Let’s Talk About “Over-Consumption”

Matthew has raised the issue of “overconsumption” a couple of times, most recently in this comment.

On the way home from the hearing yesterday, I stopped to get a tour of our local community facility for those in need, the Action Center. They said that they were having trouble with moving people from homelessness into housing due to a less than 5% vacancy rate in rental housing in our area. So it seems like more building would be good in that context to move people from underconsumption to consumption.

I think individuals probably do “overconsume,” and people with more probably have since before recorded time. In those days it was decried more from a “give your extra to those who have none” context rather than a “reduce your environmental footprint” context, but the behavior seems to be the same.

Still, I’m not sure that decreasing timber production from small western communities close to federal land is really related to the problem of overconsumption. If people think so, I would like to hear more about it. Because people definitely do overconsume calories, and the solution has never been to buy up farmland to bring it back to its historical range of variation. When food or timber can be and is imported, I’m not sure that “overconsumption” is an argument for not producing it locally and giving our own folks jobs.

This topic is a bit of a crosswalk of my interests, and I wouldn’t have posted the essay below except that the topic came up. I took a class in Creative Writing with Gotham Writers Workshop online last fall. It was a good course and teacher was excellent. Here’s an essay I wrote for the class…note that Matthew didn’t say “we” overconsume, so the essay is not directed at folks like him.. his comment just reminded me of this essay.

Breast Beating of Others is Neither Attractive Nor Particularly Useful
I spend a great deal of time around people who work in the spiritual and church business. They are great people in general, and I love them. These are the people you want around when things are going very, very badly for you. That’s why I don’t ask them what the H they are talking about, or slap them upside the head, when they say things like I’m going to describe below. Occasionally I am tempted but..

It’s about the profligate use of the word “we”. As in “we Americans consume too much.” I honestly don’t understand why someone would say this to a group of people. You could say “I think some of the people in this room consume too much”, but really how would you know? Unless you were going through their trash, or checking the miles per gallon of, and counting their vehicles. And of course in my spiritual community, we’re supposed to follow the Guy who said “Judge not, lest ye be judged.”
My point would be that while some Americans are rich, many are poor. Many are working and overworked, in a less-than-pleasant work environment, to make ends meet and to provide for their families, not to buy their second Prius, and then bask in a glow of climate change prevention self-satisfaction.
We always talk, in the same kinds of churchy situations, about ethnic and cultural differences among Americans and how valuable these differences are. Yet when it comes to something bad, we seem to have been homogenized into one gelatinous glob (“Americans are destroying the environment”). So if you only mean “some” Americans, just say it. Like “I think white upper-class Americans are destroying the environment”. That’s much better as those of us not in the upper class or white, can just grab a milk shake at McDonald’s and go home and feel good about ourselves.

Now that we’ve identified the culprits of over-consumerism, you can target your message to them and make sure that they are there when you engage in your castigation of behavior. This reminds me of my former church in Virginia. A couple of times per year, young priests from somewhere would show up with fire and brimstone sermons against abortion, to a congregation of gray and white-haired folk. Waste of time, anyone?

And really, what good is it to exhort people who are not there? And really, how well does exhortation work to modify human behavior? Seems like we have been hearing “Thou shalt not kill” since the time of Moses, which has been a long time, and people still go around killing.

My solution is that if you want to confess and do penance, beat your own breast, and I’ll let you know when you can touch mine. If you said, instead of “Americans consume too much”, “I consume too much,” I would ask you “what do you think is too much?” and “why do you do it?”. That would be the beginning of an interesting and instructive conversation. But please, leave the “me” in “we” out of it.

10 thoughts on “Let’s Talk About “Over-Consumption””

  1. What Would Happen If The Entire World Lived Like Americans? How many natural resources would we need if the entire world’s population consumed them like Americans do? More than we have.

    Read the article here. Below is a pretty telling visual of just how much Americans consume. If everyone on the planet consumed like Americans, we’d need 4.1 Earths.


  2. If I were to make the factually-defensible statement that “Americans consume too much,” it would not be made as a personal attack on either me or you.

