State of the World 2010: From Madison Avenue to Mad Max?

Washington, D.C.-Without an intentional cultural shift that values sustainability over consumerism, no government pledges or technological advances will be enough to rescue humanity from unacceptably hazardous environmental and climate risks, concludes the Worldwatch Institute in the latest edition of its flagship annual report, State of the World 2010. The book, subtitled Transforming Cultures: From Consumerism to Sustainability, defines "consumerism" as a cultural orientation that leads people to find meaning, contentment, and acceptance primarily through what they consume.

"We've seen some encouraging efforts to combat the world's climate crisis in the past few years," says project director Erik Assadourian. "But making policy and technology changes while keeping cultures centered on consumerism and growth can only go so far. To thrive long into the future, human societies will need to shift their cultures so that sustainability becomes the norm and excessive consumption becomes taboo."

In 2006, people consumed $30.5 trillion worth of goods and services, up 28 percent from just 10 years earlier. This rise in consumption has resulted in a dramatic increase in resource extraction; the world digs up the equivalent of 112 Empire State Buildings worth of materials each day, with the typical American consuming an average of 88 kilograms (194 pounds) of stuff daily-more than most Americans weigh. If the whole world lived like this, Earth could sustain only 1.4 billion people, or just a fifth of the current population, the report notes.

"Cultural patterns are the root cause of an unprecedented convergence of ecological and social problems, including a changing climate, an obesity epidemic, a major decline in biodiversity, loss of agricultural land, and production of hazardous waste," says Assadourian.

The report's 60 authors present strategies for reorienting cultures that range from "choice editing"-deliberately striking options from consumer menus-to harnessing the power of religious groups and rituals to internalize sustainability values. Some examples from State of the World 2010 include:

  • School menus in Italy and elsewhere are being reformulated to use healthy, local, and environmentally sound foods, transforming children's dietary norms in the process.
  • In suburbs such as Vauban, Germany, bike paths, wind turbines, and farmers' markets are not only making it easy to live sustainably, but are making it hard not to.
  • At the U.S.-based carpet company Interface Inc., CEO Ray Anderson radicalized a business culture by setting the goal of taking nothing from the Earth that cannot be replaced by the Earth.
  • In Ecuador, rights for "Pachamama" (Mother Earth) have entered into the Constitution.

The report examines the institutions that shape cultural systems. Business has played the leading role in shifting cultures to center on consumerism, making an array of resource-intensive products such as bottled water, fast food, cars, disposable paper goods, and even pets seem increasingly "natural."

Government has also promoted consumerism as a lynchpin of policy, often making it synonymous with national well-being and job creation. As the global economic recession accelerated in 2009, wealthy countries primed national economies with $2.8 trillion of new government stimulus packages, only a small percentage of which focused on green initiatives.

Today, an intentional shift is necessary and is already taking root thanks to cultural pioneers around the world who are starting to use six culture-shaping institutions-education, business, the media, government, traditions, and social movements-to reorient cultures toward sustainability.

In 26 articles and 23 short text boxes, the report details dozens of innovative efforts that are tapping these key institutions, from changing business cultures and starting social enterprises to cultivating social marketing efforts, shifting family-planning norms, and tapping the power of primary schools, universities, and even school menus.

"As the world struggles to recover from the most serious global economic crisis since the Great Depression, we have an unprecedented opportunity to turn away from consumerism," says Worldwatch President Christopher Flavin. "In the end, the human instinct for survival must triumph over the urge to consume at any cost."