I had the unfortunate experience last week of having to go shopping. Not “holiday” shopping, just the usual stuff. Lamentably, I could not delay the trip until after the shopping craze associated with Christmas. So I wound up in stores that were just piled with all kinds of things marketed as “gifts”. I wound up being reminded repeatedly about just how much junk seems to be part of the American consumer lifestyle.
I have spent a fair amount of energy over the past few years changing my buying habits in order to reduce the amount of garbage I generate in my household, to reduce the distance items travel to get to me, to reduce the demand for plastics, to consider the environmental and social impact of every purchase I make. This is a spiritual discipline for me. I seek to preserve and honor my beloved Mother Earth. I seek to channel my dollars away from companies and governments that I believe do harm to people and to the Earth.
As a result of this priority, I have become somewhat of an oddity (well, even more than I always was, to be honest). I generate approximately one small bag of garbage, maybe about 1 or 2 cubic feet, per month. (When my compost gets hot enough to deal with animal waste, and the cat litter can be composted, I will go to almost zero garbage). I reuse things until they fall apart, even if they are supposedly disposable. I use rags instead of paper towels, cloth totes instead of grocery sacks, canning jars instead of plastic vacuum sealer bags, rechargeable batteries in all my small electrics. You get the idea.
I’ve become very aware of packaging, and its environmental impact. I work very hard to avoid buying anything that comes in multiple layers of unnecessary and nonreuseable packaging. Have you ever noticed how difficult it can be to open items that are enclosed in multiple layers of cardboard, plastic, packing foam, etc? When you’re done, you have one little object and about a mountain of material that is mostly garbage and a little bit of recyclable paper or cardboard (the plastic mostly is not recycled, even when “They” tell you it will be). The places I avoid buying from on humanitarian/political grounds, like China, are among the worst for this. I would imagine it’s because getting cheap plastic crap all the way to the other side of the planet without breakage requires absurd over-packaging.
So, anyway…back to walking through shopping hell last week. One of the items that seems incredibly popular is the automatic drink machine that makes coffee, tea, or whatever, from individual little plastic and tinfoil cartridges. I have a lover who has one of these, and I’ve used it when staying at his place because I’m addicted to the taste and smell of coffee in the morning and that’s the only option he has. But every time I pop one of those things into the machine, I take out the previous one and throw it in the trash, and I am appalled. These things are the adult equivalent of disposable diapers – completely unnecessary, going into the landfills at ridiculous rates, made completely of materials that are petrochemical based and nonrecyclable. They are one of the worst examples of which I can think of the completely cavalier way in which we use our resources and pollute our earth. After seeing the veritable mountains of these cartridges piled up for the holiday consumers, I think I’ll just have to stop using the thing no matter how desperate I am for my java kick.
And why do we even have such, let’s face it, bizarre stuff on the market? Because every single person has the option, no, the RIGHT! to have the exact beverage of their choice. Because if I like dark roast and you like Columbian supreme, and someone else likes Kenya coffee, we each must have our own way! No compromises. After all, we are all special, and we deserve to have our own whims catered to, and that selfishness, that self-indulgence, is all we need to justify abusing the resources the Earth has offered us.
We have way too many specious conveniences in our lives. Ever since Burger King came up with the “have it your way” ad campaign when I was a kid, our society has increasingly bought into the idea that we are all special, all unique, and all have the right to express our uniqueness with completely trivial consumer choices. We have so many “conveniences” available, and so very many choices. We can, if we choose, not only have every member of the household have their very own coffee flavor, but we can buy prepackaged foods in single servings so everyone can eat their very own menu right at home! Every piece of electronics I own allows me to completely customize its “look” – which allows me to adapt to my unique needs in terms of which information I access and so forth, but also includes having a purple skin on the phone because, hey, purple is my color. Ringtones, bumper stickers, bling….all essentially trivial, and all there to give me a comforting sense of my own invincible uniqueness.
But the things that make me unique and beautiful have nothing to do with what flavor of coffee I like or what color skin my phone wears. It is the combination of my skills, experiences, and talents that make me wonderful. And I fear that all this cheap plastic crap masquerading as personal expression detracts from people’s ability to value themselves.
So many of the conveniences of our contemporary American life prevent us from needing actual skills and knowledge. Eating processed cheese food product in prepackaged individual slices (talk about a packaging nightmare) requires no effort at all. Slicing cheese, only a tiny bit more, but it would require one to have a knife and maybe even to know how to sharpen it now and then. Making cheese….well, that requires a knowledge of chemistry and microbiology and of cooking techniques that go far beyond hitting “start” on the microwave. Anything that is made to be easy for us removes challenges – that’s a tautology.
I believe it’s in being challenged, though, that we learn to enjoy and respect ourselves. Developing skills and applying them to solving our day-to-day problems helps us build a sense of our own competence, our ability to triumph in the face of difficulties. Confident people are embedded in a healthy way in their lives. Competent people truly have something to offer themselves, their families, and their communities. They believe in themselves. They have tools for handling new situations. They know how to fail, because no one develops skills and knowledge without the occasional failure. They know they don’t control everything, that nature and physics and so forth set the rules, and that if we do not dance in balance with those rules our projects won’t succeed. They are accustomed to somewhat capricious changes in plan imposed by external circumstances, and learn adaptability and the ability to regroup with a modified plan. They learn that there is more than one approach to any problem, and they learn to value the perspectives and teachings of others. They learn that their actions create outcomes, both immediately and further down the road. They develop self-responsibility and a commitment to their visions for themselves and their world.
We have lost so many of these attributes in our “have it your way” world. People who are products of our convenience culture, who have learned to define their specialness only in terms of their superficial consumer choices, never get to learn and experience all these strengths. They become less competent, less embedded in meaningful activity, less adaptable. In a very real and very sad way, they become less special, rather than more. Having been taught from early childhood that they are defined by cheap plastic crap and coffee flavors and which fast food chain is theirs, they have no concept of who they are, what their true purpose in this life might be. They have time to sit watching TV because everything is convenient, so they can absorb even more propaganda about how the real difference between them and others is the flavor of creamer they use. And they never develop the ability to cope with challenges. When or if they figure out, ultimately, that they are not that special, that the world was lying to them when it said they could have it their way without working or learning – then what? Self destructive over-indulgence? Extremism in the name of some sort of dogma, religious or political? Nihilistic rage?