Rethinking the American Dream ahead of the Paris climate talks

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The other day I spotted an Asian woman taking things from a bin near downtown San Francisco where I live. It is not an unusual sight but the woman had on a conical hat and, upon inquiries, it turned out that she’s from my own homeland, Vietnam.

Abandoned by her husband and raising two kids, she survives doing menial jobs and making use of what others throw away. “In Vietnam no one leaves this stuff on the street,” the woman told me, gesturing towards the bottles, cans and cartons filling the bins. “It’s all money back home.” Her frugal mindset is a typical when you grow up in a world where nothing ever goes to waste. “You can feed an army of homeless off this city’s garbage,” she said.

I knew all this but I left Vietnam long ago, and had forgotten it. But the contrast between the poorest of the poor living off the waste of the wealthy made me think.

Once upon a time frugality was also a virtue in America, but that no longer seems to be the case. These days the average American produces about 130 pounds of garbage each month. And a study by the Natural Resources Defense Council released in 2012 also confirmed that Americans “waste 10 times as much food as someone in south-east Asia, up 50 per cent from Americans in the 1970s.”

It doesn’t surprise me given that the US has less than five per cent of the world’s population, yet it consumes more than 30 per cent of the world’s energy resources and generates 70 per cent of the total global toxic waste. “If everyone on the planet consumed at US rates, we would need three to five planets to support our consumption,” stated the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives.

More than two-third of the American economy is now based on consumption; environmentalist David Suzuki called it the “feel-good economy.” Over time it has created an unprecedented global crisis. Worse still, it is coveted and replicated the world over – soon the pressure on the ecosystem may prove to be unsustainable.

Feel-good consumerist society may also recycle but it’s a patchwork effort in the face of various ecosystems on the brink – not unlike putting a finger in a cracked levee and hoping for the best.

Our commercial culture requires continuous acquisition, and is built upon the concept of disposable goods. If everything is disposable, so reasoned economists after the Second World War, the market will never be saturated. New models should come out all the time so that what’s functional quickly becomes obsolete.

Seventy years later and garbage production in the United States has doubled in the last 30 years alone. Approximately 80 per cent of all US products are used once, then thrown away, while 95 per cent of all plastic, two-thirds of all glass containers, and 50 per cent of all aluminium cans are never recycled, but instead get burned or buried.

We now know we need to change, but like many an overweight person who wants to diet and exercise, we, as a nation, haven’t found the will to break the habit.

Garbage has become the legacy of our era. The largest human-made structure used to be the Great Wall of China. Today it’s the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – the enormous swirl of plastic that gathers in the ocean currents between California and Hawaii.

These days there are new efforts to render trash into reusable goods – from building materials to electronic goods – but Americans remain as wasteful as ever.

And while I want to be on the right side of the environmental equation – I practice recycling, for example, and have stopped eating red meat – I too am caught in the economic infrastructure that depends of buying new goods, owning iPhones and laptops.

Materialism is a powerful force, and when elevated into a concept called consumerism, refined by the genius of advertising and given a title – ’The American Dream’ – few can resist.

Ahead of the crucial climate talks in Paris this December, we need to do more than lobby our governments to reduce fossil fuel emissions. We also need to look at our own slavish commitment to what Pope Francis calls “compulsive consumerism”.

Watching the woman scurrying away with her loot of rubbish it occurred to me that the real battle ahead is whether or not we have the collective will to change our destructive behaviour before it is too late.


This is an edited and updated version of a blog that first appeared on New American Media.