaries and horizons of

our possibilities. It is the ultimate standard against which to measure

our use of the world.

The consumer economy was intended to liberate the individual

from community and material constraints and to thoroughly dominate

nature and thereby to expand the human realm to its fullest.

Descartes, Galileo, Newton, Adam Smith, and their heirs, the architects

of the modern world, assumed nature to be machinelike, with

no limits, and humans to be similarly machinelike, with no limits to

their wants. Consistent with those assumptions, excess has become

the defining characteristic of the modern economy, evidence of design

failures that cause us to use too much fossil energy, too many

materials, and make more stuff than we could use well in a hundred


If, however, we intend to build durable and sustainable communities,

and if we begin with the knowledge that the world is ecologically

complex, that nature does in fact have limits, that our health and that

of the natural world are indissolubly linked, that we need coherent

communities, and that humans are capable of transcending their selfcenteredness,

a different design strategy emerges. For the design of a

better society and healthier communities, in Vaclav Havel’s words,“we

must draw our standards from the natural world, heedless of ridicule,

and reaffirm its denied validity.We must honour with the humility of

the wise the bounds of that natural world and the mystery which lies

beyond them, admitting that there is something in the order of being

which evidently exceeds all our competence” (1987, 153).

Drawing our standards from the natural world requires that we

first intend to act in ways that fit within larger patterns of harmony

and health and create communities that fit within the natural limits

of their regions. At a larger scale we must summon the political will to

intend the creation of a civilization that calibrates the sum total of

our actions with the larger cycles of the earth. When we do so, design

at all scales entails not just the making of things, but becomes, rather,

the larger artistry of making things that fit within their ecological, social,

and historical context. Design is focused on rationality in its

largest sense, giving priority to the wisdom of our intentions, not the

cleverness of our means. Like the admonition to physicians to do no

harm, the standard for ecological designers is to cause no ugliness,

human or ecological, somewhere else or at some later time. When we

get the design right, there is a multiplier effect which enhances the

good order and harmony of the larger pattern. When we get it wrong,

cost, disease, and disharmony multiply.

Like any applied discipline, ecological design has rules and standards.

First, ecological design is a community process that aims to increase

local resilience by building connections between people, between

people and the ecology of their places, and between people and their history.

The principle is an analog of engineering design, which aims to

create resilience through redundancy and multiple pathways. Ecological

design, similarly, works to counter the individualization, atomization,

and dumbing-down inherent in the consumer economy by

restoring connections at the community level. The process of design

begins with questions such as, How does the proposed action fits the

ecology of a place over time? Does it keep wealth within the community?

Does it help people to become better neigbors and more competent

persons? What are the true costs and who pays? What does it

do for or to the prospects of our children and theirs?

Well-designed neighborhoods and communities are places where

people need each other and must therefore resolve their differences,

tolerate each other’s idiosyncrasies, and on occasion, forgive each

other. There is an architecture of connectedness that includes front

porches facing onto streets, neighborhood parks, civic spaces, pedestrian-

friendly streets, sidewalk cafes, and human scaled buildings

(Jacobs 1961). There is an economy of connectedness that includes

locally owned businesses that make, repair, and reuse, buying cooperatives,

owner-operated farms, public markets, and urban gardens—

patterns of livelihood that require detailed knowledge of the ecology

of specific places. There is an ecology of connectedness evident in

well-used landscapes, cultural and political barriers to the loss of

ecologically valuable wetlands, forests, riparian corridors, and species

habitat. Competent ecological design produces results tailored to

fit the ecology of particular localities. There is a historical connectedness

embedded in the memories that tie us to particular places, people,

and traditions—swimming holes, lovers’ lanes, campgrounds,

forests, farm fields, beaches, ball fields, schools, historic sites, and burial


The degree to which connectedness now sounds distant from our

present reality is a measure of how much we’ve lost in order to make

consumption quick, cheap, and easy and to hide its true costs. Compulsive

consumption is, in fact, proportional to the atomization of

people, to social fragmentation, and to the emotional distance between

people and their places. It is a measure of human incompetence

requiring no skill and no wherewithal beyond ownership of a

credit card. Connectedness, on the other hand, requires the ability to

converse, to empathize, to resolve conflicts, to tolerate differences, to

perform the duties of a citizen, to remember, and to re-member. It requires

a knowledge of the natural history of a place, practical handiness,

and place-specific skills and crafts. It creates roots, traditions, and

a settled identity in a place.

