Las Vegas – Lessons for Environmentalists: Part 2

Posted on August 14, 2012

In the last post I argued that Las Vegas provided lessons for environmentalists – one of them being the tragedy of not being able to have the full might of American ingenuity behind the necessary environmental transformation. But there are other lessons.

Las Vegas is a monument to consumerism.

People travel to the city from all points around the globe. They come here to have fun and consume – entertainment, food, gambling, purchase of goods, etc, etc. Las Vegas creates the impression of a world without limits – and people love it. As it says in the picture – it’s fabulous!

It is fashionable for environmentalists to rail against ‘consumerism’. This is pointless if not counter-productive. A couple of days spent in Las Vegas looking at the faces of people of all ages, all colors and speaking all languages soon dispels any idea that the tide of so-called consumerism is in any way reversible. We all love consuming and we will determinedly continue to do it.

Neither is the human propensity towards consumption and waste anything new. The most ancient civilizations – Chinese, Romans, Egyptians, Greeks – showed prodigious levels of consumption and waste. The only difference is that in those times the ability to consume was limited to the privileged few. What has changed is not human behaviour but the number of people who are able to indulge in such behaviour. A war on consumerism is not a war on some new evil. It is a war on the middle class and all that society has been trying to achieve for the last 150 years.

It is true that the ecosphere cannot support our current patterns of consumption and the emerging ability of billions of people in emerging economies to enjoy the same levels of consumption as we are used to in the wealthier world. But the answer is not to castigate “consumption” – a pointless task – but rather, over time, to alter the patterns of consumption. We need to learn to change desires and patterns of consumption to make consumption more sustainable.

Changing consumption patterns is doable – we have done it for decades. Stopping the consumption habit, on the other hand, is not. We need to face reality, stop telling people what they cannot have and work towards new patterns of sustainable consumption. Many have started down this path already. Many more need to join in.


For a more erudite analysis of what consumerism is or could be, see here