I’ve never fully bought into the phrase, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Sometimes I think things just come close to killing you. But it occurs to me that the current economic conditions in the U.S. may be a case where the phrase rings true.

The percentage of the world’s natural resources the U.S. consumes is well documented. For example, from WorldWatch Institute: “The United States, with less than 5 % of the global population, uses about a quarter of the world’s fossil fuel resources—burning up nearly 25 % of the coal, 26 % of the oil, and 27 % of the world’s natural gas.” Simply stated, we consume more than others because we can; we have more money and more access.

Concerns about the effects of consumption – both globally and particularly in the US – are also well documented. Using all this oil, coal, and electricity has its impacts. The majority of scientists now agree that the current trends in climate change are not due solely to natural fluctuations but are in fact being caused by human activity. The descriptions of weather in a warmer world are frightening, and those living in poverty will suffer the most from it. Weather aside, worries about long-term sustainability are also widespread. What happens after we’ve plowed down the world’s forests? Jared Diamond had a statement about in his book “Collapse” that has stuck with me. It was something to the effect that one has to wonder what the inhabitants of Easter Island thought as they cut down the last tree. Ultimately, they consumed all of the resources they relied on and their society failed. That was many years ago – well before global warming – and we know all about it. We could learn from history, and yet…

Despite the fact that we should be paying attention to our consumption as we go about our lives in the United States, for the most part we don’t. We know greenhouse gases are choking our planet, but we keep on driving our huge cars – until gasoline gets too expensive and our ability to consume is curtailed. We buy new things not because the old ones are worn out, but because we like the new ones better – and in the process unnecessarily consume more resources. In my case, I know I should turn off the computer when I’m not using it, but it’s just so much more convenient to leave it on, so that I don’t have to wait when I want it. I know better, but I do it anyway. Why? Because I have access to electricity and the money to pay the bill. I do it because I can. And I do it because this one seemingly little thing done by one seemingly little person doesn’t seem so egregious. In the rush of days, it’s hard to believe it really matters. Grasping the impact of our consumption is difficult and unwelcome – if we think about it at all.

Which is perhaps the silver lining in the current economic situation. We’re not so good at voluntarily limiting our consumption and thus our use of natural resources. But if we have less money and therefore less ability to consume, perhaps we’ll do our planet a favor and slow down the pace at which we’re using it. Longer term, restraint might come out of memories of want, like those who survived the Great Depression. Ideally, it won’t be that bad, we’ll get used to living with less so that if feels normal, and we’ll recognize the need to save more and spend less in the future. But even if that doesn’t happen, a recession that slows consumption might buy us time to finder cleaner, more sustainable paths into the future – something that would benefit everyone. Lots of smart people are working on it. More all the time. So while the current economic envirnoment is incredibly difficult, at least it might ultimately be useful. If it doesn’t kill us, it just might make us stronger.

-Nancy Michaelis