Second, as described in chapter 4, ecological design takes time seriously

by placing limits on the velocity of materials, transportation, money,

and information. The old truism “haste makes waste” makes intuitively

good ecological design sense. Increasing velocity often increases consumption,

thereby generating more waste, disorder, and ugliness. In

contrast, good design aims to use materials carefully and slowly. To

preserve communities and personal sanity, it would place limits on

the speed of transportation (Illich 1974). In order to take advantage

of what economists call the “multiplier effect,” it would slow the rate

at which money is exchanged for goods and services imported from

outside and thereby exits the local economy (Rocky Mountain Institute

1997). Good design aims to match the material requirements of

the community with the clockspeed of charity and neighborliness,

which is usually slower than that which is technologically feasible.

Excess consumption, in contrast, is in large measure relative to

velocity. A bicycle, for example, moving at 20 miles per hour, requires

only the energy of the biker. An automobile moving at 55 miles per

hour for one hour will burn 2 gallons of gasoline. On a cross-Atlantic

flight, a 747 flying at 550 miles per hour will burn 100 gallons of jet

fuel per passenger. The difference is not just in the fuel consumed but

also includes the entire support apparatus required by the increased

speed of travel. A bicycle requires a relatively simple support infrastructure.

An airline system, in contrast, requires a huge infrastructure

including airports, roads, construction, manufacturing, and repair

facilities, air-traffic control systems,mines, wells, refineries, banks, and

the consumer industries that sell all of the paraphernalia of travel.

By taking time seriously enough to use it well, ecological design

may also reset peoples’ sense of propriety to a different moral time

zone. The consumer society works best when people are impulsive

buyers, expecting their gratifications instantly. By moderating the velocity

of material flows, money, transport, and information, ecological

design may also teach larger lessons having to do with the discipline

of living within one’s means, delaying gratification, the importance of

thrift, and the virtue of nonpossessiveness.

Third, ecological design eliminates the concept of waste and transforms

our relationship to the material world. The consumer economy

uses and discards huge amounts of materials in landfills, air, and water.

As a result, environmental policy is mostly a shell game that moves

waste from one medium to another. Furthermore, carelessness in the

making and using of materials has resulted in the global dissemination

of some 100,000 synthetic chemicals carried by wind and water to

the four corners of the earth.

Ecological design requires a higher order of competence in the

making, use, and eventual reuse of materials than that evident in industrial

economies. Ecologically, there is no such thing as waste. All

materials are “food” for other processes. Ecological design is the art of

linking materials in cycles and thereby preventing problems of careless

use and disposal. Nature, accordingly, is the model for the making

of materials. If nature did not make it, there are good evolutionary

reasons to think that we should not. If we must, we ought to do so in

small amounts that are carefully contained and biodegradable, which

is to say, the way nature does chemistry. Nature makes living materials

mostly from sunlight and carbon, and so should we. It does not mix

elements like chlorine with mammalian biology. Neither should we. It

creates novelty slowly, at a manageable scale, and so should we.

An economy that took design seriously would manage the flow of

materials to maximize reuse, recycling, repair, and restoration. It

would close waste loops by requiring manufacturers to take products

back for disassembly and remanufacture. It would make distinctions

between “products of service” and “products of consumption.” In Europe,

the concept is being applied to solvents, automobiles, and other

products. In the United States, through the efforts of people like Ray

Anderson and Bill McDonough, it is very slowly gaining acceptance.

Fourth, ecological design at all levels has to do with system structure,

not the rates of change. The focus of ecological design is on systems and

“patterns that connect” (Bateson 1979, 3–4). When we get the structure

right, “the desired result will occur more or less automatically

without further human intervention” (Ophuls 1992, 288). Consider

two different approaches to the need for mobility. The Amish communities

described in chapter 4 are structured around the capacity of

the horse, which serves to limit human mischief, economic costs, consumption,

dependence on the outside, and ecological damage, while

providing time for human sociability, sources of fertilizer, and the

peace of mind that comes with unhurriedness. In the Amish culture,

the horse is a solar-powered, self-replicating, multifunctional structural

solution that eliminates the need for continual management and

regulation of people. Most of us are not about to become Amish, but

we need to discover our own equivalent of the horse.

In the larger culture we expect laws and regulations to perform

the same function, but they seldom do. The reason has to do with the

fact that we tend to fiddle with particular symptoms rather than addressing

structural causes of our problems. The Clean Air Act of

1970, for example, aimed to reduce pollution from auto emissions by

attaching catalytic converters to each automobile—a coefficient solution.