    It would be a crucial analytical conclusion about ecological carrying capacity.

    Surely analysis of ecological carrying capacity has a place in the discussion of forest planning for the twenty-first century?

    Tim Jackson’s “Prosperity without Growth” is a fine reference for an introduction to state-of-the-art thinking around overconsumption:

    And some key graphs and concepts are included in my piece here, esp. toward the end:

    The Project is Going Down… – ArchitectureWeek, 2012.0307

    • Kevin: As you know, your interview with the local editor made the front page of the Cottage Grove newspaper today, which I have enjoyed reading. Being from Eugene, you’re probably going to get a lot of flack if you continue calling the City of Cottage Grove and the surrounding towns “villages,” though. It definitely makes you come across as an “outsider,” probably from the East, and is very likely a poor choice of words for a nascent local politician. I’m not trying to offend you, just give you some good, but unsolicited, advice. Your political opponent is not only the incumbent of several years standing, but also a 5th generation Cottage Grove resident with his daughters being the 4th generation of their family to attend Cottage Grove High School — that’s a pretty steep hill to climb. I’m sure none of them have ever considered themselves to have lived in a “village.” You might as well just say you’re running for office in Are-E-Gone as to call the locals “villagers.” Quaint, but definitely offensive.

      On a similar note, your belittling of local timber interests is more likely to be held against you, rather than find sympathetic listeners. My personal perception is that it would do your rhetoric (including your verbal presentations, which I have attended or observed as you know) a lot of good if you spent some time reading Botkin and learning how he perceives change in forested environments. I think he would give you some more sympathetic language to work with, as well as challenge your apparent philosophy in a very good way. I’d like it if you joined the discussion on Botkin’s book. I think it would be a good philosophical and verbal communication exercise for you, and I would be personally very interested in your thoughts in those regards.

      I hope what I am saying isn’t coming across as condescending or insincere, because that isn’t my intent. You’re a very intelligent person, but you’re running for public office and (speaking as a totally inexperienced and uncommitted apolitical person) I think these suggestions might be helpful to you. Plus, I really am interested in your thoughts on Botkin.

      Good luck in your run for office! I don’t vote so I don’t care who wins, but I’d like to have you consider your thoughts on local resources management in a more appealing (from my perspective) fashion.

  3. Sharon: Here are a few other observations. First, I’d bet that the area you are referring to with 5% rental vacancy rate is a college town, right? Perhaps the area even has numerous colleges. College towns across America are notorious for having low rental vacancy rates, the results of an influx of college students for 9 months of the years.

    Also, when you stated:

    I’m not sure that decreasing timber production from small western communities close to federal land is really related to the problem of overconsumption.

    I will admit that I have a hard time even understanding what you mean. Seems like a recent meme on this blog has been some people alluding to the notion that environmentalists who work to protect public lands somehow don’t care about workers or rural people. Having grown up in a rural Wisconsin village of 950 people, where my family goes back 6 generations (and includes, among others the village blacksmith, horse-n-buggy postal worker, village seamstress, house painter, nurse, etc) I’m offended by the notion that I somehow don’t care about workers or rural people. My wife and I grew up more “rural” than most and our families still live in the same exact homes in the same exact communities we grow up.

    But back to the point you made above. Do you honestly see zero connection between the 146 mills that closed in the US and Canada in just the year 2008 (which was the start of the economic collapse) and years of over-consumption and over-development in the United States? I mean, did all those timber mills in Canada close because of environmentalists? Or appeals and lawsuits? Of course not. Those Canadian mills closed in 2008 (and the years following) for one reason and one reason only: Supply greatly outpaced demand.

    US Lumber consumption is currently only 58% of what it once was. Yet, are we running out of lumber currently? Do builders not have enough 2 x 4s and plywood to build houses? Is the local hardware store running out of lumber products to see? Of course, the answer to all these questions is obvious. Even at the reduced 58% lumber consumption from the height of the housing bubble there are plenty of wood products being produced to meet demand.

