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For the past forty years I have made my living as a consumer advocate. I have given much advice in the course of seven books, numerous magazine articles, and megabytes of Internet content on what to buy that is better for health and the environment, and where to buy it. Now, I am about to ask you to consider not being a consumer and instead reorient your life to Life.
I wish to be very clear that I am not asking you not to shop. The exchange of goods is a wonderful thing and not a problem in and of itself.
What I am inviting you to do is explore with me the idea of being a industrial consumer and reconsider whether or not you want to be one.
Our current human culture is based on the basic assumptions of industrialism. The primary motivation behind industrialism is not to fulfill human need, but rather to gain maximum profits by selling the greatest volume of goods possible to the largest number of people. That's us. We are the people to whom industry sells its products. Collectively we are known as "consumers".
Our whole lives are based around being consumers of industrial goods. Yet, at heart, we are actually beings of nature. It is natural for us to desire to nurture and protect all life, and to live in ways that continue to regenerate the natural systems that support our own lives. But we have accepted and fallen into agreement with the assumptions of industrialism that are—by their very nature and design—in conflict with nature.
The whole idea of being a consumer does not exist in Nature—it is purely a construct of the human mind. We act as we have been trained and conditioned to act in an industrial-consumer society. Virtually everyone alive today, with few exceptions, has been born and raised in the industrialized world and everything we have been taught since our first breath has been to prepare us to live in this world. It has its own artificial structure within Nature, yet follows none of Nature's ways. It has shaped every part of our lives from the food we eat to our social structures to our personal values. We readily recognize advertising jingles, for example, but can't identify birdsongs.
Because we believe our survival is dependent on succeeding in industrial-consumer world, we subjugate the needs of Nature—both within and around us—-to our own detriment. But there is another way.
Characteristics of Consumerism
I have been, for most of my life, an excellent specimen of Homo sapiens consumeris.
My dictionary defines a consumer as "one who consumes" and "one who uses a commodity or service." To consume is "to destroy or expend by use, to use up, to spend wastefully." This is the very purpose of our consumer culture: to destroy, expend, use up, and waste the resources of the Earth to satisfy the demand of consumers for more and more products. It is an acceptable activity because it fulfills the primary goal of our culture, which is to make more money so we can purchase more consumer goods.
In the mid 1990s, an article appeared in my local newspaper called "What's enough stuff?" It pointed out how, as a consuming culture, we're hooked on stuff—not even necessarily valuable stuff—just stuff. With every year that passes, it said, it takes more stuff to have enough stuff, and the frenzy is accelerating.
The way consumers measure their success is in terms of material possessions. Piles of things, therefore, make consumers feel good about themselves; having only essential necessities make them feel like a failure. Instead of accumulating only what they need, consumers are now moving into accumulating more than they need: five televisions, twenty pairs of shoes, a dozen kitchen appliances. A professor of retailing and marketing at the local junior college, who has held countless class discussions on the concept of having enough, was quoted in the article saying, "We've come to the conclusion that...what is enough is when your money runs out."
While environmental degradation has been going on in varying degrees throughout the history of the world, there has been no other time that humans have taken so many resources from the earth and created so much waste as we have since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and particularly since the creation of consumer culture.
Consumerism is not simply the act of buying things, it is a way of being. Consumerism is characterized by:
- being primarily concerned with the acquisition of material things
- having one's self-worth defined by material goods and opinion of others
- using up resources without any concern for their regeneration
- passively following the dictates of advertising, the media, and experts
- focusing on gain and comfort for oneself as being most important
- relying on others to do for you, wanting to be served -- dependance on purchased products and services because you have little skills of your own
- disrespect of Life, whether in the form of destroying ecosystems or paying good workers slave wages
We currently live in a consumer based culture that is run on these assumptions at every level. Of course, this is an extreme description and different individuals and businesses display these characteristics to a greater or lesser degree.
If this looks awful, don't worry...being a consumer is not our natural, human state. Our compulsion for consuming has been deliberately cultivated.
In the 1950s, marketing consultant Victor Lebow wrote in the New York Journal of Retailing, "Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption a way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction in consumption...We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever-growing rate." Instead of buying items that meet our needs, advertisers entice us to buy things what they want to sell. We consume because we've been conditioned by advertising to consume.
