When I think about things, I tend to make overarching connections between seemingly different subjects. It’s just how my brain works. Things are often more connected than people realize, to the detriment of all of us. One subject to which I frequently find myself returning is consumerism. Yes, we all know it’s bad (to widely varying degrees I’m sure), but what I don’t think people realize is how embedded it is across so many other things in our society. Let’s say for example you declare that 80% of consumerism is frivolous and unnecessary. That has wide-reaching implications. First, that 80% is driving some subset of the economy. Without it, 80% of debatably useful economic production is lost. Now anyone who was part of that economic production is SOL for a job. What if that 80% simply never returns? What do we do with all those people disenfranchised by that loss? Do we consume simply to allow them to be economically “productive”? I say no. I say if that’s the case (and I think it increasingly is becoming the case), we need to figure out how to re-engineer our society so that those people are not disenfranchised. That’s why our system is so sick. Employing the masses to produce shitty widgets that aren’t needed is NOT a productive use of capital or resources, but the incentive structure and reward system we abide by says it is. That’s wrong. We need to find a way out of this. The way out needs to be respective of the dignity of all people.
This isn’t a knock against capitalism, and it isn’t leading into an endorsement of socialism. All econo-isms have the potential for failure and as we’ve seen over and over again, they often do. They often arise from great thinkers who nearly always had the absolute best of intentions. Marx, Smith, King and others had differing views on things, but all were trying to improve the situation of all people. The problem with all of the econo-isms, and the reason they’re all prone to failure, is that in order for any econo-cultural-ism to succeed, the entire society needs to place the values it embodies as the highest priority. We don’t have capitalism because someone stood up, declared it, and said “this is how it’s gonna be”. We have capitalism (and in particular, the nasty bastardized variety we’re stuck with today), because the cultural values we have lead to that end. On the whole, we value (implicitly or explicitly) exploitation of resources and people, environmental damage, wealth disparity and many other things wrong with our society today. If the cultural majority didn’t value those things, we wouldn’t have them. How could we? We may even realize we don’t like these things, yet they persist. They persist because we fail to think broadly, carefully and honestly enough about all of our actions. Virtually all of us are complicit in this, whether we can admit it or not. When you simply have to have a new cell phone every 2 years (or even less), you’re complicit in the exploitation of workers in Asian factories. When you insist on the availability of cheap fuel or electricity, you’re complicit in the exploitation of some environment somewhere, and likely people too. That coal, nuclear, natural gas, hydro or wind plant is in someone’s backyard. Would you feel the same if it was in yours?
I’m not immune from this. Very few (if any) people are. But until we can honestly admit our complicity to ourselves, the system will continue, wrongs and all. It’s not an easy thing to admit to either. Especially the older you are, but we have to start somewhere. And I understand that some changes simply can’t be made until a cultural critical mass is reached. For example, I hate having to drive my car. I don’t want to be burning all that fuel to go to some silly job just so I can buy more fuel, but I can’t just stop doing that. Not right now. A viable alternative does not exist for me. So we have to start with smaller things, and dismantle the cultural jenga tower we’ve created piece by piece. I’ve read a lot of stuff and listened to a lot of people talk about things like this, but my biggest complaint is that they identify the issue and then full stop. Identification is half the battle at best. Concrete solutions, or even little ideas, are the most valuable assets in this change. So here’s my idea for a first step:
Right now, we can’t really get around the fact that we need (or sometimes just want) stuff. Eliminating that need/want wholesale is just not possible right now, so I won’t suggest it. What I will suggest is that we be more conscious in our needs/wants. Hell, just identifying the difference between needs and wants would be a great start. My suggestion for being more conscious is to really think about all aspects of something you want. Let’s say I need a new frying pan for my kitchen. I go to the store…stop. Which store am I going to? Walmart? Some other bastard capitalism store? “But,” I can already hear you saying, “it’ll be cheapest there!” Well, it is and it isn’t. How are they making it so cheap? By externalizing the costs by exploiting workers, manufacturers, environment? That’s the problem we’re trying to avoid. So my solution to this situation is to ask yourself one question: Am I willing to pay for the very best (to a reasonable degree) version of this thing? If the answer to that question is ‘no’, then you need to ask yourself why you’re considering buying it in the first place. Maybe you just need to take more time and save a little extra money (and it typically is only a little bit extra), or maybe after thinking about it, you don’t really need that new thing at all.
Pausing and asking yourself this question leads to several things, all of which are good. If nothing else, and you still buy the cheapest one from walmart, at least you thought about it. Simply becoming conscious of your complicity is a HUGE step. Once you’re aware of it, you’ll find it more and more difficult to be inactive about it. It may also lead to you buying less stuff. I know I can’t afford to buy all the best of a ton of stuff, so I only buy one or two things, but I know they’re the best, manufactured reasonably, and with the least exploitation possible. I don’t really needs tons of cheap stuff anyway. Doing this also starts to turn the rudder on our massive cultural ship just a bit to realign the way our system works with the things we purport to value.
I’m calling this thing “neo-consumerism” because it still allows for consumption (something I don’t think we can avoid presently), but it allows us to use the system we already have in place. If we get out of the tough situation we’re in, and decide we want a new system (socialism, or whatever), I’m fine with that. But we’re miles down in a well right now, and we can’t just declare that we’d rather sit under a tree a hundred yards away at the surface. We’re in the well, and we need to start building the scaffolding to get ourselves out.