How Much Is Enough?

Panelists discuss the question, "How Much Is Enough?" From left to right: David Abram, Colin Beavan, Vicki Robin, and Sheena Matheiken.

By Samantha Chu

Sustainable consumption is not only an abstract conundrum for policymakers, thinkers, and activists – it is a goal that is arguably essential for the survival of the human population. Climate change and environmental degradation have proven urgent warnings for a reevaluation of natural resource use – and solutions are needed before the population of the developing world embarks on consumer lifestyles imitative of the West.

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Earlier this week, the World Policy Institute and Demos hosted a panel discussion around the question, “How Much Is Enough?”—which is also the theme of the Summer 2011 issue of World Policy Journal. The purpose of the panel was to explore cross-disciplinary approaches to reducing wasteful consumption. It was moderated by William Powers, a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute and the author of several books, including Twelve by Twelve: A One Room Cabin, Off The Grid & Beyond The American Dream.Powers convened four original thinkers to share their ideas with the standing-room-only audience. David Abram is the author of the Lannan Award-winning Spell of the Sensuous, and founder and creative director of the Alliance for Wild Ethics (AWE); he was named by Utne Reader as one of 100 visionaries currently transforming the world. Colin Beavan is author of No Impact Man and subject of a Sundance-selected documentary of the same name. Sheena Matheiken founded the Uniform Project, which promotes sustainability and social responsibility in consumer culture. Vicki Robin is the co-author of the national bestseller, Your Money or Your Life: Transforming Your Relationship With Money And Achieving Financial Independence, and has helped launch many sustainability initiatives, including the New Road Map Foundation and the Center for a New American Dream.

The lively discussion highlighted the reality that promoting sustainable living – often advertised as a return to simplicity – requires complex solutions. And as much as existing institutions, economic systems, and policies need fundamental reform, the process can also begin with a rethinking of the responsibility of the individual citizen. 

High levels of consumption, especially in the developed world, that come at the expense of the planet’s health and deplete natural resources are a result of a vast, deeply complicated human system. The panelists’ concerns and comments revealed some of its varied influences: a regulatory and policy environment that allows, or even actively encourages, a relentless push for more and more production, and therefore consumption; the capture of political institutions by corporate interests; the marketing of “natural resources that aren’t priced for what they’re actually worth,” as Matheiken put it; and citizens who are convinced that productivity, and not leisure, is a priority, and thus have very little spare time for civic engagement.

But reshaping individual citizens’ impact on this flawed system could be the place to start fixing it. Beavan conducted his own experiment in sustainable living by spending a year with his family trying to leave no negative impacts on the environment. They got rid of their television, walked instead of using carbon-emitting transportation, and minimized, if not completely eliminated, their household’s waste. Matheiken also participated in a project to raise awareness of consumers’ social responsibility by wearing the same “little black dress” for a year, accessorizing only with vintage, donated, or reused items—an endeavor that grew into the Uniform Project.

A recurring theme was the idea that individual concern for sustainable consumption does not necessarily have to split along political lines; in fact, de-politicization of the issue may be vital for its implementation. Beavan asserted that the discussion should not be set up as “progressive vs. conservative,” but that “it’s hugely important that we ask ourselves human questions and look for human answers together instead of dividing over the politics.”

Another important point the panel stressed is that sustainable consumption is not equal to no consumption. Some level of consumption is essential to our survival – it’s the excess consumption, and the culture that supports it, that calls for not only sweeping policy changes, but perhaps for a deeper, individual awareness. “I don’t vilify consumption,” Robin said, “but I do question consumerism, and making the activity of acquisition the purpose of our life.”

Finally, the role of the developing world did not go unnoticed. With five billion people and counting, and accelerating economic growth, developing nations must meet the huge challenge of appeasing their consumption-minded citizens, eager to imitate a Western lifestyle, while easing the strain of limited natural resources. But “there’s an opportunity to redefine everything from scratch,” Matheiken said—and, indeed, citizens of the developing world may have new, and much-needed, answers.


Samantha Chu is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.

[Photos: Ahmet C. Sibdial Sau]

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