Consumerism is killing us. This is known. The oceans are choked with plastic from billions of packages, used once and discarded. Landfills are crowded with acre upon acre of … stuff.
Our insatiable appetite for more and more stuff is not just burying the planet; it’s killing us spiritually. We know this, too. We feel in our bones that something is off about the way we live, that the pursuit of an easier, safer, more convenient life has trapped us in a cycle of work-buy-consume. Die.
We seek a deeper, more spiritually satisfying identity than “Consumer.”
It’s a struggle. We are bombarded with messages artfully crafted to stimulate our deepest brain synapses. We are literally brainwashed, constantly. And, let’s be honest — we like those nice things that make our standard of living one that the richest king of the ancient world could scarcely imagine.
It’s an old, old dilemma: Consumer goods make for a better life — until they don’t. It doesn’t take much to put our feet on a trail that leads to a dark end.
The first steel knife, the first copper kettle acquired by a First Nations people in exchange for the pelt of a lowly beaver marked an inexorable change. The Indians did not wish to become like the white men with whom they traded; they wanted to live their traditional lives — only with better tools, nicer clothes, better “stuff.” But, as they found out to their cost, it doesn’t work that way.
In Fur Fortune & Empire: The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America, Eric Jay Dolin notes that:
In effect the fur trade enabled the Indians to improve their standard of living and their status within their tribe and within the broader Indian community at little cost. The Indians’ interest in European goods, however, must not be confused with the desire to accumulate wealth or become rich… Their goals were more practical and sacred in nature. Metal hatchets, knives and kettles, as well as metal-tipped arrows fashioned from those kettles, performed better and lasted longer than the stone counterparts the Indians traditionally used…
European fabric, especially when colored red or blue, was in high demand not only because it was easily made into durable, flexible, lightweight, and relatively weatherproof clothing, but also because it was cheaper than beaver.
As an Algonquin chief told a French Jesuit:
“The Beaver does everything perfectly well — it makes kettles, hatchets, knives, bread; and, in short, it makes everything.”
The First Nations people jumped in to the global economic engine of the Fur Trade enthusiastically. Far from being ecologically-attuned wood elves living in a state of nature, they quickly became commercial hunters and trappers on a vast scale.
French historian Nicolas Denys says:
“Formerly there had been little incentive for Indians to kill more than a fixed number of animals… Pre-colonial trade enforced an unintentional conservation of animal populations, a conservation that was less the result of enlightened ecological sensibility than the Indians’ limited social definition of ‘need.’”
Just like it is for us, wants soon became needs. Not only did iron arrowheads perform better than flint, once iron arrowheads became a staple, the Indians swiftly lost the knowledge and skill-base to produce flint arrowheads. There was no going back. You can’t un-bite the apple.
The scope of the First Nations’ involvement in the Fur Trade, and its ecological impact, was enormous.
Becoming locked into a dependent relationship with traders of several nations fundamentally changed the social structure, the politics, the economies, the material culture and the spiritual lives of the First Nations people. Add in alcohol and disease and the presence of a dynamic, breakout civilization that coveted their lands … they were simply doomed.
It’s fitting in a bittersweet way that the epic and genuinely heroic (and, yes, also sordid and violent) conquest of the continent by Anglo-American civilization — spearheaded by that very Fur Trade — has devolved to a landscape dominated by Amazon.com. America was ever a commercial endeavor.
It seems that we may have hit an inflection point, where the upward curve in standard of living enabled by cheap, quality consumer goods turns south, as the social, ecological and spiritual costs of producing and living and working for those goods gets higher.
Certainly it feels like something’s not quite right. All of our accumulated goods and purportedly life-enhancing technologies haven’t made us happier. In fact, they may be making us actively unhappy.
Prof. Amitai Etzioni put a sharp point on it:
What needs to be eradicated, or at least greatly tempered, is consumerism: the obsession with acquisition that has become the organizing principle of American life. This is not the same thing as capitalism, nor is it the same thing as consumption.
To explain the difference, it is useful to draw on Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs. At the bottom of this hierarchy are basic creature comforts; once these are sated, more satisfaction is drawn from affection, self-esteem and, finally, self-actualization.
As long as consumption is focused on satisfying basic human needs — safety, shelter, food, clothing, health care, education — it is not consumerism. But when, on attempts to satisfy these higher needs through the simple acquisition of goods and services, consumption turns into consumerism — and consumerism becomes a social disease.
How to stay on the right side of the consumption vs. consumerism equation?
The key seems to be de-coupling our sense of identity from our “stuff” and attaching it instead to what we do. We are not defined by the truck we drive, but by the places it takes us, the adventures it enables.
I find that if I keep my attention fixed on my passions: the outdoors; the shooting sports; history; music — and confine my “trade” to what facilitates those passions — I buy less frivolous crap, avoid getting caught up in the latest gadgetry, reduce impulse buying and I’m willing to save a little to get better quality.
Eating real food that doesn’t come in boxes and plastic packages is healthier all the way around, and I’d rather drink out of a steel water bottle than a one-off plastic bottle anyway.
I’m not trying to save the planet and I’m not winning anyone over to any ideology. I’m just trying to hold my own.
Maybe you’re thinking, ‘That’s no more than an Indian hunter trading for a better knife or an iron hatchet.’ And you’re right. I’m just trying to stick to the tools that “perform better and last longer” and stay away from the cheap mirrors and baubles and the rotgut rum and trade whiskey.
It’s the best I can do, and maybe it’s enough.