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American Attitudes about Materialism, Consumption and the Environment

American people apparently share the sense that something is amiss, but they do not necessarily use the word "overconsumption" to describe it. The Merck Family Fund commissioned a survey by The Harwood Group as part of a broad, long-term effort to examine patterns of consumption in the United States and the consequences of those patterns for our society and the environment. David Mermin of the Harwood Group reported on the national public opinion survey of 800 randomly selected individuals. (A more detailed treatment of the survey findings and methodology, Yearning for Balance: Views of Americans on Consumption, Materialism, and the Environment, is available under separate cover from the Merck Family Fund.) The survey revealed four overarching findings:

1. Americans believe deeply that society's priorities are out of whack. People of all backgrounds believe that materialism, greed, and selfishness increasingly dominate American public life and the private lives of individuals. These forces are crowding out a more meaningful set of values centered on family, responsibility, and community. People do not want to repudiate material gain, but they want a greater sense of balance in their lives. The survey also revealed that many people believe that their closely held values - responsibility, family life, and friendship - are at odds with those of other Americans. Eighty-five percent of those surveyed rate these values extremely high, but fewer than half believe "most people in our society" rate these values equally high.

2. Americans are deeply concerned about their future. The American Dream is increasingly defined by purchasing, material gain, and by "keeping up with the Joneses" rather than by a sense of opportunity. Americans see this as unhealthy and destructive. The children absorb the lessons of their consumer culture: 86 percent of respondents said that "Today's youth are too focused on buying and consuming things," and 58 percent describe most American children as "very materialistic." Harwood noted that people worry that if we do not change course, social conditions will continue to worsen, and our children and future generations will bear the burden.

3. People are ambivalent about making changes in their lives and in our society. Survey results showed that Americans want financial security and comfort, but they also hold deep nonmaterial aspirations for themselves and their country. Eighty-two percent of Americans agree that "most of us buy and consume far more than we need. It's wasteful." Yet they struggle to reconcile the need for changes in themselves and others with their core belief in freedom to live as we choose.

4. Americans associate the environment with these concerns, but in a general way. People have an intuitive sense that our propensity to want "more and more" is unsustainable. Eighty-eight percent of those surveyed believe "protecting the environment will require most of us to make major changes in the way we live."

With such concerns in mind, the conference participants began to address some difficult yet essential questions. Is it time to think about a new American Dream based not on consumerism but on a better quality of life? What changes are required for such a shift to occur?

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