I’m convinced that being able to recognize the difference between what I ‘need’ and what I ‘want’ is one of the major lessons I’m intended to learn in life. Necessitated by dozens of moves over the years, I’ve been forced to weed out material possessions that carry little personal significance or practical use. Those choices haven’t always been easy, of course, but I’ve found the exercise of possession-purging (repeatedly) to be very freeing.
Buddhist teachings often cite ‘craving and attachment’ as the root of all suffering, and I must admit I agree. Of course, humans also crave non-materialistic things such as sex, drugs, alcohol, fame and power, but in the USA and many emerging economies like those in the Arabian Gulf the materialistic craving for everything from the latest model electronics to cheap plastic goods appears to be insatiable.
Adopting the American model of consumption
China’s factories pump out a larger percentage of the world’s products than any other country, yet it’s authoritarian government has been consciously (and steadily) nudging the world’s 2nd largest economy toward a consumer rather than a manufacturing orientation for the past couple of decades. I would caution the Chinese government to look at the US economy’s consumption dependence—where between 60% and 70% of GDP is derived from consumer spending—and question that as a model for future sustainable prosperity.
Besides being an unsustainable economic model for the future, all that consumption and subsequent waste takes a heavy toll on the health of our planet. As the world’s population continues to grow and many cities in the developing world expand exponentially, there’s a never-ending search for landfill space. Much of the non-biodegradable plastic waste is also finding its way into our rivers, streams and oceans, making water sources undrinkable and endangering marine life.
A temporary fix
As I wrote in The Pursuit of Happiness, any satisfaction I derive from acquiring new material possessions is short-lived, so at least for me, having more ‘things’ doesn’t bring happiness. In fact, I believe the opposite can be true as possessions become a sort of anchor preventing people from making important changes in their lives. The idea of ‘retail therapy’ is no more than a temporary substitute for more deep-seeded problems.
Whenever I think of our human quest for material possessions, I’m reminded of the classic film “The Gods Must Be Crazy” which illustrates the conflicts that develop within a hunter-gatherer society when one member of the group discovers a Coke bottle and brings it back to the group’s camp. Everyone in the group covets the newly found ‘tool’ and soon feelings of envy disrupt what was previously a harmonious relationship based on equality.
While the plot is scripted, the feelings of envy for something another possesses, along with the negative societal effects, are easily recognized in many of today’s cultures. As the advertising industry makes clear, humans have a strong urge to feel they’re one step above their neighbors. Advertisers count on us making decisions based on raw emotion and impulse, rather than using sound reasoning and foresight.
Spoiled for choice!
The hypermarket phenomenon, dominated by the heavy-weights of Walmart, Tesco and Carrefour, continues to sweep across the planet as more markets develop a middle class eager to join the ranks of consumption. This is part of the ‘bigger is better’ philosophy long ago adopted by the American culture in general—bigger houses, bigger cars, bigger shopping centers, and finally, bigger people and now bigger clothing. Where does it all end?
These warehouse-style cathedrals to consumption not only occupy huge swaths of land which changes the character of neighborhoods making them more car-dependent and less pedestrian friendly, they also drive the mom and pop shops that have been around for generations out of business. This, in turn, makes the consumer more dependent on fewer companies. The business strategy for these major corporations is to drive all competition out of business, as witnessed by the current battles between Amazon and the traditional hypermarkets such as Walmart.
Then there’s the blight left behind when a super-store decides to move to a new location within a given town. These moves not only consume more land that was once used for agriculture, but the companies leave behind suburban ghettos consisting of huge abandoned buildings with acres of paved parking that can’t easily be converted to other uses. In the end, it’s a huge waste of resources and bequeaths blight and decay on these abandoned neighborhoods.
Too many mediocre choices
The biggest question that comes to mind when considering our rampant pace of consumption is this: Do we really need so many choices?
Writing for the New York Times on the issue of consumer choices, Alina Tugend offers, “Although it has long been the common wisdom in our country that there is no such thing as too many choices, as psychologists and economists study the issue, they are concluding that an overload of options may actually paralyze people or push them into decisions that are against their own best interest.” I’ve experienced these feelings of confusion and dissatisfaction many times, especially since I’ve had to adjust to the differences in products offered in many regions around the globe.
Purchasing too many plastic thingies not only demands more home storage space, but also assures the plastic thingies an eternal existence in a land fill. On the other hand, food choices pose an even more imminent threat to individual health.
As a vegetarian and someone who has a chronic digestive disorder, I understand the desire for choice, especially when it comes to food. I’ve lived in many places where my favorites (like all kinds of nut butter) were either not available or they’d been processed with so many nasty ingredients I wouldn’t buy them.
However, as a customer who believes it’s important to eat well for maintaining good health, my biggest annoyance with the modern hypermarket is the plethora of poor quality food products pushed by giant conglomerates who could care less about a consumer’s health.
Whenever I walk down the ‘cereal’ aisle in an American hypermarket, I always announce (to anyone who might be listening) that we’ve now reached the ‘sugar’ aisle. And, if the high sugar and corn-everything content in products doesn’t harm your health, then the chemical concoctions that only a scientist can pronounce surely will.
My god-daughter, who’s a chemical engineer as well as someone who tries to eat good quality food, tells me how shocked she is whenever she reads the ingredient labels on the back of many products. She notes the chemical components and then visualizes the structure of the molecule before exclaiming, “What the heck! Why are manufacturers putting that in food!” In most cases, the additives in processed food are there to allow for maximum shelf life as well as to please customer tastes, as in the case of sugar.
Changing bad habits
While healthy food movements have been taking root and bringing more consumer awareness in many countries, unfortunately many consumers have already grown addicted to sugar (guilty here) which acts on the same parts of the brain’s reward system as cocaine and heroin. Simply having more choices doesn’t add quality to your life when many of the choices are likely to assure you a seat on the diabetes train that’s been picking up speed world-wide as more cultures adopt a consumption lifestyle.
As the most human of human beings, I realize that life gets tedious and it isn’t always easy to maintain awareness of the choices we make, especially when an individual is tired and stressed at the end of a long work day. However, for the sake of personal health as well as that of our planet, we will all benefit by changing some of our (collective) bad habits as consumers.
Header Photo Credit: By Mike Mozart–Jeepers Media