The concept of sustainable living seems to stir emotional and even politically charged responses with some frequency. A primary reason for the controversial nature of sustainable living practices is that it rejects some characteristics of our present American lifestyle.

One of these characteristics is consumer capitalism.

Consumer capitalism was developed in the early 20th century by the business community with the intent of manipulating our buying habits - the intent was to substitute shopping to fulfill customer needs with shopping to fulfill customer wants and desires, and even to create “need."

This was most apparent in the fashion and automobile industries. The fashion industry started introducing new clothing styles each season even though the clothing lasted much longer that a few months. In the past 20 years, we’ve gone from two to four style changes per year to 52 “fashion seasons” per year leading to what is now called “fast fashion."

By the 1950s, the automobile industry began introducing new body styles yearly to entice people to trade for a new car model every year, even though the cars they produced lasted for 10 or more years.

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Some 100 years after the introduction of consumer capitalism, we frequently buy stuff to make ourselves feel better or shop when we are bored or lonely or simply shop as a pastime. We buy stuff because we are told our lives will be infinitely better if we buy the latest gadget.

Those who are trying to live sustainably have been there and have learned that happiness does not depend on the amount of money and stuff we possess.

A second assumption of consumer capitalism, that some of us reject, is that our economy depends on constant growth and increasing consumption of goods and services. The challenge of this is that unrestrained industrial growth ultimately depletes the earth’s natural resources.

This linear model of extraction of natural resources, production of products (many of which are disposable or have limited lifespan) and sale to customers who ultimately throw it away is a degenerative and wasteful system. We believe in a regenerative system that produces long-lasting products that we repair, reuse, refurbish and ultimately recycle at the end of their useful life.

A third principle of consumer capitalism, that many of us reject, is the view that we are highly intelligent people and our human ingenuity will solve all of our problems now and in the future. Although we have solved many problems in the past and we hear of potential solutions to some of the problems we presently face, there is reason to be concerned.

Throughout American history, solutions to problems have largely involved the use of our natural resources, which are becoming depleted. Solving future problems this way becomes more difficult. Further, many of the “solutions” of the past have been short-sighted, often resulting in new problems that must be dealt with in the present and future.

Some years ago the motto of the petrochemical industry was “Better living through chemistry.” This has led to the development of thousands of useful products, many of which we buy and use every day. However, a major problem is that many of these products are not biodegradable and the waste has built up in the environment.

Products made of plastic are only the most visible example of a petrochemical waste product that the world is now literally drowning in - it’s in our land, our water, our food, our animal populations and even in our bodies - everywhere.

Proponents of sustainable living here in rural Minnesota are returning to some of the practices of our grandparents and great-grandparents precisely because they lived before consumer capitalism was introduced as the normative way of life in the USA. Unlike today, in the early 1900s we were a nation of producers. It was a time when half the people in America lived on farms, raised much of their own food and had the skills to preserve and store that food to get through the long Minnesota winters.

By providing for many of their needs and having the skills to fix and repair, rather than throw away and buy new, they were able to live well with relatively little income.

Choosing a simpler, more sustainable lifestyle is a viable option when compared to a consumer-based lifestyle. What is more, it is a lifestyle that considers the needs of future generations for natural resources and a clean, safe world in which to live.

(References to all factual information noted provided on request and comments and questions are encouraged: weiss005@umn.edu)

Douglas J. Weiss and Barb Mann own Balsam Moon in Pine River, a spiritual place of peace, sustainability and renewal.