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Susanne Reffert | IPMU | Japan

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Scientists: Minimalists or Consumerists?

Recently, I’ve become more aware of the environmental and societal impact of mass consumption. I am examining my own lifestyle choices, but I also wonder where in the spectrum between extreme consumerism and minimalism scientists as a group are falling.
On the whole, I think most of my colleagues are far from the extreme shopping treadmill. Most of us seem to feel that there are things more important than shopping, fancy clothes or cars. I guess most of us consume less than average, but probably not out of environmental awareness, but because our minds revolve around other things. There is no peer pressure towards consumerism in our segment of society, since no one practices it. People run around in age-old saggy sweatshirts and no one cares. Social comparison is pushing us rather towards looking like it did not occur to us to brush our hair because we’ve been thinking so hard about an interesting problem than buying the latest fashion in order to keep up.
There is one notable exception to the rule, namely electronic gadgets. Most of us are a bit computer geeks. If anyone of us is seen sporting the newest fad of anything, it’s usually the newest iPhone, laptop computer or ebook reader. I am myself a little prone to this. My Macbook is very dear to me. If I go on a (non-work related) 2-day trip bringing only my iPod and not my computer, it feels like quite an achievement.
Before becoming more aware of environmental issues, I had already been drawn to a more minimalist lifestyle, since my frequent moves had amply taught me that by accumulating too much stuff I was doing myself a disservice. Plus, I like clean empty spaces and I hate wasting things.
But I realize that I need to examine my lifestyle choices even more closely. For anyone vaguely interested in the topic, I can recommend the book The Story of Stuff by Annie Leonard. It’s quite an eye-opener.
As a group, scientists are a privileged set, in the sense that we have received a lot of education. Since we cannot hide behind ignorance or claim not to grasp the environmental consequences of our lifestyle choices, I think we need to show a bit of responsibility.

I would be curious to learn from the comments how other scientists think about the matter!

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