In my last post, I alluded to the dismal state of affairs I see in the world around us and the steps I’m trying to take to help “be the change I want to see in the world.”
Peter and I watched “180 Degrees South” last week and while I loved seeing the “dirt bags” who love to climb and surf, just like my brother, what really hit home to me was the reality of the situation that Yvon Chouinard and Doug Tompkins are trying to help in Patagonia in South America. It wasn’t really the key message of the movie (or maybe it was?), but I was really struck by one idea: everything we do has a cost.
The statistic they cited was that America’s video game habit uses as much energy as the city of San Diego does in a year. This was juxtaposed with images of beautiful valleys and rivers facing damming for hydroelectric plants and interviews with fishermen and ranchers whose land and livelihoods would simply disappear without warning once the dams were built, with no say-so from them.
This forcibly made me realize that everything we do, even my habit of playing games on my phone* or my enjoyment of old movies on our big flat screen TV, everything has a cost. Maybe it’s not the poor Chilean fisherman who will suffer because I need electricity, but that energy still isn’t free. The distance (physical and psychological) we have from the cost of things hurts us and causes us to make choices I’m convinced people wouldn’t make as easily if they could see what it really took to make our cheap clothes, electricity, meat, etc.
Everything has a cost. It may be time, money, resources, health, environment, effort, energy, or something else. My love of super cheap Target clothes means that the fabric is made cheaply from cotton that is contaminating drinking water with excessive fertilizer in a Chinese factory that may be skirting the worker’s protection laws using a manufacturing process that may be harmful to people’s health and the environment, then cut and assembled in another factory that doesn’t pay the greatest wage and is dumping pollutants into a Chinese river, then shipped across the ocean using a significant amount of fuel to get to the West Coast, then trucked across the US using more diesel, then stocked in a huge store with thousands of other items made in similar conditions across Asia, all so I can pick it up on sale at 50% and feel the little thrill of getting a good bargain. It may even fall apart before I can wear it more than a dozen times.
This is kind of a “No shit, Sherlock” revelation, but like so many things I’ve come to deeply hold to be true, things I knew on an intellectual level had to be FELT emotionally before I could make a change in my own life.
I’m not naive. I don’t think there is a way to make totally clean energy or super cheap, ethically raised meat (or whatever your example of a free lunch is). But what I can do is try to think about the TRUE COST of the item before I purchase/eat/toss it.
One of the things I’m trying to do now in a way I never did before is buy things made in the USA. I always felt “Buy USA” was a little too propaganda-flag-waving for me to really choose a crappy USA product if there was something better and cheaper available. But now I’m realizing that buying things made in the US has benefits far above and beyond what I imagined from all those Ford commercials back in the ’80s.
Buying American means less fuel spent shipping a $2 toy halfway around the world. It means better working conditions for workers and less pollution because we (generally) have a functioning government with halfway decent laws. It means jobs for people and money that stays in the US (not that I’m against other countries getting money, but I would like to take care of my neighbor if I can). It means people here will be more motivated to innovate, think of new solutions and create new products. And it means I’m paying the true cost of the item in MONEY, not in charging the Earth’s resources more (which I prefer at this stage in my life). And if it means it costs a little more money, then maybe I’ll be more likely to think hard about if this is something I really need, instead of something cheap to make me happy for a few minutes, then get tossed into a pile to be “sorted.”
Blah, blah, blah. So what am I doing about it?
First, I’m thinking harder about what I do buy. Do I need it? Is it worth the various “costs”?
Second, I’m trying to buy less stuff new. It’s WAY cheaper in every sense to buy something that already exists. The materials have already been harvested, no new energy is produced to make it or ship it to me (other than my gas to go get it), and if I get it from Craigslist, my money also goes to some other person very locally. In addition, older stuff, especially furniture and things like that, is much, much better made than anything you can get nowadays. Cliche, but true.
If I do have to buys something new, I’m trying to buy it from someone in the US. Ideally, someone who made it (see: Etsy, or my obsession with Twinkie Tush cloth diapers). Yes, their materials still probably come from China, but it’s a step in the right direction.
Fourth, I’m trying to rehab stuff I already have. I’ve started on a bedroom set that belonged to Peter’s great-grandparents to use in our guest bedroom. I’m really excited about it!
Fifth, I’m trying to be more content with what I have. Grandma Emmi grew up in post-war Germany when there was NOTHING. Literally, nothing. I try to think about that and stop the “want” that is perpetual in our consuming society. All the wonderful blogs I read about home decorating and things are very inspirational, but also make me want to Buy Moar Stuff. Hmm…
So yeah, this may be super boring, or hokey, or maybe too crunchy-granola for you, but this is one small way that I am trying to take back the overwhelming sense that I am giving Emmie a terrible, terrible world. Climate change is here (missed that boat), but I still need to feel like I can make a difference, no matter how small.
I also want to set an example for Emmie. To show her that lasting happiness and pleasure don’t come from shopping or buying things, but from experiences and making memories. This is something my parents taught me in spades, but I often forget when I’m faced with the clearance shelf at Target or IKEA.
What is your shopping weakness?
*I know the energy usage for charging my phone isn’t the same as powering an Xbox or other gaming console for hours at a time, but it still does require energy.