There is something you can do that is likely to make you happier, healthier, save money and lessen your impact on the planet. What is it? Consume less by practicing simpler living.
I usually focus on human population growth, but consumption is an issue that affects our impact on the planet just as much.
A child born in a developing country will have only a fraction of the impact that a child would have in the United States. This illustrates that it is not just the numbers of people but also the resources they use (and the pollution they cause) that really matters. Furthermore, consumption is growing faster than population growth. Worldwide our numbers are increasing by 1 % per year while consumption is skyrocketing at 2 to 4 %.
Costa Rica is a good example of a nation that approaches sustainability. We lived in Monteverde for three months recently, giving us personal experience with the differences from the USA.
The income of an average Costa Rican (or “Tico”, to use their nickname) is significantly less than that of an “American”. Our buying power is about $47,000 per person each year, but in Costa Rica it is less than a quarter of that, at $11,000. Obviously Ticos consume less than do norteamericanos.
Yet Ticos appear to be happier than Americans. One measure, the Satisfaction with Life Index, rates Ticos higher (13th in the world) than Americans (just 23rd).
Most Ticos do not own cars, but use their feet or public transportation to travel. When we lived up in Monteverde we walked to do errands. Sometimes we enjoyed the luxury of a taxi if it was pouring or if we had a lot to carry. When we traveled from the Monteverde area we did so by bus. It cost only the equivalent of eight dollars for the four-hour trip to the capital, San José!
Doesn’t relative poverty cause poor health? No! On average, Ticos live a year or two longer than Americans! The emphasis there is on primary and preventative health care. I don’t remember seeing a really obese Tico; people are physically active and fast food is uncommon. Indeed, I lost weight when eating my favorite Costa Rican food, gallo pinto—but that’s another story.
What is the secret of Costa Rica? It is unique in the world in that it emphasizes education and health. It has no military—that’s right, none! Instead it provides free health care to all citizens and free education through high school. In contrast, the USA spends a huge fraction of our finances on the military. Part of our expenditure is to support our extravagant use of petroleum, which largely comes from far away. A large portion of our military might is used to gain and protect sources of petroleum. Furthermore, our military consumes huge amounts of oil.
Contraception is free and available to all Ticos as part of their health care. Funding for family planning in the USA, however, has been shrinking when measured in real dollars, and its very existence has been jeopardized with recent political changes. (Abortion is illegal in Costa Rica, although a few abortions are done surreptitiously.)
The saying “development is the best contraceptive” became popular during Reagan’s presidency. As people get richer, they do tend to have smaller families. Unfortunately, they also consume more and have greater impact. Furthermore, more refined studies have found that really rich people have larger families than moderately rich families.
The Tico lifestyle uses much less of the planet’s resources and adds less pollution to the environment. Costa Rica has also preserved a greater proportion of its land as parks than any other country in the world. Its rain and cloud forests have become a major tourist destination, and a major source of income. Almost all electricity in Costa Rica comes from renewable sources—hydro and wind—but it is affordable for all.
The Ecological Footprint (an excellent measure of an individual’s impact) of the average Tico is 2.8 hectares (6.8 acres). This is close to the average area of productive land available to each person—if we all had this EF we would be using the planet’s resources sustainably.
We cannot all move to Costa Rica. We here in the USA can, however, endeavor to reduce our consumption. People who choose “simple living” (or a lifestyle of voluntary simplicity) work less, spend less, and enjoy life more. Most important is that they are happier and have less impact on the planet.
© Richard Grossman MD, 2011