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Nepal Semester Student's Catherine Von Holt's photograph of the Boudhanath Stupa in Kathmandu.

International Development and Global Citizenship Course: Consumerism Confusion

“If we understand humanity, however, as the beloved creation of Gaia, born for an evolutionary purpose, then we could no more say she will be fine without humans as we could say a mother will be fine if she loses her child,” states Charles Eisenstein in “Initiation into a Living Planet” (Eisenstein, 2018). This impassioned attempt to highlight the necessity of every single organism on this planet we call home, including humans, reaches far away from the current reality of Western society where consumption, greed, production, and progress assume most priorities. The institutional conditioning of greed and consumption within my life makes humanity seem anything but a beloved creation, born for an evolutionary purpose. A parasite may sound closer to the current truth. Yet while Eisenstein’s claim seems like a dream, it is an idea that gives me hope and perpetuates my motivation to understand my place and my being in this complex system. Understanding my purpose on this huge planet, and how my one tiny cell can contribute to the health of this organism called Earth, continually challenges and confuses me to adapt and reject Western society’s ideals around consumption, progress, and development. The excessive consumption and greed that occupies Western society and my upbringing continues to play a strong role in my life and thoughts as I struggle to find alternatives and different perspectives to living and contributing to the evolutionary purpose that Eisenstein theorizes.

Before discussing the role of consumption and possession in my life and the alternative ways of living, it is pertinent to address why these concepts contain such a negative connotation. Consumption on a very simple, basic level is necessary for everyone. Without the concept of consumption, we would probably not survive very long. There are things we need in life and that is not a negative concept at all, however, when need turns to greed, that is when consumption begins to have major consequences. In my background, where scarcity and environmentalism were incredibly valued concepts, greedy consumption is accompanied by overwhelming guilt. Yet, this guilt appears inescapable due to the lack of alternative lifestyles within Western society. I grew up knowing that my daily actions, such as driving a car to school or taking a long shower, had consequences for the earth and everyone/everything living on it, but I was not provided the courage to change my lifestyle. The mob mentality, that instead of acting rationally I followed the herd, played a huge role in my life. This thus brings into question whether guilt is a useful motivator. While guilt can be a strong emotional feeling, I think it is often overridden by the mob mentality. Even if what I am doing is wrong, everyone else is doing it too, so how bad can my actions really be? Growing up, through the attachment to environmentalism and a guilt-driven education about scarcity, I have come to think of consumption as a relatively negative concept, especially as it is practiced in Western society.

However, like many others, I have attempted to escape the guilt of consumption and greed through complacency and oversimplification. Opposed to analyzing the entire complexity of greed and consumption in my life, I tend to focus on the few aspects in which my consumption or greed is less than the average consumer of Western society. This can be exemplified through my vegan diet or my bicycle rides to campus in the snow. I choose to focus on the few ways I am reducing my consumption in honor of environmentalism, allowing myself to think that I have eluded the guilt and the problem of consumption. My idea of success for avoiding excessive consumption is in terms of comparison and competition. At least my lifestyle is not as damaging as an average middle-class citizen of Colorado. Yet, this analysis avoids the real complexity of consumption in Western society. By comparing myself to a group of people who are the highest consumers world-wide, I am hiding myself from a more accurate representation of the greed in my life.

Within this idea of my ability to hide from guilt and persuade myself of my minimalist contribution to environmentalism, lies a huge privilege. A privilege of resources and lack of scarcity, which allows me to pick and choose which aspects of consumerism I want to take part in or avoid. Due to my resources, I am able to pick up my Osprey backpack, North Face sleeping bag, and Patagonia fleece, and drive a few hours in my car to a nearby national park in order to enjoy the minimalist lifestyle of a backpacker for a few days. I am able to seek out when and in what ways I want to consume, while still providing myself with the self-delusion that I am consuming less, being less greedy, and being environmentally friendly. The fact is that money, possessions, and consumption all currently play a role in my happiness, whether I choose to recognize that or not. Whether or not this has to be the case, I am unsure. I do not know whether consumption and happiness have to correlate to each other. It just feels naive and privileged for me to pretend that I would be just as happy without my possessions, money, and consumption after continually reaping the benefits from them. On the other hand, there are definitely limits on consumption culture impacting quality of life in a positive way. Once consumption interrupts or interferes with our ability to connect with ourselves and our relationships with other living things, there begins to be a negative impact on quality of life. I like to think that I use consumption culture to enhance my ability to connect with myself or other living things, but the more I analyze it, the more unsure I am of how my possessions and money contribute to my quality of life.

Although Western society creates a veil between consumers and product manufacturing in a lot of ways, the first step to understanding the roots of my consumption is to investigate the birthplace of my possessions. One of my possessions, a Melanzana beanie, seems to have a relatively open production process at first glance. Melanzana is a Leadville, Colorado based company that makes all of its products in the U.S.A., starting in a Tennessee fabric mill then moving to their store in Leadville, where the fabric is sewed into products and sold (Melanzana, 2018). While this may seem as if the entire process is done in the U.S.A., I still have no idea where the material comes from before arriving at the Tennessee mill and what global consequences there are. Interestingly enough, Melanzana maintains low levels of production through their dedication to create a “supportive and healthy family workplace” (Melanzana, 2018). They only sell their products in the store in Leadville, refusing to take online orders, creating a scarcity for a lot of their products. Many times throughout the year, certain products are out of stock and consumers have to wait months for the opportunity to buy what they want. This business model seems to reject greed and money, as the owners seem content without scaling their company to its full potential for production and consumption.

Another one of my highly-valued possessions, a North Face sleeping bag, has even more complicated origins. The North Face launched the Responsible Down Standard with a global non-profit called Textile Exchange to ensure that all of their down products were made in consideration of animal welfare. The standard ensures that the company’s suppliers of goose down maintain that the animals are not “subjected to any unnecessary harm,” which obviously sounds alarmingly subjective (The North Face, 2019). Apparently, however, goose down is considered a waste byproduct, since geese and ducks are raised for their meat, making their feathers a convenient byproduct for companies like The North Face (Gunther, 2014). All of this highlights the complex controversy within just one ingredient of my sleeping bag, making it doubtful that I will ever fully understand the complexity and consequences of my possessions.

Moving forward, I have absolutely no idea what role consumerism should play in my life, but I am glad that I am thinking about it. I think I believe that even small splashes can have big ripples. And the fact that I am asking these questions, can mean that the rest of Western society can begin to do the same. Change begins with questions, with hesitation of routine, and with new perspectives. Yet I do not know what change I want or what change Eisenstein would envision for humanity to help take care of Mother Earth. Everything I seem to say or do seems problematic at this point, but according to Eisenstein and everyone else, it is still pertinent that I be here. I do not think I believe that I will ever get to a point where my consumption does not have negative consequences for other living things around me, whether that is people, natural resources, or anything else. And I do not know how to come to terms with that, without ignoring it or creating a wall of self-delusion.

References

Eisenstein, C. (2018). Initiation into a Living Planet (Publication).

Gunther, M. (2014, August 27). Down smackdown: The North Face v Patagonia on ethical feather standards. Retrieved February 27, 2019, from https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2014/aug/27/goose-feather-down-live-pluck-outerwear-clothing-north-face-patagonia

Melanzana. (2018). How it’s made. Retrieved February 27, 2019, from https://melanzana.com/about/how-its-made/

The North Face. (2019). Responsible Down Standard. Retrieved February 27, 2019, from https://www.thenorthface.com/about-us/responsibility/product/down-standard.html