A couple days ago I made the rather libertarian assertion that people should be free to spend their own money on whatever stupid thing they felt like spending it on, including humongous gas guzzling SUVs (e.g., that triumph of marketing over common sense, the Hummer) and sports car pecker extenders like Vipers. I just don't want to hear any whining from the buyers about the cost of fueling those vehicles once they've got them. Then Lisa administered a dope slap in a comment and reminded me about the elephant in the room, the thing we materialistic, shopping mall worshipping Americans keep trying to ignore: Sustainability.
The cold hard truth is that the typical American lifestyle is not sustainable. Collectively we're resource hogs. We live in houses that are too big, drive cars we don't need, eat foods that are farmed in ways that are destroying the planet, and do most of it in blissful ignorance. We've managed to convince ourselves that if we just switch our incandescent lightbulbs to fluorescents, haul newspapers to a recycling bin, and occasionally shop at a thrift store instead of Dillard's we're doing our part to save the planet. We're kidding ourselves.
In fact, in one of the great ironies of our times, we buy magazines like Real Simple that tell us that the way to simplify our lives (and, by implication, live more environmentally sustainable lives) is to buy more stuff to organize the stuff you've already got. Places like the Container Store exist solely to sell us containers in which to stash the stuff we don't need and never use but seem to believe we have to have anyway. If alien archeologists exist they're going to have a field day picking through the ruins of our society.
In philosophical terms, what we have is a collective action problem. If I ignore a do not walk on the grass sign one time, my foot prints on the lawn have minimal impact. If I walk across the lawn the same way every day, over time a path develops. If dozens of people ignore the sign, the social path shows up faster, the soil is compacted, the grass dies, the path widens, becomes a rut, encourages run-off and soil erosion. In short, my individual selfishness may not have much of an impact, but multiply it by a zillion other people cruising along in their own bubbles, all ignoring the world around them and thinking environmental awareness consists of buying a free range heritage turkey at Whole Paycheck and using a stainless steel water bottle instead of a plastic one, and we've got a planet that's in a death spiral.
Would it make a difference if we all switched to fluorescents? Yes. Will that difference will be totally negated if we then turn around and get a 50-inch plasma television for the "media" room? Can you say understatement? We all keep saying we need to use less energy while adding gadget after gadget that eats more. And I'm as guilty and short-sighted as everyone else. What keeps my life relatively simple and low impact (smallish carbon footprint) isn't heightened awareness; it's lack of money.
I could go on, but I'll just suggest you take a look at the November/December issue of Mother Jones. It's devoted to the economy and the environment. Read it, especially the piece by Bill McKibben, and weep.