Let the Consumer Beware, Part 1

June 26th, 2006  |  Published in Consumerism, Culture, Essays  |  5 Comments

By Joshua Sowin

Civilization is a limitless multiplication
of unnecessary necessaries.
Mark Twain

It is a curiosity of the modern world that intelligent people would embrace the label “consumers.” Perhaps it is because, deep down, we know that is exactly what are. We consume. Our entire lives consist of this.

Our habits, in other words, are comparable to parasites. A parasite lives off a host while contributing nothing beneficial. We despise them for their lack of contribution. This is also why it is not a compliment to be called a parasite—or a consumer. Yet most of us live like parasites. We purchase, acquire, hoard; consume, throw away, destroy. We receive but do not give back. We do not ask the questions we should, such as: Where do these materials come from? How are they extracted? How does their extraction and use affect us and our environment? How much is left? How much is required for our affluent lives? How much does a person need? Do we have a responsibility to conserve? To produce? How are our lives contributing to this lifestyle and economy? How are our jobs?

Yes, what about our jobs? Here I am writing about how we are parasites, yet we spend much of our waking time working. Doesn’t that count for something? Unfortunately, not often. What do we produce at work? Very little anyone needs, and even less of quality. In fact, few of us actually produce anything whole or meaningful. Instead, we move information on flickering screens under artificial lighting in small cages for a specified number of hours a week. And this often results in far more consumption than production: we consume fuel to get to work, consume packaged foods for lunch, consume energy at the computer. We do this because of our fear and hatred for work—hard work. Work with our hands and bodies; work that we are clearly made for. We want to be free from that, and our modern economy is the result.

Anything that might qualify for “produce” we usually have little hand in making. We might design the packaging, or create copy for an advertisement, or send an email request for manufacturing. However, few of us actually produce something whole—something meaningful—during our workday. It bares no relation to our lives, our family, our region, our religion. It does not improve the world we live in. We only do it for money. We do it to spend. We do it to purchase meaningless luxuries. Worse, we spend more than our income so we have to borrow, thus putting ourselves in financial danger if we lose our jobs—and keeps us locked into a job that pays a certain amount. We become dependent, confused hamsters spinning on a wheel so long we forget there is another way of living. A better way of living. A simpler way of living.

So we consume at home, and consume at work. This is not surprising, of course, since our entire economy is based upon the principal of maximum consumption. There was a time when economy (in the sense of frugality) was a virtue. There was a time when our government encouraged citizens to be independent, economical, and productive at home. For instance, in 1914, the Smith-Lever Act created a program “in order to aid in diffusing among the people … useful and practical information on subjects relating to agriculture and home economics, and to encourage the application of the same….”1 The government now has little interest in teaching thrift, agriculture or home economics. Teaching such subjects would mean drastic reduction in spending and consumption, which would reduce tax from sales; reduction of spending would lead citizens to be less concerned with high-paying jobs, which would reduce income taxes. It would, in short, cause a mess of our current government and economy. The government would be forced to reduce itself—something it has been unable to do on its own. And wouldn’t a smaller government be an encouraging thought?

Freedom

Liberty is one of the cornerstone beliefs of our country. We cherish liberty and demand our rights of freedom. The Declaration of Independence says it like this:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Our country was founded upon this principal. One of the main reasons for the existence of government—according to the above declaration—is to secure the rights of citizens. But now the citizens are limiting their own freedoms and the government is only encouraging it. We love to tout our freedom, yet it grows smaller, through our dependence on corporations and foreign imports. Wendell Berry argues:

A person dependent on somebody else for everything from potatoes to opinions may declare that he is a free man, and his government may issue a certificate granting him his freedom, but he will not be free. He is that variety of specialist known as a consumer, which means that he is the abject dependent of producers. How can he be free if he can do nothing for himself? What is the First Amendment to him whose mouth is stuck to the tit of the “affluent society”? Men are free precisely to the extent that they are equal to their own needs. The most able are the most free.2

Many do not know they are enslaved, to the profit of Corporate America. We have become dependent for so long that it seems natural—many of us have grown up in a world of dependence on energy, packaged goods, and superstores. This dependence seems like freedom—freedom from having to do anything ourselves, which is more like the kind of freedom of Brave New World, and less like the kind the Declaration of Independence speaks of.

