Our actions on issues like climate change will not be enough to "rescue humanity from unacceptably hazardous environmental and climate risks" without a cultural transformation, the Worldwatch Institute says in its 2010 State of the World report.
In its report, the research organization tries to chart a path away from the consumerist culture that has arisen in the past 50 years and has been a major factor in the planet's environmental and social problems.
Worldwatch President Christopher Flavin describes it as a "consumer culture that has taken hold, probably first in the U.S. and now in country after country over the past century, so that we can now talk about a global consumerist culture that has become a powerful force around the world."
In this culture, people find meaning and contentment in what they consume. It's an orientation that has had huge implications for society and the planet. The average American consumes more, in terms of mass, than he weighs, Worldwatch says. If everyone lived like this, the Earth could only sustain 1.4 billion people — about the population of China.
Flavin acknowledges that consumerism is not the only factor driving environmental degradation, but it is a root cause on which other factors build, and, as a cultural framework, it is expanding.
"In India and China, for instance, the consumer culture of the U.S. and Western Europe is not only being replicated but being replicated on a much vaster scale," Flavin says. He notes that China is already the world leader in carbon dioxide emissions.
Climate change is a symptoms of that excessive consumption.
Consumption has risen sixfold since 1960, according to World Bank statistics. Even taking the rising global population into account, this amounts to a tripling of consumption expenditures per person over this time. It has led to a parallel increase in the amount of resources used — a sixfold increase in metals extracted from the Earth, eightfold in oil consumption and 14-fold in natural gas consumption.
"In total, 60 billion tons of resources are now extracted annually — about 50 percent more than just 30 years ago," the report says.
As levels of consumption rise, so do levels of greenhouse gas emissions. The 500 million richest people in the world are responsible for half the world's carbon dioxide emissions, the report notes, while the poorest 3 billion are responsible for just 6 percent.
Citing several studies from the past year, the authors conclude that even if countries reach their "most ambitious" emissions-reducing proposals, temperatures would still go up 3.5 degrees Celsius by 2100, well beyond the 2-degree rise that scientists and even politicians recognize as reaching a danger zone.
"In other words, policy alone will not be enough. A dramatic shift in the very design of human societies will be essential," Worldwatch says.
Prospects for a Cultural Shift
The good news, Worldwatch project director Erik Assadourian says, is that a shift toward a more sustainable culture is entirely possible — and "it is already beginning to happen."
The 244-page report, "State of the World 2010 — Transforming Cultures: From Consumerism to Sustainability", cites a wide variety of examples of changes under way, such as the enshrining of the rights of nature into Ecuador's constitution and schools encouraging children to think more sustainably by giving them healthy, locally-grown lunches and encouraging them to walk or bike to class.
Everything from childbearing to burial traditions can be done in a more sustainable way, and should be, Worldwatch says.
Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Muhammad Yunus points to his own experience developing the concept of microcredit and overturning the cultural conception that poor people were not creditworthy as evidence that such deep-rooted conceptions can, in fact, be changed.
"Now I know that cultural assumptions, even well-established ones, can be overturned," he says. "Culture, after all, is for making it easy for people to unleash their potential, not for standing there as a wall to stop them from moving forward."
The various societal institutions all have roles to play in effecting cultural shifts — religion, government, the media, businesses, education. Taken separately, their efforts might seem small, admits Assadourian, but taken together they can affect real change.
"Keep in mind that consumerism had its beginning only two centuries ago and really accelerated in the last 50 years," he said. "With deliberate effort, we can replace consumerism with sustainability just as quickly as we traded home-cooked meals for Happy Meals and neighborhood parks for shopping malls."
In those 50 years, the report says, consumerism has made such things as fast food, air conditioning and suburban living feel increasingly "natural" and more difficult to imagine living without. The fact that we see it as normal to identify so many more brand names and logos than wildlife, for instance, is a product of that culture, says Assadourian.
That doesn't mean we can't change again, this time for the better, says co-author Michael Maniates.
"While the cultural roots of consumerism go deep, it does seem to me that we have gotten into this consumerist culture rather quickly ... and if we have changed so quickly since the 1950s it does leave open the possibility that we can shift that fast again."
"Eventually consumerism will buckle under its own impossibility," predicts Assadourian. We can either act proactively to replace it with a more sustainable cultural model or wait for something else to fill the void, he says.