Selfish or sustainable: Will USA youth be willing to make lifestyle sacrifices for the greater good?
Updated: Aug 26, 2021
The US is often criticized for its promotion of a high-consumption lifestyle. Rightly so, as they constitute 5% of the world’s population but consume 24% of the world’s energy. With population only expected to increase, it's clear that in no way, shape or form is the US a sustainable country. The question that many are asking now is whether the younger generations are willing to accept a less complex life with lower levels of consumption of energy, goods and resources in order to become sustainable and adapt to the changing climate. Will the US youth be able to create their own new version of the ideal American lifestyle?
The culture in the US is largely driven by consumerism and materialistic ideals. Most of “Generation Z” has grown up the American way: in a 2,600 square foot home with multiple cars and an Amazon Prime subscription. Success is still measured by how much money you make and what extravagant ways you can spend it. But this newest generation has also grown up with the climate crisis looming over their heads in a way that no other generation has experienced. It is no longer an issue that can be pushed back for another decade. It is here now, and the US youth can feel it weighing on their shoulders. Many are frustrated and angry at the lack of action by the current leaders; “You had a future, and so should we” is a common chant by youths at climate protests. It is clear that this generation has no interest in maintaining the status quo, what is unclear is if this will translate over to widespread lifestyle changes.
Creating a more sustainable version of the US and preventing further strides towards a hot-house Earth will require both governmental change and personal sacrifice. The US youth seem to be gung ho about pushing for governmental change and action, but have less so spoken up about sacrificing certain aspects of their own lifestyles. This is more than just switching to reusable bags and buying an electric car, this is about fundamental changes to the structure of how Americans live. If everyone lived like the average American, we would need the equivalent of 4.1 earths to support that level of consumption. While there is a clear need for the government and large corporations to take responsibility for their irresponsible environmental impacts, individual actions are the main determinant of political and market forces. If the US youth want a sustainable future, then they cannot wait for the leaders of the country to pave the way. They need to begin the revolution with themselves, change how they live and lead others to follow suit.
I have noticed this disconnect between the youths awareness of environmental issues and the high impact lives they live. Many of my university friends majored in Environmental Studies and were well informed about the health of the Earth. They launched campaigns against plastic straws, fought new oil developments and always voted with the environment in mind. Yet they seemed unaware of the unsustainability of their current lifestyles. We all had individual cars, none of which were electric. We enjoyed purchasing new clothes, sometimes second hand but sometimes not. We did not grow any of our own food, relying on packaging filled grocery stores. If environmentally educated university students are overlooking their own lifestyles, then why should we think that most youth are ready and willing to make the shift away from high consumption?
It is often said that there is a lot that needs to be given up in order to become sustainable in the US. While this is true, what is often overlooked is that there is also a lot that can be gained. The typical ideal American lifestyle requires you to find a 9 to 5 job, buy a large home that will be paid off over the next 30 years and focus on upward mobility. Becoming more sustainable means that version of the dream needs to change for the next generation. Home sizes will have to become smaller, and maybe instead of a green lawn you have an organic garden. Work weeks will be shortened and more time can be spent with family and friends. Individually owned cars will be rare, but public transportation will be vastly improved. Communities will share more and be better connected with one another. This picture isn’t often painted when talking about preparing for climate change, but it should be. The younger generation needs to turn that into their new ideal way of living, and let go of some of the luxuries that older generations have held onto.
The biggest barrier between the US youth and a sustainable future is demand. This next generation needs to see lower complexity living as a way to have a more fulfilling life, otherwise they will continue to expect the same high standards as previous generations since it's the only thing they've ever known. The issue lies in the fact that most people, including the youngest generation, are not aware of this need to vastly change the way Americans live. In order to come anywhere close to beginning this transition, there needs to be widespread education and policy change. I have confidence that once the concept of simplifying our lives is properly spread and advocated for, the youths will be willing and able to take the leap.