Material comforts that we enjoy in the United States and Canada come at a greater cost than we often realize. Our two countries, together with other industrial nations, consume a disproportionately large share of the natural resource base that sustains life on earth. While the United States and Canada alone account for only 6 percent of the world's population, we consume over 40 percent of the world's resources.
Some of us feel entitled to live lives of material comfort. Our pursuit of happiness puts us on a treadmill of material acquisition and conspicuous consumption. Advertising, marketing, and peer pressure keep the treadmill turning. Perhaps our sense of entitlement comes from a spiritual emptiness; we hope that material acquisitions will feed our hunger for deeper meaning.
The Cost of Consumption
The price we pay individually for the goods and services we consume does not reflect their ultimate cost. The hidden cost of irresponsible consumption is often far removed from the point of purchase or use. It is often difficult to document. The ultimate cost includes the price we pay up-front and the hidden price paid by present and future generations when our actions increase human suffering and lead to the extinction of species, degradation of the environment, and depletion of natural resources. Our planet’s natural resources are finite. We are depleting those resources at a rate that far exceeds the living system’s natural capacity to replenish, cleanse, and sustain life.
We have a responsibility to the earth and all of its creatures. We need to raise to consciousness the moral imperative of responsible consumption habits at home, at work, and in our religious communities. Our goal should be sustainability—a balance between the human impact on the natural world and the world’s ability to support life indefinitely. A great deal of good work is being done by economists, businesses, and others to implement sustainability concepts, from which we can learn to change our thinking, habits, and practices. Individuals, groups, private interests, and government all need to change. Sustainability is possible when there is a dynamic balance of the economy, the environment, and the social system in a given community.
An Ethic of Responsible Consumption
The emerging ecological ethic values conservation, demands frugality, encourages saving, and emphasizes connectedness and community. Embracing this ethic makes socially responsible consumption more achievable. Individuals consume according to their need, ability, and taste; nonetheless, this consumption can, and should, be tempered by a collective ethic valuing the interests of the greater community as much as the entitlements of each individual.
Moral values about responsible consumption can no longer be drawn from an ethic that assumes that our planet is available for us to exploit to fulfill our needs and pleasures. Our global dominion is limited, and we have already begun to encounter its limits. By continuing to follow an obsolete ethic, we are likely to cause irreparable harm to our ecosystem. We must cast away this ethic and begin to replenish what we take. We must work to restore and preserve what the interdependent web of life will need to sustain itself indefinitely.
Unitarian Universalism Calls Upon Us
Our Unitarian Universalist faith calls upon us to approach the ethic of responsible consumption with a passion for seeking truth, a thirst for making justice, a vision of interdependence, and a willingness to re-examine our individual actions and beliefs. Becoming responsible consumers means putting into action our religious Principles of the inherent worth and dignity of all people and the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part.
We each begin a personal journey toward responsible consumption from a different place. Wherever we start, we must be mindful of our behavior, attentive to the voices and needs of others, and conscious of the natural rhythms of the world. Our journey continues through education. Through secular and religious education programs, we must challenge ourselves to rethink the underlying assumptions that guide our choices. Through dialogue in small groups, we nurture each other’s environmental consciousness and examine competing claims of what individual responsibility actually means. Our journey is fulfilled through activism. We will work together for legislative changes that will reduce over-consumption, environmental degradation, and the unjust distribution of resources.
This journey will change our lives. As we talk with our children about advertising and peer pressure, we will discover with them innovative ways to adjust our consumption levels, to conserve the earth's finite resources, and to simplify our lives. We will learn more about the hidden costs of the foods we choose to eat and the clothing we choose to wear. We will stretch the lifespans of our appliances, computers, and cars. Before buying, we will ask ourselves if we really need to make the purchase. When purchasing something new, we will buy the most energy-efficient model. We will extend the recycling circle by buying items already made of recycled materials. We will avoid purchasing products that are wastefully packaged or produced through the exploitation of animals or human labor. We will consider living closer to work or to public transportation. We will ensure that our individual and congregational pension funds are invested in socially responsible enterprises. We will pursue designation of our congregations as "green sanctuaries."
As more of us become responsible consumers, we pave the way for systemic change. Individual actions are not enough to reverse the relentless tide of reckless societal consumption. Government efforts are needed to ensure the equitable balance of private interest with the public good. Recycling, environmental and fair labor standards, reduction of suburban sprawl, accessible and affordable mass transportation, and reduction of the causes of global warming—all these require the cooperation of public and private authorities.
We need to acknowledge the discomfort of accepting limitations on individual freedom—whether voluntary or statutory. A responsible consumption ethic requires personal as well as collective sacrifices. Many people have already simplified their lives. They confirm that it has been a liberating process, that their lives are more intentional, more meaningful, and happier. Prices, subsidies, and incentives may change as a consequence of this ethic. Entire industries may develop to utilize alternative natural resources such as wind energy, geothermal power, and solar power. We need to lobby government officials to end subsidies that promote the conversion of open spaces to housing subdivisions and to increase funding to rejuvenate inner-city neighborhoods. We need to advocate zoning that promotes a mix of retail business and residential land use.
By modeling the change in behavior that we wish to see in other people, we not only reinforce our own enduring commitment to this ethic but also help others to see the value of thinking and acting together. People can learn to relish simplicity. They can learn to rely less on possessions for filling the void in their lives. They can come to understand that socially responsible consumption depends upon hearts, minds, and hands.
The Unitarian Universalist Association hereby urges member congregations, affiliate organizations, individual Unitarian Universalists, and the wider communities in which we live to embark on this noble journey. We are called to act courageously and to tread more lightly upon the earth.