When a bird is placed in captivity from birth, it finds it perfectly normal to do nothing for its own survival. Its only work is to sing and look beautiful—it is, in a sense, employed as an entertainer. Instead of being paid in money, it is paid in food, toys, and affection. But a wild bird would quickly realize that a caged life is not an independent life. It is not a natural life. It is not a life of liberty. And this dependence can have tragic consequences: When the owner goes on holiday for a week and forgets about the bird, the bird dies. If the bird is released into the wild, it does not know how to look for food or fend for itself, and often dies.

In many ways, we are like caged birds. Corporations and government are the owners. We work for them and depend on them. It feels normal and free to do nothing for our own survival—we do what we are told and we usually get paid enough to purchase necessaries and luxuries. We learn our specialty and know little else. But when one is completely dependent that means they are not independent. Perhaps a hypothetical situation will make this even clearer.

An Example of Dependence

Let us imagine that it is winter in New York City. The electric and gas companies have shut down, perhaps from terrorism or computer bugs or mechanical error or human error. How would the busy, luxury-loving, condo-living New Yorker warm, feed, and clothe himself and his family? He would quickly see how dependent he is. He probably does not even have a fireplace to warm himself much less a wood stove to cook food. Even if he does, it is unlikely that firewood would be affordable due to the sudden increase in demand.

Or, let us say someone pushes the wrong button and the wrong chemicals are applied to crops or livestock feed on a massive level. Or, something goes wrong with the trucking industry and food cannot be transported long distance. Or, there is a shortage of oil so the farm machinery shuts down. Or, there is a drought where our crops are grown. All are possible. Suddenly, the grocer has little food to sell. Supply is down, demand is high—prices skyrocket for what little is around. What will the unprepared urban dweller eat? He does not know how to grow his own food. He does not have land to raise animals. Regardless, he would not have time to do so. He is completely dependent on outside resources, and, faced with a crisis, he quickly sees his enslavement. But by then it is too late.

Compare this sad state of affairs with a family who owns a bit of land containing a kitchen garden, a woodlot, and livestock. If the electricity or gas is shut off, the family remains warm and fed. They have a woodlot with a virtually endless supply of fuel for heat and cooking, if well-managed. While the city people have trouble finding food, this family not only has food to eat but also to sell or give away to help feed others. Vegetables, meat, bread, eggs, butter, cheese, milk—they are all theirs. This family does not merely consume—they produce. They replenish. If their neighbors also do this, they can trade when one is low on supplies. Their work has meaning and they “profit” from it daily. They are not enslaved to large corporations for food, and live very well without them. It is no wonder that Thomas Jefferson called the small landowners “the most precious part of a state.” We see the wisdom and mercy of God through the biblical exhortation to “aspire to live quietly, … to work with your hands … so that you may live properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one.” (1 Thessalonians 4:11-12, my emphasis).

The urban dweller with no garden or land or fireplace, however, has not followed this wisdom. He now faces hunger, cold, and poverty. In order to survive, he must move from a dependence on corporations to dependence on governmental programs like welfare and unemployment, and be a burden to society. Which one is better?

I am not suggesting by this example that every person should become a farmer. I am suggesting, however, that we need more producers at the local level. The examples I used are threats because of our dependence on large corporations that pressure farmers to grow huge monoculture crops that are unhealthy and unsustainable long-term. These crops are transported all through the country through the trucking industry, which is in reliant on foreign oil. If people purchased goods from small local farmers instead, then the situations I outlined above would not be possible—or at least if they were, they would be less damaging because each community would be sustainable. For a country obsessed with “home security” we do not seem very concerned with our dependence on foreign oil and imports. For instance, if we had to set up a blockade on foreign imports, could we really do it? Without middle-eastern oil, our economy would collapse.

