Extinct Lifestyles

Many people think that America’s troubles in sectors like finance, auto, housing, education, health, timber, etc. are in a slump and that we need to work towards getting things back to how they used to be. However, as Einstein said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” It is time to look at things like economics and natural resources in a different way.

It is ironic that so many people are determined to hang on to out dated ideas while refusing to use proven common sense methods because those methods seem “old fashioned” or do not appear to support progress. For example, if it is obvious to us that we should fix a hole in our roof rather than throwing the whole house away, how can even the smartest economists argue that the same common sense should not apply to less costly products? Yet we have increasingly made more products more “disposable.”

After World War II, America entered a prosperous age in part because most other modernized countries had their infrastructures destroyed or severely damaged. Everyone wanted to buy what we were making and we were rewarded for that through access to affordable products with unprecedented quality and modern features. We thought we proved that our lifestyle was best and we wanted to be a model for the rest of the world to follow. As modern countries rebuilt and other countries modernized, demand for our products faded. We borrowed as a nation and as individuals in order to keep our celebratory lifestyle habits alive. We were too proud and too comfortable to examine the dangers of living beyond our means. We ignored warning signs for decades until reality finally caught up with us.

The reality is that individuals spend too much of their money on things that bring only short-term gains. While more and more products and services are designed for instant and very temporary gratification, the lifespan of the products that are supposedly “built to last” is exponentially decreasing. The overwhelming evidence that short term thinking is unsustainable is finally clear to the majority of Americans. Those who wish to act on this knowledge are still in the minority but, during this very interesting time in history, there are massive numbers of Americans who have just become aware that they were unaware.

Over the next few years it will become even more painfully obvious that our definition of prosperity was flawed. America’s age of prosperity is not over but America must redefine prosperity in order for it to continue. Even if we can get away with not reducing, reusing and recycling for a while longer, it would be unwise for any individual or country to reinforce an expiring lifestyle rather than preparing for obvious economic and environmental conflicts with that lifestyle.

Fixable products should be reused and new products should have longer lifespan requirements. The price tag on a disposable product is not the only thing it will cost. We now must weigh the impacts on our lifestyles when considering the cost of buying something new or reusing what we have. If we buy less, we produce less, including the energy and pollution of manufacturing and the waste that those products become. Producing less of the things we don’t need will only eliminate outdated and wasteful jobs and new jobs can easily be created. There is plenty of stuff to do to improve our communities, infrastructure, housing, food, air, water and our lifestyles in general. Therefore there are plenty of new jobs out there but improving our lifestyles will mean improving many of the things that we share. We must think with an open mind of ways that our government can inspire us to improve the things we share. Speaking of improving the things we share sounds like socialism or communism to some but we are strong enough to examine all possibilities while maintaining our dedication to individual freedom and justice. The challenge will be for the prejudice to consider the good qualities found in all forms of government.

Whether rich or poor, we all buy things we don’t absolutely need and I believe that is good and healthy to a certain point. However, I think most Americans surpassed that point decades ago. Now that it is obvious, we are morally obligated to consider the true cost of every product we acquire and increase it’s value both sentimentally and practically by repairing it, reusing it and reducing the number of other products we buy.

It’s time for a new definition of prosperity for America. One that acknowledges that contentment is not reached and self worth is not established by quickening our consumption and degrading the value of our consumed goods but rather by slowing down long enough to appreciate what we already have.

ERIC BERGOUST is a four-time Olympian and won a Gold Medal in freestyle aerial skiing at the 1998 Winter Olympics. He lives in Missoula, Montana.