I knew it was bad; I didn’t know how bad. I am speaking about our obsession with “stuff,” our rampant materialism. We have all heard that 1% of the people in this country control most of the wealth. But a closer look gets even uglier. 80% of the people in this country control only 7% of the wealth. The remaining 73% of the wealth is controlled by the very wealthy and the almost-as-wealthy. The top 1% own 43% of the wealth (Think about that: 1% of the people in this country own nearly half of the wealth. Staggering!). The next 4% own 29% of the wealth. Another 15% own 21%, which leaves 7% for the rest of us. So when we complain about being part of the 99% the vast majority of us are really complaining about being part of the 80% of the people in this country who control a lousy 7% of the wealth.
And the really sobering thought is that the have-nots want more than anything to be just like the haves. Consumer debt in this country has risen an average of 7.5% every year since 1997, almost twice the rate of change in the previous 10 years. Average credit card debt now exceeds $11,000, triple what it was in 1990, and most people carry several credit cards. This adds to a total debt load for Americans of $2.5 trillion. Of this almost $1 trillion is revolving debt, such as credit cards, which is usually considered “bad debt” — i.e., debt that may never be collected and for which there was no collateral “up front.” The average person under 35 years of age spends 16% more money than he or she earns. And this is doubly disturbing.
Most of us elderly folks had high hopes that the younger generation, the “Gen-Ys” or the millenialists whom we believed are more centered, who care more about others and their planet, were going to clean up the mess we are leaving behind. But this is not the case. Not in the least. Research shows that the millenialists are even more self-absorbed and materialistic than their parents or grandparents. Indeed, “affluenza” as it has been called, is a disease that spreads like a cancer and it is deep in the bones of the young who are not only spending their money faster than they earn it, they dream only of becoming wealthy and famous. As it happens the vast majority of them care very little about other people or about the planet.
And the cost to the planet of our materialism is very high as a moment’s glance will show. It drives us to want larger homes than we need, which waste energy; larger cars and trucks than we need, which leave huge carbon footprints; and to eat more than we should, which takes energy to produce at a time when climate change is threatening weather disasters like Hurricane Sandy and a continuation of the drought that is seriously affecting 65% of this country. We appear to be on a collision course with disaster.
One of my favorite jokes involves an ant colony that foolishly made its home in a sand trap on a golf course. A golfer hits his ball into the trap and after killing all but two of the ants with repeated, wild swings at the ball, one ant turns to the other and says, “we had better get on the ball of we will never make it out of here alive.”
Surely, we can agree that the global situation deserves our immediate and focused attention. We need to get on the ball and start thinking about others and about the planet upon which we depend totally. It might start with cutting up the credit cards; driving more economical vehicles (or using public transportation, car-pooling, or even walking and biking); turning off the TVs and spending time with our families talking and sharing experiences; saving more of our money and spending less; and learning to say “no” not only to our kids but also to our own fancies. Admittedly, this would require a radically altered mind-set and it may be much more difficult than it sounds, but it is a matter of extreme urgency given the fact that the golfer is about to take another swing.