Most of us alive today were raised on this ethic—it's all we know. To be a good consumer was the lesson I learned from my parents.
When I came into the world in 1955, I was literally "born to shop." My mother owned and operated a tiny hole-in-the-wall boutique selling nylon stockings, so I had even spent my months in utero in a retail store. My nanny would bring me down to the store every afternoon to be with my mother, and my “playground” was the main shopping street in downtown Oakland, California. Whoever was watching me would take me toddling up and down the street, we would go in all the stores and try on all the hats. All the salesgirls up and down the street knew me. From birth until age three, when my mother sold her business to stay home with me and my new brother, Bradley, I spent more time in retail stores than in any other environment.
I really learned to shop from my mother. She left home before she was twenty and moved to New York City. There she had a well-paying job as a successful manager of a whole region of specialty stores selling nylon stockings. Being in a fashionable city, having her own money, she became accustomed to buying whatever she wanted, particularly stylish clothes. Quality time with my mother, therefore, was spent shopping downtown. We would go out and have lunch and buy clothes.
For my sixteenth birthday, my mother gave me a credit card at my favorite clothing store, with the advice to “make only the minimum payment and wait until the last minute before it is due so you can have the money available in the meantime.” One credit card led to another and soon I entered the precarious world of living beyond my means. But that didn’t matter because with credit, I could have instant gratification and buy impulsively as much as I wanted.
Shopping to me was love and attention. It was entertainment, it was social interaction, it was a way to see things that were new and different. When others would go to a museum, I would go to the mall. I became so immersed in consumer culture that I was thrilled that I could actually make money going shopping by becoming a consumer advocate.
By the time I was almost thirty, I had attained the childhood dreams ingrained in me by our culture. I was an accomplished young woman (a published author and entrepreneur) with a closet full of fashionable clothes and an accountant for a boyfriend. I had my own apartment in a nice neighborhood in San Francisco, ate in good restaurants, and knew how to drive my Italian sports car like it was designed to be driven. I was successful by every measure of consumerism, and enjoyed the pleasures of my lifestyle, but deep inside, I knew something was wrong.
There came a point in my work as a consumer advocate where I realized that even though I was providing valuable information about actions we could all be taking to improve our health and create a better world, there was something more that needed to be addressed. Buying nontoxic cleaning supplies and recycled paper, and turning off the lights, were all steps in the right direction, but they were not, by themselves, going to address the real problems.
Householding and Homemaking
When I first became interested in living in a way that is in harmony with nature, I looked to indigenous cultures for inspiration. There is much we can learn from native peoples about living sustainably in our places, but we can't take a giant leap back to living in such a primitive way.
Even though I could see we needed to make a change in both how we choose products, and the way we live, a basic piece of the puzzle of what we need to do to live sustainably now didn't fall into place for me until I started reading Wendell Berry, particularly his The Unsettling of America and Home Economics. Given that his writing has been motivated "by a desire to make myself responsibly at home in this world and in my native and chosen place" (a very sustainable idea), I was surprised that I had never been drawn to read his books before. The reason, I believe, is that his books are promoted as being about small-scale agriculture and preservation of the family farm, but his insights on being a consumer and keeping a household give practical guidelines for creating a sustainable home and economy.
According to Mr. Berry, a consumer buys everything they need for survival: food, water, clothing, shelter, and as a consequence, consumers need an ever-increasing, steady supply of money in order to survive. As consumers, we put our lives in the hands of those who sell the products and services we rely on because we do not produce any of our basic needs for ourselves. Our choices are dictated by advertising, salesmanship, and the amount of money we have. We think we gain convenience and leisure, but in the process we forfeit our creativity, our individuality, our ability to fend for ourselves, our human relationships, and our connection with the source of our sustenance.
The whole idea of consumerism is disconnected from and therefore destructive of natural ecosystems. For a consumer, domestic labor consists of buying things, putting them away, and throwing things away; if they can manage it, all domestic work is done by someone else. Consumers need instant gratification and often live on credit. It's a vicious trap that depletes financial, human, and environmental resources. In many ways our environmental crisis is fundamentally similar to our consumer credit-based culture; we are living beyond our means "eco"nomically--both financially and environmentally.
What we have lost in becoming consumers is the art of homemaking. Mr. Berry points out that, in contrast to consumers, homemakers or householders (and I don't mean to suggest that only women can be homemakers here) are in some way producers as well as users, providing some of their own needs out of their own resources, skills, and imagination.
