The Great Maw of Consumerism

A friend and I bought the house I live in. It was 2009. A sliver of a moment when the financial system tanked enough that this water/mountain view home in Langley — albeit homely and needing siding — could be had for under $150/sf.

We called it SOL house. That stands for SOLar as we wanted to push it as far as we could to a passiv haus. And SOUL as we wanted to fill it with love and learning. And S.O.L., as in Shit Outta Luck, as in “man (sic) proposes, God disposes” or “whatever can go wrong will go wrong” or “the best laid plans of mice and men often go astray.”

The effort to do the right thing, now that I own a home myself, has required sustained and successive contortions of frugality, carefulness and making do.

I gave away the old refrigerator and bought a fancy energy efficient one — $800 off scratch and dent. I put a cat magnets over the dents. It failed, but a friend was letting go of hers (did I ask why… no) and I replaced mine with it. The old one went to the side of the house and is now paint storage. When the second one started freezing my food, I adapted by placing the veggies furthest away from the arctic corner — until everything started to freeze. In my desire to do the right environmental thing, I was contorting my life.

I hate throwing anything out, though. I can’t shake the image of the landfills of the world heaped with the explosion of crap from several hundred years of wanton consumerism.

Reluctantly, I sent this fridge to the side of the house to store gardening tools… and bought a new energy efficient one, on sale, wondering with embarrassment where my old hippie days went.

On to the dishwasher. I swear mechanical things infect one another. The electronic soap dispenser release stopped working. Of course I went to YouTube U to see how I can fix it. Turns out that little spring latch is connected to complex electronics inside the door. Ever wonder why your dishwasher door is so heavy? I sought out a replacement. Discontinued.

I didn’t want to send another steel box to the dump. Onto the mountain of crap it would go. I finally found a repair person who told me the truth. You can just pour soap in the dispenser without latching it. Really???? Yep. I did that, plus put a little additional cup in the top rack, and my dishes come clean. Whew!

Then the stove overheard the dishwasher discussion … and went. The oven element fried. If that were all, maybe I would have replaced it. How hard could that be, oh all-knowing YouTube. Do-able, but the stove burners were cattywampus too. I tried to give the stove away to someone who needed it (and could install the element). No takers. Someone took the oven racks, so at least those were salvaged. Reluctantly I decided to take the plunge and buy the most energy efficient range on the market, which arrived yesterday.

It’s an induction stove top so I now have to use induction pots.

Then my travel computer, seeing how much attention the stove got, died.

It’s like flypaper. You can’t flick off the consumer imperative — another part of it sticks to you.

And what’s your point, Vicki?

My relationship with the modern world.

Trying to “be” in this consumerist world but not “aid-and-abet it”. Trying to sip the pleasures and poisons of the miracles of capitalism, and to leave the world not the worse for my being here.

Yet, I’m not a natural minimalist. I’m a huntress. The fact is, I love to shop. Well, in thrift stores and grocery stores. I love to treat myself to colors and flavors, to ruffles and avocados. I love even just going to stores, and cruising every aisle. Finding bargains and novelties. I have loved our Buy Nothing group and have to force myself to not see what treasures have shown up overnight.

I’m not against desire. Or appetites. Consuming is part of life. If we didn’t have a drive to acquire (food, shelter, sex) we’d be dead. But…

This drive has been seriously gamed to the benefit of the growth economy. Gamed.

Our biology, psychology, aspirations, desires, ambitions, fears, existential dread, longing to transcend, boredom, vanity, self-improvement, location in the status pecking order, etc. have all been fed into the consumerist algorithm. This whole machinery of human needs, your whole 88-key piano of exquisite emotional subtleties, the poetry and art of us… is all being gamed by the consumption algorithm.

My effort to tame this beast through frugality is a defense against being sucked into its maw. I know painfully well the impact of my choices on the rest of the living world — flying, upgrading tech, plastics in everything. While I may make puny efforts to lessen my impact, I am complicit in it all.

I think there’s perhaps a fragility (like white fragility) associated with being a consumer in a consumer society. We know we are part of a system that benefits the richer 20% of humanity.

It’s a stain on us all. It is destroying the living world, filling the oceans with plastic and razing the forests. No matter how far we try to back away from it, like painting ourselves into a corner, we are in the room of consumerism, the house of consumerism, a world run by the consumerist machine.

We can justify it — the plane would fly whether I was on it or not. We can claim our right to the pleasures of electronics and beautiful homes and ridicule people who limit their lives. Given the injustice in this world, people trying to get enough for a decent life can’t be faulted for wanting more or better. There are so many ways to give some grace to all of us for being trapped.

Lord knows — and most of you know — that I’ve spent years of my adult life trying to at least “out” the beast of overconsumption, if not stop it. It bothers me when good people are manipulated by power holders to sell their futures, going into debt to buy things that bring fleeting pleasure and long-term debt servitude.

I like to free people by giving tools to unpack lies and question assumptions. I love the vision of Hazel Henderson of the “golden rule” society, or the “solar age” and running a wise civilization on the free photons from the sun. I’ve loved living and teaching the idea of “enoughness” — of stuff, food, leisure, connection, service, laziness and all the rest. There are beautiful people and movements trying to live into and tell stories about and think through a world based in enough. I’m in with this crowd.

Yet I am now wondering if anything has been written like a “glossary of manipulated desires” or “a taxonomy of consumerism”. Something that would cover biology of consumerism, sociology of consumerism, history of consumerism, religion of consumerism… sex, sin, neurology, ecology, medicine, finance, justice, politics, etc. of consumerism. Something that would pull the curtain back from the whole of consumerism as it lives in our bodies, minds, hearts, politics and society.

Who threads all these beads on one string? Who reveals this, not with blame or hatred or gotcha, but with a fascination about the world we’ve created that has us by the short hairs?

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Bestselling author, lover of philosophy, learning & intimacy. Podcast: What Could Possibly Go Right? https://bit.ly/3Dv2DUF. Blog: http://vickirobin.com

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Vicki Robin

Bestselling author, lover of philosophy, learning & intimacy. Podcast: What Could Possibly Go Right? https://bit.ly/3Dv2DUF. Blog: http://vickirobin.com