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Societal Transformation: How Radical Does It Need to Be?

It’s well known that Americans consume more resources on a per capita basis than citizens of other developed countries. In fact, research shows that if people in all nations used as many resources as the average American, we would need five Earths to meet this global resource demand.

Human consumption of material goods has increased dramatically over the years, rising at a faster pace than population as a whole. This rising resource demand becomes ever more precarious as the world’s poor enter the middle class and achieve higher living standards. In light of the rapid growth and mobility of society, it is critical that “well-being” not be defined by consumption, but that we seek instead to achieve sustainable and prosperous development within our planetary limits.

Global resource consumption has increased 10-fold since 1900, and Americans now use an estimated 88 kilograms of goods per day, with modern gadgets requiring some 60 different elements in their manufacturing. This has led to a boom in mining, especially for rare earth materials that are used in technology such as computers. Meanwhile, our gadget lust is forcing us to develop more unconventional and costly resources, which generate significant amounts of waste. To produce the same amount of ore as 100 years ago, for example, companies must now process three times as much total mining material.

Although all countries share concerns about global resource development, views differ as to the best means to develop sustainably and reform social practices. Some argue that the world’s delay on climate action has precluded future generations their security, and so modifying our behavior at this stage is futile. Others state that we are in the final hours of possibility to mitigate climate change, and for that reason we must act immediately in order to mitigate further damage to society, the economy and the environment.

Environmentalist and writer James Gustave Speth focuses on the themes of consumption and societal transformation in his two-part manifesto in Orion magazine, published in the March/April and May/June issues. His manifesto details the decline of the United States and argues that we must transform our society in order to make America the land of the possible, once again.

In describing the fall of the United States in Part I, Speth discusses the economic and social inequality that is pervasive in society today. For Speth, inequality is the debilitating result of weak governance and the corrupting influence of corporations in politics. Specifically, he argues that the U.S. government’s failure to build on the foundations established by the New Deal prevented social and economic equality from continuing; instead the U.S. government began to favor corporations. The emergence of “corporate-consumerist capitalism” weakens the country’s democratic institutions and abandons the public interest, as corporations seize control of the political and economic spheres. This rampant expansion of market mechanisms erodes communities and common values.

In the Part II, Speth details the steps necessary to restore opportunity and equality to America, through a complete transformation of society. Not only will a new indicator for economic progress be necessary, but Speth also states that systemic social changes are required for future stability. He outlines the need for new values, for a society where individuals, corporations, and government no longer discount future generations or glorify violence; and where Americans have a powerful sense of community and heightened equality. These shifts will increase social participation and make democratic institutions stronger.

Speth’s criticism of the United States details many issues that must be addressed in order to build a sustainable future, and while his analysis of America’s current condition is often harsh, Speth agrees that a bright future is possible and that the United States is a nation capable of innovating through tough societal transition.

(First published on Worldwatch Institute's blog, and Written by Antonia Sohns)

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