Skip to main content

How Materialism Hurts Us and Our Environment

With my writing, I hope to educate and inspire in order to make a positive impact on others.

This world map shows country size based on consumption.

This world map shows country size based on consumption.

Carrying On

Look at the map above. If you are one of those living in an area bulging red at the seams like myself, do not get down. None of us should feel guilty for the cards we have been dealt, for we have no control. It is not the ideal hand. What we do have control over is how we play them. Tomorrow is another day. We have the choice to put on our best poker face and carry on in a positive light—here's how.

For many Americans, the pursuit of happiness and the pursuit of material wealth lies on the same playing field. But is it possible that this pursuit of material goods in our search for happiness is more damaging to ourselves and our environment than we think?

Douglas Horton, a clergyman of the late 19th century, realized that "materialism is the only form of distraction from true bliss." Despite this observation and others, most strive for much more than food, water, shelter, and clothing. The desire to buy bigger, better, and newer stuff is what fuels the American dream and the world economy.

But how does the desire for material wealth hurt us? How does it hurt our environment?

How Materialism Hurts Us

The constant desire for stuff is what drives our global economy, and many suffer because of it. The environment suffers as well. The cost of goods for many of us is not the issue, and the true cost to the environment is one that cannot be labeled with a price tag. As cute, awesome, or impressive as an item may be, it costs human labor, water, and fossil fuels to manufacture and transport it. The outcome, aside from owning this cute, awesome, or impressive item, is increased pollution, destruction of precious land, and harmful working conditions.

Yes, we know the costs and results of producing and consuming things, and many of us can name quite a few more than were mentioned above. Let's set that aside. It's time for solutions. Is there a way we can live in a developed world without having materialism consume us? Every day, we are assaulted by peer pressure from friends, family, and advertisements, promising that buying a particular product will make us better, stronger, faster, thinner, sexier, smarter, and more. Many of these things we do in fact need. Or do we? Only when we understand the line between things we need and things we desire can we overcome the pressures to buy.

No matter who you are or how much money you have, the things you buy have an effect on you, your environment, and the unseen people in far-off lands who are connected to those things through manufacturing, production, packaging, and transportation. The bright light at the end of this often-dim tunnel is that there are ways to live in abundance without overconsuming.

How good might it feel to live well without destroying your own home? Be excited because with a small mental shift and a few small actions, you can avoid over-consumption, help the environment, and return to a slightly more blissful existence free of clutter, both mental and physical.

What Can We Do to Limit Our Consumption?

This section discusses nine actionable ways we can make changes in our personal consumption habits to benefit ourselves and our world.

1. Upcycle

Upcycle everything—not just bottles, cans, and cardboard. With some creativity, you can find a use for what many would call trash.

Use the wood from that old bookshelf to make a chair. Turn that empty wine bottle into a vase. Cut in half and sand for a candle holder, pencil holder, or drinking vessel. Break into shards and mix with cement to make bricks for a new walkway or resurface your kitchen counter. Upcycle is the new recycle.

2. Buy Local

The energy and resources used to make and transport goods from one end of the world to the other are immense. Food is the easiest connection to make. Imagine the environmental impact of eating a banana from Guatemala in Canada on a winter day. Eat according to seasons, buy from farmers' markets, and participate in a CSA program. Search out local purveyors and manufacturers to boost your local economy and protect your mother.

3. Drink Tap

Nearly 42 million water bottles are used per day. Compared to tap water, 800 times more energy is wasted, and it's ten times more expensive. If you can't stand the taste of tap water, buy a reusable water bottle and filter for the kitchen sink.

4. Plant Food

There isn't a more local source than your own backyard. Even a small container garden allows you to easily grow and maintain vegetables and local plants.

5. Share Transportation

Ride the bus. Ride the train. Carpool. Imagine the joy you will feel when you bring a book and relax on your way to work while doing your part to protect the environment.

6. Litter No More

This is a simple yet far-too-often broken rule to live by. All drains lead to the ocean, and that cigarette butt will look like candy and eventually kill some beautiful young pelican. Re-think the concept of litter—maybe it can be used or re-purposed again after all?

7. Downsize

Downsize everything—your home, car, closet, and storage unit. Ask yourself how these things make you feel. You might discover a natural calm once these things are no more. Simplify, simplify, simplify.

8. Vote

Vote for local officials and candidates who share an interest in helping the environment. The business of oil is what drives the factories and machines that lead to more things.

9. Buy Used

Whether it is clothing from a second-hand store, books, or music, or even a car, buy used whenever possible. The more you buy used, the more precious resources are saved instead of consumed.

How much do you consume?

How much do you consume?

How Much Do You Consume?

What effect do your daily buying habits have on the environment? You can calculate your personal global footprint or ecological footprint to find out. This looks at your lifestyle and level of resource consumption and then determines how much land area it takes to support it.

The website explains that "humanity uses the equivalent of 1.4 planets to provide the resources we use and absorb our waste. This means it now takes the earth one year and five months to regenerate what we use in a year." For Americans, this number is even larger. Much like an old car engine, neglected of its essential fluids, it will one day break. Calculate your personal footprint and learn ways in which you can help by visiting the website linked above.

Ecological footprint by country.

Ecological footprint by country.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.