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We Are Being Careless With the Earth

“Money never made a man happy yet, nor will it.  The more a man has, the more he wants.  Instead of filling a vacuum, it makes one.” -Benjamin Franklin-

Apparently, we are at a crossroads.  We hear it more and more on the news and on social media.  The climate is ever so fickle, and biodiversity seems to be going out the back door.  The Earth is overwhelmed by human presence.  It feels like we have gone past the point of no return, our activities are affecting the climate and the Earth’s living systems.  We need to change our lifestyles substantially and even then, we can only minimize the damage that’s already been done.  Almost everyone I know tries—here and there—to care for the environment.  We recycle, we buy used stuff, we fix and reuse our old stuff, we compost, we buy local, we buy bulk, we cook, we garden.  Evidently, these attempts are not cutting it.  We are still using up more than our share of the planet’s resources.

When will we have enough?

Advertisers give us the desire to possess all sorts of things, for sure.  And we are influenced by the lives of the rich and famous we see on the media.  We are also tempted to have what our friends, family and acquaintances have.  We want to see for ourselves the beautiful sights the world over.  Travel can be so educational, it opens us to other cultures, other ways of doing things. There is no law against traveling nor is there one to prevent us from buying stuff, on the contrary!  So we buy into it, thinking that possessing that one more thing, having that type of lifestyle, will make us happier.  Does it really?  More and more, studies are showing us that there is a limit to how much money and material possessions contribute to our happiness.  (Click here to know more.)

 We are told that once certain needs are met, our income is not such a big factor in making us happy.  So what is it that keeps us coming back to those big box stores for more and more stuff?  The dreaminess of anticipating having that new TV?  The sense of accomplishment that we get when we are able to afford something that we consider we worked very hard for?  The satisfaction felt when we realize that it is a better TV than our old one?  How long does this satisfaction last?  Not that long.  And then we need to start over, with a different object of desire or a different travel destination.  It’s like an addiction that keeps us coming back…

mexico

I wish I could say that I buy only what I need, but it wouldn’t be true.  I don’t need all the clothes in my closet.  I don’t need to decorate my house.  I don’t need to travel to faraway places, but I often have.  I don’t need over 100 types of plants in my flower gardens.  My husband and I don’t need two cars.  I am conscious, very conscious of how these activities leave traces on the planet. 

To make goods, we take resources from the planet, that we manufacture and transport, all the while emitting greenhouse gases.  We buy these items, they please us for a little while.  Then they end up as trash in the belly of the Earth.  And when we travel, we leave tons of carbon in the air.  Like me, if you come from an affluent country, you are used to buying whatever you want, within the constraints of your salary (and your credit limit😉).

Our Buying Potential is Much Stronger than the Earth’s Supplying Potential

Are we too rich?   As far as the planet is concerned, many of us are. Why do I continue to consume so much, loving nature as I do, conscious as I am about the effect consumerism has on the planet?  I think that the main reason I started this blog is that I really need to answer these questions.  The idea of what we are collectively doing to this planet is very troubling to me. 

Awareness is Key

How do we get to the point where we are motivated to change our wasteful habits?  I think that the first step in solving any problem is awareness.  I love Portia Nelson’s “Autobiography in Five Short Chapters: There’s a Hole in My Sidewalk”.  It’s a great metaphor for the process of becoming aware.  If you have never read it, you can find it here.  To be aware is to have clarity.  To look at a problem and to objectively see how we are participating in the dysfunction.  To stop justifying our actions and to seek out change and solutions.  The moment we assume accountability—chapter three in the above story—things change.  We become able to see our patterns and then afterwards, change our damaging behaviors. 

Identifying the Traps We Fall Into

As far as my own consumerism goes, I’ve tried to identify my pitfalls.  Comparison is one of them.  I compare my house to my friends’ beautiful houses, not to mention the gorgeous ones on those decorating shows.  I compare my gardens to those in gardening magazines.  When I worked outside my home, I compared my clothes to the ones my colleagues wore.  When we compare our stuff to what others have, we become lack-minded. This attitude is one that industry and advertisers like to cultivate in us.  When others seem to have better lives because they have better possessions, the quick fix is to buy some of that for ourselves.  “Live better”, the ad says. “You’re worth it”, and so on.  And we buy into it.  Rather, our egos buy into it!  Instead, we should be practicing gratitude for what we already have.

When my husband and I were in our twenties, we rented our first home from an elderly woman.  She was beautiful, white-haired and serene.  Her name was Mrs. Rainville.  We have always valued her advice, difficult as it has been to apply in the context of a society such as ours.   She told us that it’s important to appreciate everything we have. “Because,” she said, “How can you appreciate a multitude of things when you don’t even appreciate the few things you possess?  It’s better not to have too much.” At the time, the voluntary simplicity and degrowth movements were not in vogue but her years of living simply, happily, had taught her this.  Gratitude is a great antidote for our neediness!

