Is American culture a sustainability problem?
Eleven score and eighteen years ago, America’s founding fathers brought onto this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. It is through this lens that we view America, and hold firmly to the American Dream that shapes the culture we call our own. Culture is one of the many defining characteristics of a society, one of the things that separate one group of people from another. Food, language, heritage, geographical location, societal values, and religious influences all affect and are affected by a society’s culture, and define subsets of people around the world. Through the last half century, American culture has changed from that of the Native American Indians, to that with the European influences from conquistadors and settlers from Spain, Italy, and Britain, to the modern-day “melting pot” of ethnicities and ideas from established cultures around the world.1,2 The present American culture as it manifests itself today has various aspects and issues that are definitely unsustainable; materialism, economic disparity, and the under-regulated use of finite materials are just three facets of the unsustainable drivers of modern American culture. As it stands, American culture poses a dangerous set of financial, environmental, social, and political hardships that contribute to its unsustainable nature. However, the culture of a region is defined by its people, and that culture can change.
Materialism is a key product of capitalism, and to an extent, a defining feature of American culture. Advertisements on television, billboards, the internet, and everyday products are ubiquitous and invasive, and have had marked effects on American psychology. The findings of a 2004 article published by the American Psychological Association confirm that Americans are indeed materialistic, and tend to believe that their happiness will be increased with the consuming or purchasing of products and services advertised to them. In reality, materialistic tendencies lead to unhappiness and insecurity because self-worth judged through materialistic means is never satiated in the long-term; advertisements and the consumerist mindset constantly push individuals to feel unworthy if they do not purchase goods often, which leads to people being at risk for depression and general unhappiness. The article states, “researchers are still trying to ascertain whether materialism stokes unhappiness, unhappiness fuels materialism, or both,” but makes clear the strong correlation between unhappiness and materialism, offering multiple hypotheses for the connection. Aside from the consumer need to feel validation by consuming things, the article proposes that unhappiness also arises from the decreased time spent by individuals doing activities that would nurture happiness, including relationships with family and friends.3 This psychological need for consumerism and materialism in America is unhealthy not only in the mental sense; consumerism at its core is defined by the using of things, and using things in present-day America- clothing, cars, electronics- is costly to the environment. Landfills present risks to the environment such as contaminating water supplies with lead or cadmium, polluting the air with methane, ground-level ozone, or sulfur dioxide, and landfill fires caused by the combustible methane released from decomposing organic matter in landfills.4 Environmental regulations are in effect to decrease landfill waste, but a zero-waste approach would be necessary to consider waste management a sustainable process.
Economic disparity in American culture has been a growing presence for a long time. The “American Dream,” the quaint and long-held belief that hard work and fair play will grant a comfortable present and future life in America, is centered on obtaining enough assets- material goods and capital- to create a comfortable life. The age-old vision of a house with a white picket fence, and a smiling nuclear family adorns the front page of a June 2012 article by Time Magazine that focused on the dangers in the American economy that actively shake Americans’ belief in the American Dream and threaten to destroy it entirely. The article states, “it is more difficult now than in the past for many [Americans] to achieve middle-class status because prices for certain key goods — health care, college and housing — have gone up faster than income.”5 This imbalance is caused by economic inequality, one of the driving forces and incentivizing products behind America’s capitalist market. The very nature of capitalism produces winners and losers, but when the playing field is not level (or economic opportunity is not evenly distributed despite economic inequality), some demographics suffer through lifetimes and generations. The economic disparity between the high and low classes decreases economic mobility, which directly prohibits the progress of the lower classes. In a society where the quality of critical assets such as health, education, and housing are, for the most part, directly proportional to the wealth obtained through capitalism, the “losers” of the market are negatively affected simply for being too poor or underprivileged to afford the necessary means to live well and achieve the American Dream. In this way, corporations and businesses acting through capitalism have widened the gap between rich and poor, decreased the opportunities for lower-class citizens to become socially mobile, and created an economic climate that gives little financial voice to the population majority.6 This economic model is unsustainable for a society as large as America.
The use of finite resources is rampant in American society today; the booming oil industry uses the finite stocks of fossil fuels, the natural gas and coal industries tap into reserves that took millions of years to build; overfishing strains and destroys the habitat and proliferation of aquatic animal species and marine life. Estimates for when “peak oil” will occur are scattered among statisticians and speculators, but one thing is for certain: oil is finite, and therefore the growth of an industry that relies on it cannot be infinite. This same principle applies to natural gas and coal, and every other non-renewable resource we currently use.7 The energy industry is an important part of the American economy, and helps support the opportunity for the development of American culture. The problem lies, however, in the fact that it is inherently unsustainable; energy resources must be changed to renewable sources to provide long-term economic revenue streams to ensure that America can remain economically afloat. Likewise, the fishing industry- globally and domestically- must rely upon sustainable sources for fish, and harvest the ocean’s resources in an ethical and environmentally responsible way. Without the ocean’s biodiversity and plethora of life, facets of culture such as food, societal value, and even religious practice can be upset in a negative way. It is therefore imperative that Americans find ways to eat and use energy that are not directly or indirectly prohibitive to the sustained continuity of American culture.
Americans can learn to value themselves as people instead of consumers, maintain awareness of corporate and political affairs and support only those they deem ethical or sustainable, and support efforts by the government and private institutions to invest in the harvest of renewable energy and renewable resources. The American population is changing, and the generational gap between the Millenial generation and that of their parents is arguably the broadest in history; the new generation is detached from “organized politics and religion, linked by social media, burdened by debt, distrustful of people…and optimistic about the future.”8 These defining characteristics of the new generation are indications that a cultural change is not only possible, but in the process of happening. With each piece of legislation passed and action taken that supports sustainability, such as the water bottle ban in San Francisco9 or the grassroots efforts of the New Era Colorado Foundation,10 Americans today are working toward a better- and a more sustainable- tomorrow.
Sustainability in American culture is a complex matrix of interdependent problems. Materialism, economic disparity, and the under-regulated use of finite materials are three factors in the currently unsustainable modern American culture, but through proactive legislative measures, grassroots movements, and a new generation devoted to making a better future, American culture can change to become something entirely novel: a sustainable culture that gives back to the environment and supports the welfare of the people, by the people, for the people, so that American culture shall not perish from the earth.
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3. Consumerism--Consumerism and its discontents. Available at: http://www.apa.org/monitor/jun04/discontents.aspx. Accessed March 20, 2014.
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5. Meacham J. Keeping the Dream Alive - The American Dream: A Biography - TIME. Time Mag. 2012. Available at: http://content.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,2117662_2117682_2117680-1,00.html. Accessed March 20, 2014.
6. Goldstein F. Capitalism and the roots of inequality. 2012. Available at: http://www.workers.org/2012/us/inequality_0308/. Accessed March 20, 2014.
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8. Millennials in Adulthood | Pew Research Center’s Social & Demographic Trends Project. PewResearch. Available at: http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2014/03/07/millennials-in-adulthood/. Accessed March 20, 2014.
9. Tafoya A. San Francisco Plastic Water Bottle Ban - Recycling Laws. Available at: http://www.refinery29.com/2014/03/64369/water-bottle-ban-san-francisco. Accessed March 20, 2014.
10. Fuel the Bus! | New Era Colorado. Available at: https://salsa.wiredforchange.com/o/6121/c/10086/p/salsa/donation/common/public/?donate_page_KEY=8478. Accessed March 20, 2014.
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