The inherent materialistic tendencies of our society are probably our biggest collective hypocrisy. It strikes me again and again how much we know, but how little we think about it. In the case of materialist culture I firmly believe that the crisis emerges from the clash between a capitalist economy along, an economic fallacy, along with its the techniques used to insure its effectiveness, and the general education of our children and youth. And in the case of my generation, consumerist psychology is winning. The stuff we surround ourselves with is a symptom of our illness, however it is also a byproduct of our systematic distraction.
I always ask myself where this need for things comes from, and like many others, I have concluded that it must stem from a some kind of a deficit elsewhere. What are we missing, that we so desperately try and replace through thoughtless consumption? Albeit, there is an Existenzminimum of things that we need as a minimum base-line for our existence, however I am constantly in awe of the amount of things many people own. In my hometown, it is not unusual for a family have 5 – 6 cars – often as many as one per family member. They put these cars in massive garages, sometimes bigger than the house itself, which in turn are filled with household items, toys, memorabilia and junk. The terrifying thing is that these people do not realize that these are things they do not need, because we are all conditioned to believe the necessity, and often even urgent of these superfluous purchases. My roommate has three different hair brushes – since one would clearly not suffice for the job, and the most recent being purchased because it was ‘in.’
My biggest personal grievance, however, are unnecessary [plastic] things. (Though this extends to different categories such as packaging as well, for the sake of this post I will stick to items.) I can’t help but tremble with rage when I see store shelves stocked with items, usually decorative, which have absolutely no utility except to temporarily fill that hole with the endorphin-rush that comes with making a purchase. I am in no sense a utilitarian, however I just simply cannot understand how people buy these things and do not realize the environmental and ethical implications of their useless purchase. Why decorate your house with little santa figurines in December, when you can have beautiful plants? Why do you need to purchase cheaply made Halloween decorations that will be thrown out and will still exist, intact, in a landfill somewhere long after your body has decomposed? When we went our for St. Patrick’s day, my friends insisted on going to the dollar store to buy shiny plastic tiaras and necklaces, and I could barely hold myself back from making bitter comments. However, I could not blame them, because they simply did not understand, or even think twice about it. What use is it to think about the vast amount of fossil fuels and resources put into the production of this one item, purchased for 99 cents, and why should anyone concern themselves with what will happen to it after they throw it out the next morning? This is deeply reflective of our collective unconscious, and our inherent laziness. In this culture of consumerism, the emphasis is on now. And since we live in a world with consistent visual stimulation overload, and are constantly assaulted by this consumerist propaganda, it is very hard to take one’s head out of the clouds and think twice.
I, myself, always insisted that I was not affected by advertising, however the effect it had on me became apparent one day I was in the drug store, buying shampoo. I simply would not buy the products I was unfamiliar with – and that is reflective of the general human psychology. We fear what we do not know, and the companies and logos we are familiar with are what we go for. Over the past years, the pre-eminence of advertising has become increasingly clear to me, especially in the years I lived in Germany, where massive, looming billboards stand in picturesque meadows on the side of the road, ominous and symbolic of what our economies have amounted to. We are assaulted every day from the streets, from our homes, from our devices and from the items we consume. This culture of advertising enters our subconscious and we often do not even realize its presence. Companies such as Google and Facebook collect data from our search histories, creating algorithms to determine with striking accuracy the ads we would be most likely to respond to. And so many people do not know, or simply write it off. I am not overly concerned with my privacy online, but what scares me the most about these data collection techniques is the extensive effort that is directed toward turning each individual into the ideal consumer, who buys consistently without questioning the necessity or quality of their purchases. Yet we are in denial. We ignore it all. We purchase, silently, obediently, and in the evening retire quietly to our TV shows. No one questions anything anymore, we just believe everything we are told, and it sickens me. I sincerely hope that we will wake up, and realize how little we truly need.
A Plea for Minimalism
An interesting book to read on our ecological footprint is a collection of writings of David Suzuki, a famous Canadian environmentalist. In 1993, he writes, each Canadian left a footprint of 8.8 hectares per year. He makes an interesting case when he discusses the danger of the attempts to assimilate the economies of developing countries, and it only takes simple math to realize that our lifestyles are unsustainable, and should not be implemented anywhere else.
It is so hard to care, it is so hard to own up and admit guilt. And the hardest thing of all – is to change one’s lifestyle. However, each and every single one of us needs to do it.
When I was 17 I started throwing out all of my things. Albeit, this was more due to an existential crisis than for environmental reasons, I firmly believe that we need much less that most of us have. And ever since I have owned less, I feel mysteriously liberated. The things that I do need take on more worth. My apartment is clean, and I live a simple life. I don’t have the urge to buy much at all, and many people comment on how little I own. However, it is logical. Do you really need 15 pairs of shoes? Don’t you already own a black top that is almost identical? Your phone works fine, is it really necessary to upgrade to the 6S? These are the questions that everyone needs to ask themselves, and with a little bit of reflection the answers become clear.
My mother had a funny reaction to this, saying that she feared I was separating myself from my life on earth, almost breaking down in tears. But actually, the reverse is true. Ever since I’ve owned less, I couldn’t be closer to the Earth, since there is less to separate myself and distract me from it. It is true that the act of throwing out my superfluous possessions was my first step in my gradual separation from society, however I do not regret it one bit.
If everyone cut the material aspects of their lives in half, their ecological footprint would be reduced drastically, and their quality of life would improve even more so, because it is not until one transfers the value they place on things onto the aspects of our life on Earth that really matter, that one begins the journey to liberation.