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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

How Much is Enough

Air Date: Week of

Steve talks with Alan Durning, author of the new book How Much Is Enough? The Consumer Society and the Future of the Earth. Durning says overconsumption by the world's 1-billion-person elite is straining the planet's resources, but hasn't made us any happier.


CURWOOD: Most of us in the US think of ourselves as middle-class, living modestly, struggling to make ends meet. But to author Alan Durning, all but the poorest Americans are among the world's richest people -- in the top one-fifth of the world's population that uses most of the planet's resources. Durning is the author of the new book How Much is Enough, an examination of the environmental and spiritual costs of our consumer culture. He says while studying the world's biggest environmental problems, he found the culprit in the mirror.

DURNING: When I started this research, I did not set out to vilify people who live essentially my own lifestyle. But as I looked at the different environmental problems, I discovered that we cause a disproportionate share, the lion's share, of the harm. The consumer class of the world includes the people who travel in private automobiles and on jet airplanes, who have a plethora of electric appliances in their homes, who have a diet centered around meat and other resource-intensive animal foods, and who use things dominated by rapid obsolescence, disposability, quickly shifting fashions and excessive packaging.

CURWOOD: Why is the consumption of this one-in-5 of our consumer class so destructive of the environment? Why do you see this as such a big problem?

DURNING: We in the consumer class of the world are responsible for almost all emissions of chloroflurocarbons that deplete the stratospheric ozone layer, about two-thirds of the emissions of greenhouse gases and acid-rain causing pollutants along with a huge share of all of the other pollutants that are now a threat to the global environment.

CURWOOD: One might say that consumerism is almost a religion in this society, and that for people to change their attitudes on this that we'll need to change our values -- is that fair to say?

DURNING: I think eventually the necessity of protecting the ecological systems that make human life on earth possible is going to run into the values question. Psychologists, religious thinkers and indeed the doctrines of the world religions themselves teach that materialism, made the central facet of one's life, has always been a bankrupt value system; that it can provide quick thrills, but it cannot provide lasting satisfaction and fulfillment in life. Perhaps the single most telling piece of evidence I've found in the two years I was working on this project was from repeated opinion polls that had been taken in the United States since 1957 that show, despite a doubling of personal consumption per person, measured in real, inflation adjusted terms, the share of Americans who report they are very happy with their lot in life has stayed just about the same. We're consuming twice as much, and it's not making us any happier.

CURWOOD: Alan Durning, how do you recommend that we get started with making these changes? If we accept your thesis, that the rich fifth of the world is consuming way too much in terms of natural resources, how can we get started to limit our consumption of those resources now -- today?

DURNING: There are little things that individuals can do, whether it is opposing construction of a giant new shopping mall on the edge of their city, or leading nature trips for the local Boy Scouts, or getting a library card and getting books from the library rather than buying books each time we want to read something. But so much of it is built into the system that we need to change the whole infrastructure. We need for example over a 20 or 30 year period to rebuild our transportation system so that when you take that trip, you have the option of going there by train in a quick and convenient way. I suppose the most important point of How Much is Enough? is for people to begin to engage this issue, and not in a sort of guilt-stricken way, but as an opportunity to move forward in our pursuit of what the "good life" really is.

CURWOOD: Alan Durning is the author of How Much is Enough? The Consumer Society and the Future of the Earth. It's out in Norton Books, and he's a senior researcher at the Worldwatch Institute in Washington, DC. Thank you, sir, for joining us.

DURNING: Thanks for having me, Steve.



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