While homemakers do buy things, there's a better balance of contributing as well as taking. In learning domestic skills of cooking, gardening, sewing, building, home remedies and personal health care, householders become more able, valuable, self-responsible human beings providing the basic necessities of life, with something to give to others and the earth.
Instead of being dependent on consuming, householders take pleasure in creating. Households can be places to grow and prepare food, create energy, work, socialize, learn, heal, amuse ourselves, our families and friends. These activities can be more meaningful and satisfying than working away from home all day to indulge in consumer luxuries like the latest fashions and new espresso machines.
In our consumer culture that values money to buy consumer goods over all, the basic skills required to sustain our home life have been undervalued in favor of skills that can be marketed outside of the home for money. As a result, we spend our time pursuing money instead of creating a nurturing home. Our success is measured in dollars, rather than quality of life. For us to live sustainably in our places, we need to restore the value of caring for ourselves, our families, our communities, and the earth—at home.
Shopping for Sustenance
Belonging hand-in-hand with householding is the concept of sustenance. Sustenance is, according to my dictionary, a "means of sustaining life, nourishment"; it is that which sustains us. Just as we need to learn how we need to behave to sustain the earth, we also need to learn how to behave to sustain ourselves. By being consumers—destroying, using up, and spending wastefully—we cannot even begin to hope to sustain ourselves or the earth.
In our consumer culture, we sacrifice our sustenance for a fantasy of material fulfillment. Whatever it is we hope to gain by eating packaged foods, wearing the latest fashion, and buying electronic gadgets cannot satisfy the emptiness we have inside when we give up the purity of our air and water, our forests, and biological diversity in exchange. It's having real sustenance in our lives that makes us feel fulfilled and brings us happiness. Consumerism makes us pursue more and more "luxuries" when we lack our basic necessities.
Our needs for sustenance are basic and simple. We need clean air, clean water, fertile land, fresh wholesome food simply prepared, practical and attractive clothing, shelter that is appropriate to where we live and what we do at home, meaningful and profitable work, creative expression, loving relationships, participation in community, intellectual stimulation, spiritual growth, and probably a few other things I haven't thought of yet. Consumer culture does not provide for our basic needs. But we can provide these things for ourselves through the choices we make every day.
I'm not suggesting that we give up shopping entirely, nor do I expect that everyone will suddenly switch from being a consumer to a sustainable householder—that's just not practical. We are all enmeshed in consumer culture, and to live in ways that regenerate and sustain life we will need to create new choices and new systems that support those choices. Meanwhile, though there are many things we can do to start making the shift away from being rampant consumers to providing for our needs in a thoughtful, responsible way. Here are some basic principles that I apply in my own life:
- Evaluate what your real needs are. Choose which material possessions you choose to purchase based on your own human necessities and responsibilities to life, rather than advertising and cultural conditioning. There's no need for deprivation, but do eliminate waste.
- Purchase products most important to sustaining your life first. Nourishing food is necessary to sustaining life; candy is not. Clothing is necessary for warmth and protection of your body; the latest fashion is not. Clean water is necessary to sustain the life of your body; soda is not. Identify what you need to purchase to sustain your life and make those purchases first.
- If you can make it yourself, make it yourself. Wendell Berry says "find the shortest, simplest way between the earth, the hands, and the mouth." Many products we use daily are consumables—products we use up completely—that can easily be made at home. These could include cooking at home from fresh ingredients, using simple substances such as baking soda and vinegar to clean, controlling pests by natural means, and using natural home remedies. Even though we purchase the raw materials, we save money and get to use our own creativity and skills.
- Buy a local product from a local business. This may be easier said than done, but I've found that if you make a decision to do this, you begin to find local products and services that are not immediately obvious. We like to shop at craft fairs, farmers markets, and local businesses. We recently discovered a new butcher shop that sells fresh organic meat and poultry, wrapped in paper instead of plastic, and they make their own nitrate-free sausages. And the prices are only a fraction higher than the supermarket. If you look, you may be surprised at what you find. In my own community there are quite a few, but I've found most people don't know about them and they don't know about each other!
- Purchase green products. These are nontoxic, natural, earthwise, and fair-traded—having greater social and environmental benefits than most products. Even though these products come from places beyond your local area, these businesses need to be supported in order to expand the marketplace for green goods.