Collecting is another trap that I fall into.  When I see something I like, I’ve noticed that the urge to possess it possesses me!  So many people collect so many things—from erasers to vintage cars—and I wonder at this impulse.  There is probably a strong evolutionary benefit hidden in our desire to own so many things.  Some of our ancestors needed to put aside food for the winter, maybe that is part of it.  But I suspect that status and the need to be admired for all we possess comes into it as well.

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cup collection

Collections can be fascinating.  We can wonder at natural collections, art, designs and the like for their beauty.  Cars and other vintage items can be historical treasures.  But sometimes it seems to be about the power of being rich, being able to afford things.  For many women, it’s shoes.  They can have over fifty pairs of shoes in their closets yet continue to shop for more!  Same goes for clothes.  For me, it’s that perennial that I don’t yet have in my flower beds.  I tell myself that gardens are objects of beauty, that gardening is a worthwhile hobby, and so on, but I’ve faced the fact that I’m a collector of sorts.  I don’t need to have so many different kinds of plants in my flower beds.  I think about the impact of my purchases, all the energy that is needed to get them to my local garden center:  they need to grow in greenhouses, they are often sprayed with chemicals and they need to be shipped to my area.  From a larger perspective, my desire to collect flowers for my gardens seems pretty selfish. 

And yet, I get a lot of pleasure from their beauty.  I think it’s about finding that balance where you can pursue what you love while at the same time, become aware of all the ways you can avoid having too great an impact.  I must keep in mind that by sharing and trading with other gardeners instead of buying, plants don’t need to be grown in greenhouses and shipped over long distances.  That, and feeling grateful for all the beautiful plants that I already have, constantly reminding myself that I have enough. 

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Pleasing people.  When you put a lot of thought into it, a gift can be a wonderful gesture, one that helps us connect to others.  And it feels wonderful to be generous.  But still, I think we go overboard with gift-giving.  Just think at how many gifts you’ve gotten that you don’t really need, or maybe don’t even like!  If we feel the need to give someone a gift, we should try to give something practical that we know will be used and appreciated.  Fancy handmade soaps, local foods and wines are great gifts that are sure to be utilized.  They support small businesses and are rarely over packaged. Look for organic and fair trade when possible.  We’re lucky that there are more and more sustainable choices out there.

Pleasing is responsible for the jillions of underappreciated toys in homes where young children live.  Now really, what kind of message are we sending them?  Right at the beginning of their young lives, we are reinforcing the notion that they are entitled to an overabundance of stuff, produced for their own little pleasure.  That they can damage and discard this stuff, because there’s more where that came from!  And it’s not only spoiling them, all the resources extracted from the Earth in the process of making those toys is spoiling their future!  It’s a huge contradiction because we love our children so much!  Tell all the well-meaning aunts, uncles, grandparents and godparents that it’s just too much!!  Forward this article to them so they can understand why!

A lot of us are also into pleasing our pets.  I try not to buy too many toys for my pets.  My dog loves the beef bones that I give her after using them to make broth.  As for my cat, she has a catnip plant in the garden that she likes to play in.  In the house, I give her a shell or a branch to play with.  I’ve just recently stopped buying food in cans for my cat.  It’s not as if the canned stuff is more nutritious.  It just feels like I’m giving her a treat when I give her canned cat food.  I know that even though I recycle the cans, there is a lot of energy involved in the manufacture and the subsequent recycling of those cans.  She can do without, it won’t make any difference for her, health-wise.  Spoiling her just doesn’t warrant the wasted energy!

Cheapness.  I try to avoid buying stuff that is not made well.  I know that it won’t last, and I’d rather keep something a long time than to have to throw it out after a few years.  But when I see something that is well made on sale, I have a weak spot!  When I see a bargain, it’s a huge impetus for me to buy something.  I love getting value for my money.  I had been wanting a kitchen scale for some time now.  We had one, but it wasn’t the precise, electronic kind.  I was able to resist buying one for a while but when I saw one at half price, I bought it without thinking!  In this case, and whenever I buy things I know I can do without, I feel guilty.  And it really isn’t about the money.  I can always afford what I buy, but I know that the planet can’t afford my shopping habits! 

No matter what traps you fall into, these or others, we likely also justify our consumerism.  We reason:  “I really needed an electronic scale, I do a lot of cooking.”  or “I need all those shoes, I work in the fashion industry.” or “I was raised poor and now that I can afford to own three cars, I won’t be denied.” and “If we don’t renovate, the house won’t keep its value.”  These are all understandable justifications, it’s hard to disagree with any of them.  But–THIS IS JUST NOT WORKING!  For the planet, that is…

 

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