More than three decades later with more cars and more miles

driven per car, even with lower pollution per vehicle, air quality is little

improved and traffic is worse than ever. The true costs of that system

include the health and ecological effects of air pollution and oil

spills, the lives lost in traffic accidents, the degradation of communities,

an estimated $300 billion per year in subsidies for cars, parking,

and fuels, including the military costs of protecting our sources of imported

oil, and the future costs of climate change. The result is a system

that can only work expensively and destructively. A design solution

to transportation, in contrast, would aim to change the structure

of the system by reducing our dependence on the automobile

through combination of high-speed rail service, light-rail urban trains,

bike trails, and smarter urban design that reduced the need for transportation

in the first place.

The same logic applies to the structures by which we provision

ourselves with food, energy, water, and materials and dispose of our

waste. Much of our consumption, such as excessive packaging and

preservatives in food, has been engineered into the system because of

the requirements of long-distance transport. Some of our consumption

is due to built-in obsolescence designed to promote yet more

consumption. Some of it, such as the purchase of deadbolt locks and

handguns, is necessary to offset the loss of community cohesion and

trust caused in no small part by the culture of consumption. Some of

our consumption is dictated by urban sprawl that leads to overdependence

on automobiles.We have, in short, created vastly expensive and

destructive structures to do what could be done better locally with far

less expense and consumption. Redesigning such structures means

learning how politics, tax codes, regulations, building codes, zoning,

and laws work and how they might be made to work to promote ecological

resilience and human sanity.

Without intending to do so, we have created a global culture of consumption

that will come undone, perhaps in a few decades; perhaps it

will take a bit longer.We are at risk of being engulfed in a flood of barbarism

magnified by the ecologists’ nightmare of overpopulation, resource

scarcities, biotic impoverishment, famine, rampant disease,

pollution, and climatic change. The only response that does credit to

our self-proclaimed status as Homo sapiens is to rechart our course.

That process, I believe, has already begun. But it will require far

greater leadership, imagination, and wisdom to learn, and in some respects

relearn, how to live in the world with ecological competence,

technological elegance, and spiritual depth.We have models of communities,

cultures, and civilizations that have in some measure done

so and a few that continue to do so against long odds. There are still

tribal people who know more than we will ever know about the flora

and fauna of their places and who have over time created resource

management systems that effectively limit consumption (Gadgil et

al. 1993). There are sects, like the Amish, that continue to resist the

consumer economy but nevertheless manage to live prosperous and

satisfying lives. There are ancient practices, like Feng Shui, which has

informed some of the best Chinese land use and architectural design

for centuries, and new analytical skills such as least-cost, end-use

analysis and geographic information systems that will help us see our

way more clearly. There are also emerging interdisciplinary fields such

as green architecture, restoration ecology, ecological engineering,

solar design, sustainable agriculture, industrial ecology, and ecological

economics that may in time come to constitute a full-fledged science

of ecological design that may lay the foundations for a better world.

The problem is not one of potentials, but rather one of motivation.

To live up to our potential we must first know that it is possible

for us to live well without consuming the world’s loveliness along

with our children’s legacy. But we must be inspired to act by examples

that we can see, touch, and experience. Above all else, this is a

challenge to educational institutions at all levels. We will need

schools, colleges, and universities motivated by the vision of a higher

order of beauty than that evident in the industrial world and that in

prospect. They must help expand our ecological imagination and

forge the practical and intellectual competence in the rising generation

that turns merely wishful thinking into hopefulness.

Stuart’s letter opener came to me as a gift, an embodiment of

skill, design intelligence, kindness, and thrift. Stuart used no more

than one-tenth of a board foot of wood to make it. He used no tools

other than a wood rasp, some sandpaper, and linseed oil. The wood itself

was a product of sunlight and soil, symbolic of other and larger

gifts. If I lose it, I will grieve, for it is full of memory and meaning. Each

day I am reminded of Stuart and have a refresher course in the importance

of craftsmanship, charity, and true economy. I will use it for

a time and someday pass it on to another.

We gratefully acknowledge permission to reprint “The Ecology of Giving and

Consuming,” excerpted in somewhat altered form from Consuming Desires:

Consumption, Culture, and the Pursuit of Happiness, ed. Roger Rosenblatt.

Copyright © 1999 by Island Press. Reprinted by permission of Island

Press/Shearwater Books,Washington,D.C., and Covelo, California. All rights