    Back in the fall of 2008, during the height of the US and global economic crash, I wrote this piece, titled, “Sustainable Change: It’s time for sustainable solutions that benefit both the environment and Montana’s workers, not more of the same.” Ironically, the handsome guy in the picture with the chainsaw is Chelsea’s husband, hard at work on a community fuel reduction project, which my organized helped fund and organize.

    Anyway, here’s the opening few paragraphs of that 2008 article, which helps illustrate where I believe the economic crisis came from, and where we need to go in the future.

    Over the years, there have been plenty of proverbial canaries in the coal mine that repeatedly warned about a looming economic crisis, a virtual perfect storm that would be equal parts over-consumption, unsustainable development, deregulation, “free trade” and irresponsibility on the part of corporations and consumers.

    If the sobering economic headlines of the past few months teach us one thing it should be that much of our current economic system is significantly flawed and that a new economic model – based on the principles of sustainability and local and regional self-sufficiency – is desperately needed.

    Fortunately, Montana is in a unique position to lead this effort towards greater sustainability. A future where local farmers and ranchers grow our food, Montana workers produce clean and green energy for our homes and the ingenuity of our businesses combines with the skills of our workforce to protect and restore the environment, while also producing locally-made products that enhance the quality of our lives.

    • Matt: I’m impressed that you know so much about your family history and that you and your wife come from such stable backgrounds. That is really neat. Seriously. The fact that you are so familiar with the importance of the village blacksmith and the horse and buggy in earlier times is impressive to me — that is the type of knowledge that has become increasingly uncommon during my lifetime and that makes me concerned about how we are educating our children these days, and what the future holds for them. My first academic interest was to be a teacher, based upon having a (very unusual) male grade school teacher in the 5th grade and realizing that you could be a teacher, even if you were a man. The fact that we have similar concerns and aesthetics regarding website design and both think the B&B was caused by an arsonist is beginning to make more sense to me now.

      • And, yes, Bob, I grew up in the “Village” of Elkhart Lake, WI….and we were proud to consider ourselves “Village People.”

  4. Just one more difference between Oregon and Wisconsin. Here, when someone says Village People they are usually referring to a group of guys in costume singing YMCA. Mostly it’s used here to refer to small towns in the NE US (south seems to have “hamlets” for some reason) and to Indian towns prior to white immigration. The latter use is one that bothers me because of the racial distinction — such “villages” were often many times larger than the first “towns” established here, so the distinction is more than temporal. I can’t recall a reference to a single “village blacksmith” here, just those well-known references to the eastern version. Here it always seemed to be the “local blacksmith” or the “town’s blacksmith,” but most often the job description followed by the name of the town or locality; e.g., “Jim Beam, a/the blacksmith from/in Salem,” etc.

  5. RE: “I can’t recall a reference to a single “village blacksmith” here”

    What’s sort of funny/ironic is that the obit that ran in the Sheboygan paper when my great-great grandfather died was titled, “Emil Frederick Metze, Village Blacksmith at Elkhart, Dies.”

    My impression growing up in rural Wisconsin was that we had cities (such as Sheboygan, Plymouth or even Milwaukee), but mainly Wisconsin is made up of Villages. Surrounding most of the Villages, and some of the cities, were “Towns,” which were typically even more rural and remote.

    For example, the Village of Elkhart Lake is surrounded by the Town of Rhine. My great-grandpa, William Metze, had his horse-n-buggy postal route in the Town of Rhine outside of Elkhart Lake. To make the whole city, village and town thing even more confusing, the City of Sheboygan is surrounded by the Town of Sheboygan.

    I’m not sure if these are the same distinctions as in the Eastern US or the south. It’s just how it was where I grew up in Wisconsin.

  6. And I’m guessing the Town of Sheboygin might be a Township, which is a surveying term describing the basic method/result of Oregon’s first land surveys in the early 1850s: 36-square mile blocks of land comprised of 36 individual square-mile “sections” — which is how we still describe our first Donation Land Claims and locations within our current federal lands (over 1/2 the state) and tax our private lands. In any instance, I think it was good advice for Kevin. We only have Indian villages here, and I’m trying to fight that terminology, too. The village blacksmith was a really important person in US history — we just didn’t seem to import that term west of the Rockies for some reason.


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