Obviously, this is not something that can wait to be remedied until a crisis happens (and they always happen). By then it will be too late. The demand of land, food, wood stoves and firewood will skyrocket and the one who is not prepared will likely be reduced to poverty.

Go to the ant, O sluggard;
     consider her ways, and be wise.
Without having any chief,
     officer, or ruler,
she prepares her bread in summer
     and gathers her food in harvest.
How long will you lie there, O sluggard?
     When will you arise from your sleep?
A little sleep, a little slumber,
     a little folding of the hands to rest,
and poverty will come upon you like a robber,
     and want like an armed man.
(Proverbs 6:6-11)

We need people willing to establish and support local economies. We need farmers, craftsmen, small business owners, bankers, etc. in every town. Each community needs to be self-sustaining—goods should be sold first to locals and then surpluses can be exported. We need loyal local citizens to purchase from local suppliers. Then communities and people will have more independence and interdependence, and we will have sustainable communities—and therefore better “home security.”

I am not meaning to imply that all dependence is bad. Dependence can be a good thing, but we must be dependent on the proper things. Dependence for the essentials of life (food, clothing, etc.) on corporations or government is bad. On the other hand, dependence on a government for defense and to ensure the rights of citizens is proper. Dependence itself is not wrong—we are part of the Creation, and thus fit into its mystery of interdependence and are dependent on it. That is the way God has wisely and gloriously made the earth. To ignore our continuous dependence on it, and destroy it, is to destroy ourselves. It is suicidal.

Who Owns the Earth?

Who owns the earth? The one who created it. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein” (Psalm 24:1). The earth does not belong to us. We do not own it. It belongs to God. God created the earth, and it gave (and gives) him pleasure: “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). Even if someone doesn’t believe God made it, they don’t believe we made it. We no more own it than the birds. Since the world is not ours, we cannot do as we please with it. We must honor the one who made it through how we use it. We must honor the other creatures that also are dependent on the earth for life.

There is a way to use the earth in a responsible way. Clearly, we are not doing that. We are pillaging it through poor monocultural, chemically-dependent crops, poor mining practices for energy, poor logging practices for paper and product packaging, and through our wasteful use of energy and our obsession with consumption without production. How much longer the earth can sustain this level of destruction is unclear—but, we do know that we require at least the current level of destruction in order to live our lives of luxury.

This is not a “them” problem. The problem is “us.” We use the electricity which requires the destructive mining practices. We purchase the food from the grocer which requires monocultural agribusiness farming. We require mass amounts of paper and packaging, and thus the destructive logging practices. We must change our ways, and change them now. How we can do this will be addressed in part two.

Endnotes

1 Berry, Wendell. “Jefferson, Morrill, and the Upper Crust” in The Unsettling of America (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1977), p. 145.

2 Berry, Wendell. “Discipline and Hope” in The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry (Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 2002), p. 124.

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Responses

  1. Justin Robinson says:

    June 29th, 2006 at 12:02 pm (#)

    Keep the great articles comming … or just write a book, I’d buy it.

  2. brent says:

    October 19th, 2007 at 2:27 pm (#)

    wow. incredible writing. i have thoughts along the same line as this but could never put them into words so succinctly and artfully. excellent article! keep writing, please. we need more voices like yours.

  3. Lynette says:

    October 23rd, 2009 at 2:14 pm (#)

    That all sounds great, but the problem is this. Raising animals or livestock for people to “consume” is a 7 day a week job. YOu care for them as you do yourself, you eat everyay and drink everyday, more than once. So do animals. No hoidays, no vacations. No one wants to work period less alone 7 days with no vacation, no days off. That is why the farm population dimished as consumer population grew. The laziness of people created the so called factory farmers!

  4. Sherry says:

    January 23rd, 2011 at 1:39 pm (#)

    This is a very timely article, and I do agree with what it says. Our way of life is unsustainable, and each one of us can do more to get back to a healthier lifestyle; one less dependent. I welcome the changes!

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