Tuesday, June 23, 2009


I am 63 years old. That makes me one of the oldest Baby Boomers in the U.S. I am young enough to have been spared the deprivations of the Great Depression and the horrors of World War II. I grew up with the paranoia of the Red Scare and the Cold War and the turmoil of the Vietnam War. Yet, I remained conscious of an abiding truth that gave rise to an optimism completely alien to those of my parents' era--I knew that I and those of my generation were likely to thrive in terms of lifestyle beyond what they had been able to achieve and that many of the struggles they endured in attempting to secure a college education and find productive and rewarding work, wherever that might take them, would not frustrate our dreams as theirs had been. I and those of my generation were truly the first to have a chance of finding the American Dream on a wholesale level.

In my youth, I saw that opportunity coming from standing on the shoulders of my parents' relentless devotion to making that American Dream come true, not only for me but, in a small measure for themselves. They owned a very modest ranch house in a new subdivision, were able to take vacations, drive newer cars, and set some money aside for their retirement. I, on the other hand, was able, upon college graduation and securing my first job, to buy a first car and house more flashy or capacious than they were living in after a lifetime of working.

It never occurred to me that my instant success might be due to something other than my own hard work or marriage to a woman with a well-paying career of her own. I took for granted that my children would also find the American Dream as easy in the realization as in the speaking of its name. Cars would continue to grow in power, houses in the number and size of rooms. Gas would remain abundant and cheap. The air would be cleaned by mechanical and chemical catalytic methods. Electronic devices would evolve to bring us an unending string of new forms of entertainment and lower and lower prices. Freedom and equality would inevitable advance as American ingenuity brought "better living through chemistry" to all the citizens of the world. Future success must depend upon the inevitability of continuous and uninterrupted growth--in population, infrastructure, ingenuity, and, as day follows the night, consumption of cheap and abundant oil.

It has been a good life. Not luxurious but comfortable. I have experienced all of the perquisites and privileges of middle class life in the U.S. One of those was the freedom to acquire without regard for any downside. Nor did I give any thought to whether my acquisitions played any part in how happy I was on any given day. Although I felt myself to be somewhat of a skeptic when it comes to TV commercials, I never doubted that they and the programs that bookended them influenced my wants and desires. Nor did I question the fundamental premise that ownership and contentment were somehow related.

I am now retired and in chapter three of my life. My consumerism has been tempered by a flatlined income. At some point, I realized that I could be happy without a closet full of new clothes or a living room adorned with spotless furniture. I learned that downsizing my living space was not the end of world; in fact, it could be the beginning of a new, more care-free life. I downsized to save money and reduce my carbon footprint. Fifteen years ago, I had no awareness of what a carbon footprint was or why it mattered. Today, I realize that, to my children and their children, the level of CO2 in the atmosphere matters more than the status conveyed by anything they might own or, for that matter, the rate of growth of the GDP. What matters to them is not any longer their prospects of having a higher standard of living but whether they will live to retire at all. By that measure, fear of diminished prospects of wealth today or temporary tax increases or postponing gratification pales in comparison.

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