by Emma Stierhoff
Consumerism […] encourages both increased consumption and increased waste, resulting in environmental destruction.
It was not until I began identifying as an environmentalist in high school that I started to question the constant pressure to buy more things, as well as the lack of pressure about disposing of things in landfills. I grew acutely aware of the fact that just about everything I purchased and disposed of had some environmental impact. With the systematic propagation of consumerism in many societies, humans are becoming excessive consumers. Consumerism differentiates human systems from systems deemed natural. Most animals cannot afford to be wasteful; wasted energy and resources detract from their ability to survive. Yet humans sit in the lap of luxury with our opposable thumbs and the many tools and novelties they have allowed us to develop, ignorant of the perils of our short-sightedness. We think we can afford to be wasteful and consequently, we have established systems that favor waste. The American economy seems to thrive on waste, giving the illusion that waste is a sign of success—this is not the case.
One of the first cited cases of environmental injustice was Love Canal, home to a chemical disposal site from 1920 until 1953. During this time it was filled with dirt and sold cheaply with little to no warning about the 20,000 tons of toxic waste buried beneath. After decades of ignored resident complaints about odor, health problems, and surfacing poisonous chemicals, in 1983, the EPA declared Love Canal a Superfund Site: a region where improper management of hazardous waste results in significant threats to environmental and human health. Residents were relocated, and site cleanup finally began. Cases like Love Canal come across as anomalies—we assume that such ecological injustices could not happen near us. However, the EPA has cited 11 Superfund Sites in the Greater Lehigh Valley. Instances of improper waste-management regularly occur across the U.S. because the consumer system incentivizes their creation while promoting ignorance towards them.It may seem paradoxical that consumerism thrives when it is harmful to the very people inciting it. Yet the way Americans manage their consumption and waste creates a very linear system; the outputs do not feed back into the inputs. This system results in continual and increased resource use without replenishment. We deforest more land for farms, factories, and roads, use up more water, coal, and oil, and release more carbon dioxide, hazardous chemicals, and other pollutants, all to produce more goods and accommodate for increasing consumer demand. On the other end, our outputs in this system largely consist of waste that piles up in landfills until they break down. Nine of the 11 Superfund Sites in the Lehigh Valley are landfills or contain on-site waste disposal. Sites like these damage the entire planet—emitting greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change—and nearby ecosystems, leaching toxic chemicals into the ground and surrounding bodies of water.
In a sustainable system, our outputs would serve to replenish our inputs, or be the inputs of other living beings. For example, a deer will eat shrubs, depleting the plant supply, but the deer also excretes feces that fertilizes the soil. When the deer dies, it will decompose, adding vital nutrients to the soil and enabling more plants to grow to feed more deer. This is a simplification, but it reflects how a sustainable system thrives while benefiting the members of the order indefinitely. Consumerism, on the other hand, encourages both increased consumption and increased waste, resulting in environmental destruction. This system will ultimately cause the human race to strip the planet of its limited resources. In short, consumerism is unsustainable. It cannot continue indefinitely: although it gives the illusion of progress, it promotes environmental and human harm, as exemplified by the ever-increasing number of Superfund Sites nationwide. Thus, consumerism must be modified so that the linear system closes into a more sustainable loop.
Change is never easy. It is convenient for people to ignorantly consume and waste however much they want; the consequences are not immediate or visibly apparent, so sacrificing the luxury of consumerism seems unnecessary. We are endlessly driven to consume more and waste more, which often benefits environmentally harmful companies, and propels our own destruction. I don’t think it is realistic to say we can end consumerism; it has become too deeply ingrained in American culture to suddenly shut down. However, we desperately need to revise the deeply flawed linear system by incorporating as many sustainable loops into it as possible, such as recycling, composting, switching to reusable energy, and more. Only when we change our way of life to one that is less wasteful and more sustainable will we be able to prevent the environmental devastation associated with landfills and excessive waste. The hope lies in consumers; it is our duty to buy less and learn to use sustainable disposal methods before turning to landfills. A combination of education and incentivization of sustainable consumption will drive a significant change, and help turn a devastating linear system into a cleaner, more resilient one.
by Emma Stierhoff
Emma is a sophomore at Lafayette College and co-founder of her college’s food recovery program. She is also president of LEAP, the Lafayette Environmental Awareness & Protection club.