Breaking Free of the System
I stood in the yard realizing I’d done it again. I’d turned yard work into a mental list of things to buy. First on the list was something to kneel on while pulling weeds. Then it was surveyor tape for flagging plants. I was about to add a third thing to the list, when I finally realized what I was doing – my default response to a *need* was to buy something.
I know better than this. I teach workshops about the zero waste hierarchy. I know that our country’s waste and recycling problems are really buying problems. And yet, my first response to a perceived need was to create a list of things to buy. I shouldn’t be surprised. I’m the product of a system based on thinking this way.
The system is consumerism. In the 20th century, the US economy shifted from agriculture and industry to a consumer economy. This short article from The MIT Press Reader gives A Brief History of Consumer Culture. Quoting from William R. Leach’s book, Land of Desire, “The cardinal features of this culture were acquisition and consumption as the means of achieving happiness; the cult of the new; the democratization of desire; and money value as the predominant measure of all value in society.”
Consumer culture is complicated and infiltrates everything, including our sense of who we are. Marketing tells us we can be good-looking, happy, admired, respected, or “______________” (fill in the blank) if we buy a product. A sense of entitlement is created by telling people they deserve or have earned whatever is being sold. Influencers sell us fast fashion. Home redecoration and remodeling form an entire industry with television shows, product endorsements, and stores.
The system is maintained by peer pressure to have the latest and greatest of something and a flawed meritocracy that implies people who can’t afford to buy things must have made bad choices or didn’t work hard enough. Those who have the means but choose to limit their consumerism are joked about as frugal, penny-pinchers, out-of-date, or cheap.
Consumerism is even at play in the environmental movement. From reusable straws to electric cars, products are sold to *solve* environmental problems. Companies tout their products’ environmental qualities, sometimes to the point of green-washing. All of it is designed to help us feel like we’re doing something for the environment while still buying stuff.
Everything we buy requires materials from the planet to produce, ship, and sell it, which points to an inherent flaw in the system. Economic growth in a consumer system depends on an infinite increase in the production of goods and services from finite planetary resources. Technology and production methods may become more efficient, but there’s always a limit.
Consumerism, like other “-isms” such as racism and sexism, benefits one group over another. In the case consumerism, the ability of people who have the means to buy and consume more are valued over the needs of those who can’t buy as much, and they are valued over all other life forms on the planet. Also like the other “-isms,” the inequities and injustices of consumerism puts pressure on all of society. Today’s environmental pressures, from water shortages to climate change and micro-plastics, are symptoms of our consumer economic system.
There are other economic systems, including capitalist systems based on something other than consumption. Fortunately, many economists are working on alternative systems like ecological economics or a circular economy. I’m glad they are because I feel powerless to change the system. As I was reminded standing in the yard making a mental shopping list, I’m caught within the consumer system.
One of the gifts of the Lutheran faith tradition is the theology of both-and; we are both saint and sinner. I find this theology helpful in thinking about my role in consumerism. I’m both part of the problem and part of the solution. Since I live within a consumer economic system, I’m bound to participate in it, including the harm it causes, until a better option is available. By myself, I can never be “good enough” in my own actions to fix the problem. Trying to do so leads to environmental guilt and despair, neither of which are life-giving or problem-solving.
At the same time, it’s also not life-giving or problem-solving to deny my agency, claiming the system must change without my doing anything. I’m called by my faith to act in ways that move toward a more just way of living on this planet within the community of creation. It starts with what I experienced while doing yard work – becoming aware of consumerism’s influence on me. Awareness then leads to making intentional choices about buying things.
Regarding my yard work, I finally remembered that the most environmentally friendly item is the one I already own. I decided to rummage through the house instead of running to the store. I found a foam pad that is great for kneeling on while I pull weeds. My rag bin is overflowing, so I cut up some old ones to flag the plants. These small changes moved me up the waste hierarchy; reduced my carbon emissions by not going to the store; and decreased by at least a little bit the demand for resources from the planet.
Like the other “-isms,” consumerism has both systemic and individual components. I’m figuring out how to participate in changing the system. I listen, learn, and advocate where I can. Meanwhile, I’ll keep changing the one part of the system that I can, the individual component – me.