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Pet Sins July 2001 Issue
Distorted perspectives: defining waste, self-indulgence and over-consumption as normality and sanity

It is inevitable that every human has ethnocentric views about how life should be lived. Americans are not necessarily better or worse than the rest of the world in that regard.

Each of us sees our lifestyle as "normal" and "right", and even the more open-minded among us will consider some lifestyles different from ours to be "unhealthy and wrong." Sometimes such judgements are based on more-or-less objective criteria that measure the harms that some lifestyle choices bring to the individual and community. But more often than not, we judge other people's lives as 'psychologically disburbed', 'deficient' or just 'plain wrong' simply because they are not like us, not because they are suffering or creating suffering more than we are.

The United States is the largest consumer for many of the world's resources, despite only having 5% of the world's population. For instance, Americans consume a quarter of the world's fossil fuels. Other countries, including other industrialized nations with a comparable standard of living, get by on much less.

Perhaps it is difficult for those of us in the West to curb our consumption, being born into a certain lifestyle and not knowing any other way to live. Some of us are fortunate to gain a more global pespective and try to play a part in reducing our impact on the environment. But there are many of us, when presented with other lifestyles and the opportunity to learn from them, we close our minds and condemn others for something as 'sinful' as plain ol' frugality. Reusing and recycling is the norm in many countries, custom and convenience being the motivations rather than lofty environment concerns.

"Why throw away what you can use again?" is the opinion shared by a substantial percentage of the global population. The cultures of many societies have built-in emotional safeguards against waste and access, resulting behaviors that have the perhaps unintended consequence of being more environmentally friendly. But many Americans have lost the thriftiness and resourcefulness of their ancestors, having grown fat on generations of consumerism and becoming addicted to spending on credit.

It is time to open our eyes, learn from the rest of the world, and find our way again, instead of dismissing those more thrifty and disciplined than we are as stingy, self-abusive or ignorant.

[The articles presented are by no means intended to be a generalization about all Americans. There are many Americans who have been raised with thrifty, responsible habits.]