Question the Rhetoric

Last Wednesday, after walking out of the Chapel from the All-School Meeting, I began to think about the speech that I had just heard. Having been bombarded with a wide array of statistics, data sets and studies, I was a little bit shell-shocked. Previously, I had known that we use an inordinate amount of chemicals in our “stuff,” but this thought was never an overt concern of mine. To my knowledge, I had not been adversely affected by these substances and thus never saw it to be much of a worry. After hearing that we are all storage houses for thousands of toxins, however, I was quite surprised. Though impacted by Ms. Leonard’s admonitory remarks, I was tentative to immediately. In short, I did not know what to think. In talking to my friends, I found opinions on both ends of the spectrum. On the one hand, there were those that readily accepted Ms. Leonard’s message and were enthusiastic about her proposition to mitigate the effects of our destructive consumerism. They made the argument that in order to save our planet, we must enact radical change. Yet, there were others that disagreed with Ms. Leonard’s ideas just as enthusiastically, citing her supposedly biased evidence and radical outlook. In reflecting upon the speech, I found myself somewhere in between. I was not able to readily dismiss her intentions nor was I eager to “jump on the bandwagon.” Granted, this is an extremely controversial issue, and there is no obvious right or wrong answer. From a purely literal standpoint, however, I was hesitant to accept various aspects of her reasoning. At the same time, I do realize the urgent need to reform our global consumptive practices. With respect to Ms. Leonard’s reasoning behind ideas, I did find some flaws. First, she attempted to justify her claim that we Americans use too much “stuff” by citing the fact that while we are five percent of the world’s population we use thirty percent of the world’s resources. What she does not mention, however, is that according to the World Bank we also produce almost thirty percent of the world’s gross domestic product (GDP). Thus, the issue is not that we consume “more than our share,” since, from a fundamental standpoint, three tenths of the world’s resources should produce three tenths of the world’s profit. In my mind, the issue is not the proportionality of our consumption, but rather the scale. Furthermore, Ms. Leonard brought up the fact that our happiness has been shown to be inversely correlated with our amount of “stuff.” Again, though I do understand the age-old reasoning that she is trying to employ here (money can’t buy happiness), I am not convinced that our level of satisfaction is at all related to our material wealth. In other words, simply because they are empirically correlated does not mean that they are effectively related. And thus this argument seems to me to be irrelevant in the case against consumption. Nonetheless, though I do not completely agree with the reasoning behind Ms. Leonard’s convictions, I am in firm support of her call to reform our consumptive practices. I wholeheartedly recognize the fact that we must not continue to “run a linear system on a finite planet,” as she said. In addition to the fact that we have limited natural resources, the various carcinogens and toxins that we employ in our industries will continue to kill millions. Though Ms. Leonard’s claim that one in three Americans will be afflicted with cancer in their lifetime may seem extreme, it is an undeniable truth that the countless chemicals to which we are all exposed are not good for our health. Looking ahead, we cannot continue our pattern of excessive consumption and widespread chemical contamination while maintaining our current lifestyle. Accomplishing such monumental change, however, does not come easy. In our quest to better the lives of our generation and those to come, we cannot sit around and hope for the best. We need people like Annie Leonard to encourage us and arouse us out of our often paralyzing complacency. We need passionate visionaries, radical they may be, to promote the movement of change. But above all, we must take action. Jack Sykes is a new Lower from New York, NY.