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King: Less ‘stuff’ isn’t such a bad thing

POSTED: February 10, 2009 1:00 a.m.

"Worldwide trade is grinding to a standstill," reports The Elliott Wave Theorist, a market-forecasting publication (Jan. 22). Atmospheric CO2 is already "... into a dangerous zone," states James Hansen, lead scientist on NASA’s latest climate study. A quarter of our land animals and plants will become extinct in the near future unless we reduce greenhouse gas emissions, says Nature, an international science journal.

We’re at war, and the economy’s in the tank. Is there anything I’ve missed?

There’s a new president in the White House and with him comes the promise of change, but not everyone believes Barack Obama will take the country in the right direction. Just the same, no one wants to see the Obama presidency fail. Or do they?

We do know this economic turndown is worldwide, and no American president, no matter how gifted, can provide a quick fix. What we don’t know is how we as individuals fit into the picture. This is important because how we feel about our society, what we ourselves believe to be right or wrong, is going to shape how we interact with our government and thus how we shape the future.

But It really doesn’t matter what you believe or don’t believe, or where you are on the political spectrum, there is very little in the news today to cheer the human heart. On the economy, ABC News says this: If people feel good, they’ll spend money. If they don’t, they won’t. This is bad news indeed because apparently if people don’t spend, the economy will continue to nose-dive.

But look at it this way. We’re already drowning in our own waste. U.S. retailers say that because of the economic downturn, they have lost approximately $40 billion, money they would have made from the sale of "stuff." "Stuff" in quotes because that’s the word the NPR reporter used. Hidden in this bad news there may be something encouraging.

Right now we are buying less stuff, less stuff that will eventually become waste, waste that will foul our land and poison our water. To that extent, the downturn is not necessarily a bad thing. The question then becomes, how much of that stuff was essential and how much can we do without?

People need jobs so they can put food on the table and a roof over their head. People need medical care and education for their children. Beyond that they need the kind of self-worth that comes from being a responsible member of their community.

But do they really need all the games and gadgets, all the technical marvels and labor saving devices that fill our stores, our homes and ultimately, our garbage dumps?

The problems that face us today are not technical or even environmental. They are behavioral.

Climate change is a behavioral problem: the kind of houses we live in, the cars we drive, the food and clothes we enjoy. The economy is a behavioral problem: how we earn our money and how we spend it. War is a behavior problem: one nation’s hostility toward another and the use of violence to settle differences.

This is not a condemnation of any particular group or country. It is simply a statement of fact. This is the way people behave. If we want to change the outcome, we have to change what causes it.

We live in an age of wonder. There seems to be nothing we can’t do, nothing we can’t have, if we want it enough. But we may have pushed our particular human genius to edge. We may stand on the brink of self-destruction. Or perhaps we stand at the dawn of a new age.

One thing is sure. We can’t go back. If we come out of this economic crisis, there will be another in the future. If our military prevails in the Mideast today, it will be challenged somewhere else tomorrow. If we want to change these things, we must change ourselves.

I don’t have the answers, but I do know we must change the way we relate to the Earth and to each other. We have to find ways to be happy without continually buying new toys.

We have to find jobs that put people to work without producing more waste. We have to grow up and take responsibility for the planet.

This is the challenge of the 21st century.

Joan King lives in Sautee. Her column appears biweekly and on gainesvilletimes.com.



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