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We must reduce super-sized appetites

Boston College professor of sociology Juliet Schor is also an "occasional economist" and co-editor of Sustainable Planet: Solutions for the 21st Century.

TEXT OF COMMENTARY

Kai Ryssdal: If everything works right in a consumer economy, you get what you pay for. But as Sam told us a couple of minutes ago it's proving tough to get people to pay for ideas that might take the climate change edge off the way we buy.

For commentator Juliet Schor the relationship between global warming and consumer behavior can be summed up in just one word: Volume.

Juliet Schor: Global consumerism devours resources like there's no tomorrow. And unless we address how much we consume, we won't succeed in averting disastrous climate change.

Consider this: Per-capita GDP has more than doubled since scientists first identified rising temperatures and ecological limits back in the 1970s. Now, technological fixes have to deliver twice the environmental benefits just to keep pace. They aren't.

For example: More fuel-efficient cars are offset by more vehicles on the road and more miles driven. Gains in residential energy efficiency have been wiped out by bigger houses and more power-hungry appliances.

This "volume problem" besets other parts of the consumer economy, too. Plummeting prices at stores such as Wal-Mart and Ikea have caused a buying explosion in clothes, furniture, appliances and consumer electronics.

How big an explosion? Per capita, we're purchasing almost twice as many clothes as we did in 1991. The volume of furniture, measured in pounds, has more than doubled in just seven years. In fact, households are buying almost everything at rates far higher than a decade ago, from food to glassware to sporting goods. And all those products put carbon in the atmosphere as they are produced, shipped, used and discarded.

Counting on technology to overcome the surge in what industrial ecologists call "material throughput" requires magical thinking. It may go over well in economics textbooks but falters in the real world.

So let's not kid ourselves -- we can only become sustainable by tackling the incessant growth in consumption that drives our economy. That'll require green taxes, smarter regulation and new, less super-sized lifestyles.

Krizner: Juliet Schor is a professor of sociology at Boston College. She's also a founder of the group New American Dream.

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