In the world where global warming and peak oil are discussed Americans are condemned for their use of energy and other resources. This is seen as a moral failing. Unfortunately it is not. Constant and unlimited growth is how our capitalist economy stays healthy. When growth stops our capitalist economy will collapse. So the question at issue is not self centered wasting of resources vs sustainability but capitalism vs socialism. The real problem we have with sustainability is simple: a sustainable economy is a socialist economy. At least from the perspective of today’s capitalists it is.
To understand why we waste so much of the world’s resources on useless trivialities we have to go back to the great depression of the 1930s. My father claimed that on March 4, 1933, when Franklin Roosevelt was inaugurated the United States of America was just weeks away from its very own Marxist revolution. That’s how bad things were then. All during the 1930s many people believed capitalism and liberal democracy were dead. The future would belong to either fascism or communism. But the fascists, especially the Nazis, overplayed their hand. The resulting world war saved capitalism and liberal democracy by providing full employment. And after the war it was decided to do whatever it took to insure an economic catastrophe on the order of the great depression never again occurred.
To understand the problem faced by those who wished to avoid another great depression let’s take a look at a simple producer of mousetraps. An inventor makes a better mousetrap and the world really does beat a path to his door. He can no longer satisfy the demand for mousetraps by the number of mousetraps he can produce in his basement workshop. So he borrows money and builds a mousetrap manufacturing plant. This plant hires employees to build the mousetraps. Now the inventor can satisfy the demand for mousetraps.
In building his factory the inventor has created economic demand. Buyers of mousetraps pay him money. He pays money to his workers. His workers spend the money to buy the things they need. Money is now flowing through the economic system. Everyone is prosperous and everyone is happy.
Then the mousetrap market is saturated. Everyone who wants a mousetrap has one. The buyers are all happy with their mousetraps. Unfortunately this means there is no longer a demand for the products made by the mousetrap factory. So the inventor has to lay off most of his workers and put the rest on half time. Being unemployed the workers no longer have money to spend on the things they need. Money is no longer flowing through the economic system. The economic system is now in a state of recession. If demand for other things decreases as well then the economy will enter a state of depression, as happened in the 1930s.
This process can be stopped if the mousetrap factory can be kept at full production. This can be done if the market for mousetraps is artificially stimulated. Heretofore all mousetraps have been produced in basic black. Now the inventor adds colored mousetraps. Advertising is used to convince people they need chartreuse, lime green and lemon colored mousetraps. The advertising works and now the mousetrap plant is back at full production. When this market is saturated the inventor makes subtle changes in the mousetrap. Advertising is used to convince people the old mousetrap is out of date and they must have the newest mode. So the mousetrap plant is kept busy, its employees are well paid, money is again flowing through the economic system, and everyone is happy.
Expand this to the national, or even the international level and you have an economic system where prosperity is maintained by convincing people to buy things they do not really need in order to provide jobs for people who then have money to spend. In such an economic system endless growth is necessary because the alternative to growth is economic collapse. And economic collapse is fatal for capitalism.
So now one begins to understand why there is so much resistance to the establishment of a sustainable economy. In a sustainable economy you are not going to be able to create jobs by producing things people do not really need and then convincing people to buy them. Since this is the basis of our presently existing free market money based economy it appears sustainability threatens the existence of a free market based money economy. Since individualism as we know it appears dependent on a free market money based economy it appears sustainability threatens individualism. And since Americans understand themselves as individuals it appears sustainability threatens how we see ourselves in relation to others. And since Americans are not going to give up seeing themselves as individuals the supporters of sustainability really do have a difficult problem on their hands.