This is the theme of my final lecture in the course I teach on Sociology.  I take this quote and inspiration from the pop-culture film Fight Club where the main character loses all of his belongings in a fire and uses the experience to liberate his soul, rather than pine for what he has lost.  Although, his liberation ultimately develops into a psychotic split personality disorder, the lesson is still helpful.  (: My students seem to appreciate the reference and the profanity, nonetheless.

Essentially, the substance of my lecture pulls together everything we have discussed throughout the term about human beings and how their interaction with each other and the planet transforms across time and culture.  I use this class to summarize all that my students have learned about the evolution of post-industrial society and the consumption-centered, free market economy that drives globalization, cultural imperialism and massive exploitation of human beings, living creatures, and natural resources.  We explore the epidemic of affluenza that plagues America with an obsession to define our personal value through materialism, image, and a disposable, instant-gratification lifestyle.  We look directly at what consequences flow from our way of life in this country, including our decreasing national happiness, rising stress levels, relatively low life expectancy (we’re presently 42nd in the world), genetically-modified foods, factory farming, toxic environments, income disparity, war, crime, pollution and global climate change. 

Many students become disturbed by their realization that they are affluence-addicted, and they begin to grasp concepts like global domination and inter-generational tyranny. They are struck with guilt and rage when they truly consider the implications of an America that makes up less than 5% of the world population but consumes over 25% of the worlds resources and produces two-thirds of the worlds toxic waste.  “How can this be?” they exclaim when we watch video clips about half the world living on the equivalent of $2 a day while Americans feel entitled to wear designer clothing and handbags, decorate their homes with lavish non-functional items, entertain themselves with a vast array of technological toys and drive vehicles that have more features related to comfort or status than actual transportation.  “How is that fair?” they demand when they learn that 40,000 people starve to death every day, while 60% of Americans are overweight. 

They really start to get uncomfortable when they discover that the world uses 100 million plastic shopping bags every MINUTE.  The US alone consumes 400,000 plastic bottles every MINUTE.  “That’s horrible!” they respond when they learn that one baby born in the US will have 12 times the destructive impact on the Earth as one baby born in India and 250 times the impact as one baby born in sub-Saharan Africa.  “Something must be done.”

And then I ask four questions about the future of humanity:

Where are we going?  Do you want to be here when we get there?  Is it possible to alter the course? What would it take to convince Americans to significantly change their high-consumption lifestyle?

Not surprisingly, all of my students come to the conclusion that our lifestyle in the US is unhealthy, out of balance with the global community, and catapulting humanity toward extinction.  They pair these observations with a passionate desire to create immediate change in the status quo, including many angry condemnations of past generations for gifting us with this monumental obligation to compensate for their poor planning. 

But when we arrive at the final question, I am always greeted with a slap of callous indifference and self-righteous powerlessness.   What was once a unified front of focused intention and impassioned morality dissolves in an instant to a room filled with spoiled, finger-pointing children.  “What the hell can I do about it?” they invariably retort.  “I’m just trying to support myself and my family” says the girl with Gucci purse whose last cigarette still lingers in her $75 hair-do.  “I can’t think about where and how stuff is made. If Wal-Mart sells stuff the cheapest, that’s where I have to to go on a limted budget.”  adds the twenty-something man in the back who HAD to build a garage onto his 2,400 square foot house to protect his new sports car.  “Right,” blurts a young mother who just bought all her children’s Christmas gifts at Wal-Mart, “some of us don’t have the income to choose where we buy things.  Like us, my husband just lost his job when they closed the factory where he worked and we can’t afford Made-in-the-USA products.”  Nevermind that the factory she mentioned had moved to Bangladesh to use child labor to produce all the cheap items she purchased.  

Someone usually interjects, “It’s not MY fault that corporations exploit desperate people and destroy the environment.”  as they finish off their Mountain Dew without a drop on their $40 Nike T-shirt.  Then, another predictably demands “the government should do something about this!” even though half of the people sitting in the room have never voted and 95% have never even considered writing a letter to the editor, protesting, or volunteering with a campaign.

So, this is where I explain the connections and how conscious consumption can address all of these issues.  I take great effort to inspire my students to take back their power and use their dollars and their democracy to create a better world for themselves, their communities, their economy, and restore balance to the Earth and all of its inhabitants.  I give concrete examples of how I have NOT purchased retail clothing, home decor, furniture, or small appliances in nearly 3 years, relying solely on thrift stores, garage sales, and the dump.  I point out my attractive, trendy attire that I purchased for less than $5 including my shoes, my bra, and my accessories.  I show them the canvas shopping bags I bought at the thrift store for a dollar or less each.  I describe the barn full of recycled building materials I have been collecting to build my home, and I show them a photo of the fully-functioning 52 inch, flat screen high-definition TV that we picked up at the dump for free, and replaced the color-wheel for less than $100.  I share stories of holiday gifts my family exchanged that included a cow my brother and his wife bought in my name for a starving family and an interest-free loan my parents extended to a poor South American farmer on my behalf.  I explain that if Americans weren’t so lazy, greedy and vain there is such a surplus of goods in this country that can all meet our needs without contributing to a soul-sucking consumer industry. 

Then someone always responds “I cannot buy used items for my family because who knows where it has been.  I don’t want to expose my children to things that are unhealthy.” This becomes the consensus in the room, despite the fact that 95% of them eat factory-farm meat and animal products injected with growth hormones and antibiotics AND highly processed, genetically modified food, infused with high-fructose corn syrup and grown with layers of toxic pesticides and fertilizers.  I find it ironic that most people will not put their children in used clothing (even if they wash it), but they saturate their diets and their homes with toxic chemicals. 

So, I counter with the idea that maybe if they cannot buy used items, perhaps they could just buy LESS items.  Would it be possible to own only 5 pairs of shoes instead of 20 or keep their living room furniture until it is no longer functional even if that means not having a matching set or the newest styles?  Almost instantly their faces form scowls of disgust as they imagine a world where the items they buy have actual purpose beyond displaying their wealth, expressing their personal taste, or providing hollow satisfaction for a bored life.  They cannot fathom an existence independent of the things that make-up their identity and represent their success.   Imagine that!  A chair is for sitting and a dish is for eating, regardless of what it LOOKS like. 

Many people are actually offended that I would question the ethics of their purchases because they worked hard to earn their money and America is a free country.  It is as if we have created a culture where free choice means free game.  Well, to quote another great movie, “Freedom isn’t free. It costs a hefty fucking fee.”  The cost of the American lifestyle can no longer be captured in a price tag or buried in a landfill, folks.  We are bursting our britches, our budgets and our borders, and along the way we are plundering people and the planet. 

When will we stop defining ourselves by the contents of our home and our wallet, and begin to value people over possessions?  When will we put our money where our mouth is and LIVE according to our conscience?  Or is our conscience one more casualty of our consumption? 

“You are not your fucking khakis.”

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