Professor Commentary: The costs of consumption

The term sustainability is used so often today it has come to mean both anything and nothing. At one end of the spectrum, it is used by advertisers to sell “green” items and technologies that promote a way of life that is clearly unsustainable. At the other end, sustainability is linked to an emerging worldview that aims to protect and conserve resources, build strong human communities, and strengthen our connection to the natural world. Ask ten people on the street what the definition of sustainability is and be prepared for ten different responses!

Before we can even think about sustainability, we need to address a couple of points. First, we need to recognize there is a problem. In America, the 800-pound gorilla in the room is our consumption of resources. Whether it is the food we eat, the water we drink, the gas we burn, or the electricity we use, we need to understand that everything we depend on for survival has a source in the earth and that our consumption has social and environmental impacts, both here and abroad. In other words, all of us are responsible in some way for the environmental changes occurring all around us.

Unfortunately, many of us are only vaguely aware there are environmental costs to our consumption. When we flip a light switch on campus, for example, the electricity that illuminates the room comes from the burning of coal. Few of us, however, are aware of the costs associated with coal mining. Likewise, when we purchase a computer, a key component of the circuit board is copper. How many of us are aware of the environmental damage associated with copper mining? Because few of us ever witness the destruction of mountaintop removal or visit a giant open pit mine, we fail to make the connection between our resource use and the environmental damage associated with it. Thus we are lulled into thinking there is no cost to our consumption. According to Martin Pasqualetti, the problem lies in the fact that our landscapes of consumption – shopping malls, residential developments, etc. – are far removed from our landscapes of resource extraction.

Encouraging people to adopt more sustainable practices is difficult when so few of us get a chance to witness the environmental impacts of our consumption. Even when we do, it is easier to keep doing what we are doing than to change our habits. It never ceases to amaze me how often I hear someone confess to feeling a little guilty about using resources wastefully, but then admit they will most likely not change their ways. “I’m just one person,” they say. “What difference can one person make?” Of course, it’s true. One person doesn’t make a difference. However, when you add up all our “individual ecologies,” collectively, we can have quite an enormous impact.

This leads us to the second point we need to address. Many of us want to do the right thing and often say we are doing the right thing but too often our words and our actions do not align. Harold Nicolson once said, “We are inclined to judge ourselves by our ideals, others by their acts.” Unfortunately, we’ve gotten quite good at this. In sustainability circles this is known as the “green gap.” Consider a recent study focused on the U.S. Approximately 68% of those surveyed say that walking, biking, or taking public transit to work is an important thing to do but only 27% of us actually do it. Likewise, a whopping 81% of Americans agree that buying food grown locally is important but only 49% of us ever do.

For those of us who recognize there is a problem and are willing to do something about it, there are plenty of resources to turn to, especially here at Ohio University. A good place to start is with the university’s sustainability plan (http://www.ohio.edu/pacsp/sustainability_plan.html).

As the plan suggests, there is more to living sustainably than simply behaving in a more environmentally benign manner. Geographer Rutherford Platt offers us a glimpse of what a more “sustainable future” might look like. It is a “vision” with five parts:

• Green: protection and restoration of ecological services;

• Restorative: promotion of physical and mental health and safety of residents;

• Efficient: conserve energy, matter, water, and time;

• Equitable: inclusive, being socially and environmentally just;

• Neighborly: maintain a sense of community and a sense of place.

The aims are laudable but making them a reality will be challenging. We must recognize that there is a cost to our consumption and we must be willing to act.

Dr. Geoff Buckley is an associate professor in the Department of Geography. His research interests include conservation history and sustainability; management of public lands, especially state forests and urban green spaces; environmental justice; and the evolution of mining landscapes. Over the years his articles have appeared in the Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Geographical Review, Historical Geography, Urban Ecosystems, Maryland Historical Magazine, Appalachian Journal, and the Encyclopedia of Energy. His first book, Extracting Appalachia: Images of the Consolidation Coal Company, 1910 – 1945 was published in 2004 (Ohio University Press). His most recent book, America’s Conservation Impulse: A Century of Saving Trees in the Old Line State, was published in 2010 (Center for American Places). Another book, Mountains of Injustice: Social and Environmental Justice in Appalachia, co-edited with Michele Morrone, is scheduled for publication in fall 2011 (Ohio University Press).

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1 comment
  1. Isaac said:

    “Many of us want to do the right thing and often say we are doing the right thing but too often our words and our actions do not align.”

    Great quote and very true.

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