Happy Independence Day, America! Seeing all of the American flags that blanket Bristol, Rhode Island in preparation for the 225th parade tomorrow (the oldest in America), I can’t help but think back to the days after 9/11, when George W. Bush addressed the nation, and told us to join together and consume:
“When they struck, they wanted to create an atmosphere of fear. And one of the great goals of this nation’s war is to restore public confidence in the airline industry. It’s to tell the traveling public: Get on board. Do your business around the country. Fly and enjoy America’s great destination spots. Get down to Disney World in Florida. Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.”
Americans always go big. We consider conspicuous consumption to be a sign of success, of generosity, of having achieved something. Of course, with the dust of the fallen Twin Towers still in the air, Bush asked us to go to Disney World. The debt-fueled consumption binge of the last decade is now past due, as seemingly half of America has defaulted on debt in a significant way. However, the bigger picture goes beyond the economy that is dependent on continued exponential growth. The problem is that growth cannot continue to grow endlessly; we humans are reaching the limits of what this planet can provide, and like Icarus, we may fly too close to the proverbial sun.
Sustainability has become a buzzword in corporate America, but it means more than using green products. The fact is that we waste too much energy and minerals. Many of the products we buy are designed to fail so that we will go out and buy another one. Now, that lack of quality may help create jobs in China, but that just wastes resources.
It wastes water, for one. Fresh water is a resource that we all take for granted; do you know how much water goes into a hamburger? I bet you would be shocked. Second, we have a finite amount of energy and mineral resources, and we remain in denial about the need to shift to alternative energy resources. The Energy Returned on Energy Invested for oil, coal, natural gas, and most common minerals continues to drop, which means that each new unit of resource will require the use of even more energy. Once upon a time oil had an EROEI of close to 100-1; now we get only three barrels for every one barrel we use in the extraction process. That problem will only get worse. Additionally, those finite energy resources are destroying our climate by increasing the concentration of greenhouse gases.
On this July 4th, I wonder why conservation, efficiency, and sustainability can’t be considered patriotic. See, our grandchildren and great grandchildren will inherit the world that we leave to them. We can have one last big party, or we can give them an opportunity to flourish as well.