Unless, as a society, we dramatically change our way of life, there will always be a need for commerce, manufacturing, and trade. Humans have been making everyday necessities and luxuries and trading them for centuries. Commerce is completely different from industrialism. Commerce is about an interchange of ideas, opinions, or sentiments and the exchange or buying and selling of goods. We can certainly have commerce without being consumers, as we all work together to provide for all and sustain the Earth as well.
Imagine that you are living in a village in an ecosystem, prior to industrialization. There are no supermarkets to buy food or other stores to buy anything else. There is just you, other members of your tribe, and the land. Yet you need food, clothing and shelter. How do you get it? By using the available resources and your own skill. But there's no need for each individual to have every skill. You might be better at building huts while your neighbor might be better at preparing food. Everyone does what they do best and then trade with each other. That's commerce, only now we use money for exchange. And that's sustainable. It's part of life. Each organism has it's own job and contributes to the whole of life.
Consumerism starts with machines, not human need. It starts with someone building a factory and saying "how do we keep these machines running to create more and more profit?" It's about getting people to buy products they don't even need, and reducing their ability to produce for themselves so they become dependent on the creations of the company.
Being customers of commerce is a good sustainable activity. Being consumers of industrialization is not.
Being human is different from being a consumer. As human beings, we are made up of spirit, mind, and body, so there is more to us than simply the physical. From my own observation, some of the characteristics of being human are:
- being primarily concerned with spiritual satisfaction and ethical living. This doesn't mean no interest or value of the material, but it means having some perspective that there is more to life than mass accumulation of stuff. Values -- including beauty and social and environmental effects -- play an important part in material choices.
- self-worth defined by self instead of others
- using resources with an awareness of their source and a respect for their continued regeneration
- being self-determined, observing and thinking for oneself, making one's own decisions
- awareness that one is an individual, but that one lives within community and the world at large (both human and other-than-human), and that one's well-being includes the well-being of all
- relying on yourself as able and skilled, wanting to do for yourself and others, irrepressible joy of creativity, wanting to both serve and be served
- respect for all life, including sustaining both ecosystems and humans
As human beings, we naturally have virtues that are uncommon in our society: self-restraint, thrift, frugality, nurturing, prudence, wisdom, responsibility, an appreciation of quality over quantity, cooperative relationships, creativity, commitment, and love. These are abilities of the spirit that are available to everyone.
As I have becoming more aware of myself as a being of spirit, it has become easier and easier to live outside of consumer culture. It's just no longer important to me to have more things than I need for my work, or to wear the latest fashion. I can make decisions about my life based on my own values. Pursuing spirituality instead of shopping has been the path out of consumerism for me.
I experience my everyday life from the viewpoint of a spirit being living in the world of physical, biological Earth. Our nature as spiritual beings is to create. It is our joy to bring life into being. In times past, we humans spent our time creating the stuff of our daily lives—growing food, baking bread, weaving clothes. All life was supported by local ecosystems. Natural resources were made into useful life-enhancing products by the people who lived in those ecosystems just as a bird builds its nest from materials at hand.
The saddest part about industrialism to me is that after just over a hundred years of industrialism, today we have lost our role as creators, our skills of creation, and our connection to the source in nature of the materials of our daily lives. As a species, we have largely forfeited our self-determinism to survive and are now dependent on multinational corporations to create our world and sustain our bodies.
The overconsumption of consumerism arises from the need to fill an internal emptiness with something. The only antidote I know is spirit. My experience is that when one becomes aware they are a spiritual being, that emptiness is filled, and one can then act in the world as a creative healing force instead of a voracious vacuum.
One morning I was out in my garden picking tangerines. The tree was covered with an abundance of ripe, sweet, juicy fruits. I had such a joyful feeling that I had so many more than I could possibly need or even use. I began to think about how I could give them away to people who would appreciate them. This is one aspect of life as an aware spirit—to experience so much abundance that we can give to others without any lack for ourselves. Wouldn't that be a wonderful world? Everybody experiencing so much fullness of love and life that we were all looking to give to each other?
I've learned that our own intention is stronger than any condition in life. We can create our own lives and the world in any way we choose. We don't have to be consumers—we have the power in our own hands and hearts to make our lives and our world as we choose.