Reduce, reuse, recycle. That's the phrase. But what most of us forget is that it's an ordered list. In fact, most of us do it in exactly the wrong order. We gobble up our plastic water bottles and toss them into the recycle bin and call it green. But why are we buying packaged water in a country with universal access to clean drinking water? We've finally reached a point where going green feels both smart and cool—and I'm a late adapter myself, to be sure. But we haven't yet grasped the central point: we must consume less needless crap. That's the *reduce* part. And it's not just to save the planet; it's to prevent living through times like the last two fiscal quarters. Hopefully, one good thing that will come out of The Recession is we all learn just how much stuff we can live without consuming.
So since it's green day, take a few minutes to stare down the facts about America's consumption and see if you can stomach it. Over at Mother Jones, green sage Bill McKibben breaks it down. He gives you the daunting numbers—106,000 aluminum cans tossed every 30 seconds, 2 million plastic drink bottles every 5 minutes, 426,000 cell phones pitched every day, 14 percent of food bought in stores trashed. But more important is the big, ugly cultural picture—a selfish and self-defeating economy built upon waste.
The current economic carnage is what happens when you waste—when the CEO of Merrill Lynch thinks he needs a $35,000 commode, when the CEO of Tyco thinks it would be fun to spend a million dollars on his wife's birthday party, complete with an ice sculpture of Michelangelo's David peeing vodka. The melted Arctic ice cap is what you get when everyone in America thinks he requires the kind of vehicle that might make sense for a forest ranger.
Getting out of the fix we're in—if it's still possible—requires in part that we relearn some very old lessons. We were once famously thrifty: Yankee frugality, straightening bent nails, saving string. We used to have a holiday, Thrift Week, which began on Ben Franklin's birthday: "Beware of little expenses; a small leak will sink a great ship," said he. We disapproved of frippery, couldn't imagine wasting money on ourselves, made do or did without. It took a mighty effort to make us what we are today?in fact, it took a mighty industry, advertising, which soaks up plenty more of those Harvard grads and represents an almost total waste.
In the end, we built an economy that depended on waste, and boundless waste is what it has produced.
Hey, he's preaching to me, too. Let's all do better.