On the return to Ithaca from the Trojan War, Odysseus and his men encountered a strange land inhabited by an exotic race of people after sending some men out to explore and report back.
“They started at once, and went about among the Lotus-eaters, who did them no hurt, but gave them to eat of the lotus, which was so delicious that those who ate of it left off caring about home, and did not even want to go back and say what had happened to them, but were for staying and munching lotus with the Lotus-eaters without thinking further of their return” (1).
The lotus plant was so powerful that it was able to make the men forget about the most important thing in their lives — returning home to Ithaca, to their wives, and to their children. Convenience and comfort led them astray from what really mattered and jeopardized the trip home.
Much like the lotus, shopping has become a drug to us, making Americans apathetic and skewing our priorities and perception of what is right. In an age of instant gratification, Netflix streaming, and disposable everything, we have become comfortably numb as long as the shelves are stocked. As a result of this wanton consumerist culture, the average American consumes four times as many resources as would be sustainable. In other words, it would require the resource equivalent of four planet Earths in order for everyone to live like Americans. A study by the Global Footprint Network found that it would take the equivalent resources of four Earths to allow the current global population to live like Americans (2). In the Pacific Ocean, there is an island of garbage the size of Texas (3). People trample and attack each other on a day devoted to giving thanks, simply to be first in line for cheap crap that they don’t need — clearly we have a bit of a problem.
The thing to remember about purchasing something is that it is not simply an exchange of money. Every item has a complex supply chain with many different parts in many different places. I’ll use a t-shirt as an example. When you buy a t-shirt at Walmart you’re in effect paying the thousands of people that helped make it. You’re paying a cotton farmer in Mississippi, a textile worker in Bangladesh, a screen-printer in Colombia, various shipping companies that deliver it from place to place, and the employees of Walmart itself.
Your purchase does not only pay these people’s salaries, but also states that you are personally signing off on each and every step of the manufacturing process. You are telling the farmer that his fertilizer is acceptable, even if it’s detrimental to the environment. You’re telling the factory boss in Bangladesh that his methods are acceptable, even if they are using slave labor. As you can see, things can get complicated rather quickly. It is our duty as producers to produce goods in a socially acceptable way, and it’s our job as consumers to be aware of what we are buying, lest we support something as odious as slavery.
I understand that in order to stimulate the economy, people need to consume. This was the impetus for creating disposable goods in the 1950s. It made things more convenient for the average person, and guaranteed that they would need to buy them again. Our society has been built around the idea that consumption is not only sustainable, but encouraged. If buying spurs the economy, it is our civic duty to keep buying as much as possible. It’s human nature to seek improvement as well as try to fit in with the pack. We seek to accomplish this by buying more, better things.
Unfortunately this economic model fails to account for certain negative externalities. It places value and merit in buying things just to throw them away. A plastic water bottle, for example, started out as crude oil; then was pumped, refined, shaped, labeled, filled, marketed, transported, and stocked. It went through a several month long supply chain just so someone could use it for 5 minutes and throw it away. (4) Through advertising and consumerism, we are brainwashed into believing that this is an acceptable way of life and we don’t take into account the costs to our society, such as the giant Texas-sized garbage patch.
Sadly, I am not immune to the consumerist society in which we live. As I write this on my MacBook in my Levi’s next to the fireplace in my house in the California suburbs, I can’t help but feel hypocritical. Who am I to tell people how to live and what to buy? Sadly, I have no answer to such a question, other than to say that we are all in this together. We all inherited this same system and it’s our job to fix it. I became conscious of my impact on the Earth only recently and I still struggle with the guilt of knowing how unsustainable my life really is. I began carrying a reusable water bottle, researching the products I was buying, and minimizing my use of plastic and packaging. So I invite you, nay, challenge you to join me. Help make this world better for ourselves and the next generation.
Political Science Writer
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1. Muir, Homer J.V. Odyssey IX. Bristol: Bristol Classical, 1992. Print.
2. McDonald, Charlotte. "How Many Earths Do We Need?" BBC News. BBC, 16 June 2015. Web. 24 Mar. 2017.
3. Dautel, Susan L. "Transoceanic Trash: International and United States Strategies for the Great Pacific Garbage Patch," 3 Golden Gate U. Envtl. L.J. 181, Jan. 2009. Web. 24 Mar. 2017.
4. Green, Peter S. "The Life of a Plastic Water Bottle." Bloomberg.com. Bloomberg, 27 Feb. 2015. Web. 24 Mar. 2017.