Why is consumerism a slippery slope that tastes like chocolate?
- Austin Fitzpatrick
Living in America as a privileged white woman, I feel as if I can have just about anything I want. Materially speaking, that it. I like clothes. I buy them often. I still love shopping thrift stores, and the sale rack at Target, but I could easily drive to the nearby high priced boutiques and shop there. I shop at the mediocre local grocery store but I could shop at the nearby fancy organic fair trade store. I can shop on etsy, or online. I can get anything I want, nearly immediately, at rock bottom prices...materially speaking. And if I'm unahappy in any way, I can return the goods, with or without a receipt. "The customer is always right" means I can make demands, and watch prices drop, or pitch a fit and get things for free.
I met an Aussie mum at the ballet school recently, and quickly found a kindred spirit. She spoke tentatively, trying to gauge where I stood on the American consumer spectrum, "Houston isn't so bad...you can live here very comfortably...but I miss the beauty of Australia." I cut to the chase and said "Houston is fantastic, if you want to accumulate alot of nice stuff." We then connected over memories of village cafes, walkable neighborhoods, and a quality of life that you can't order with a credit card (although, if I could order a skyfull of NSW blue, I would swipe for it in a minute!).
Several years ago, I remember standing and talking to one of my parent's friends, trying to explain the freedom I felt, raising my children in a culture less obsessed with consumerism than America. I felt like I was speaking a different language. I felt almost disloyal for expressing something so embedded in the American cultural mesh.
This week I read The Great Tampon Debate on Kristy Rice's brilliant expat blog. One of the comments carried this addiction to consumerism home for me. An Aussie girl asked an American if the plastic applicators on American tampons were biodegradable or recyclable (they must be either or, right?). She was horrified to discover that American women throw away or flush tons of plastic for something that in her opinion, was completely unnecessary. Wasteful. In Australia, I never found plastic applicator tampons.
I have heard it said that here in Houston there are more restaurants per capita that most anywhere else in the U.S. Food is cheap and we have eaten out more frequently than ever before in our lives. I can count on one hand the number of times I felt truly nourished, and like I've had a good meal. All this quantity does not equate quality, and even the quality does not bring happiness.
I don't know how to manage the myriad ethical dilemmas living in this culture presents. The clothes we buy are made by workers in poor (dangerous? illegal?) conditions. The food we eat contains unknown contaminants, pesticides, and gmos. The waste we produce is massive and piles up in landfills. For every fair/free/organic choice we make, there seem to be 10,000 others we are failing to make. Our soap is poisoning the Great Lakes, the vegetable plants we buy from the big box garden stores are killing the bees we are trying to save, and everywhere there are people begging on the street corners.
How do I explain that when I went to Australia and began to understand that there wasn't anything frightening in the milk, that in general people cared about the environment, that the poor were less poor because as a society there was a different value placed on all human life, and that there was a thoughtfulness surrounding what we buy and what we do with it, it was like I could breathe more freely?
It is too simplistic to say that America is full of gluttons and Australia is filled with conscientious consumers. I have no facts or data to present. What I have is memories of conversations with friends about milk. "Do you buy organic milk? I ask. "Why?" my friend asks. "Well, so that you don't have hormones or antibiotics in your milk." I reply. My friend looks at me, the answer comes slowly. "We just have the one kind, and it doesn't have hormones or antibiotics."
In Australia, life is very expensive. All choices make a big impact on the wallet. I consider the choices more carefully when a children's tshirt can easily cost $20+.
Several weeks ago I went to WalMart for the first time in about a decade. I wanted to buy a bike ramp for Small Sun for his birthday, and they had them there. The box took up the massive trolley, but while I was there I bought more. I bought 12 pool noodles for Finch's pool party. At $1.20 they were a fun party favor. Then there was an enormous plastic tub to put the pool gear in. Next I came across a patio side table, perfect for all the times we just hold our drinks in our hands because there is no place to set them down. Onto the stack it went. I strained to get the cart, piled high with made-in-China treasures, waving pool noodle tentacles in every direction. I couldn't see over the pyramid of cheap goods I was getting. I started to wonder if I could fit it in the car?
I payed what seemed a pittance when you considered the time, resource, and effort invested in manufacturing and shipping these goods. I loaded them up in the cavernous boot of my minivan. I needn't have worried about space, there's always room for more.
I drove home thoughtful.
I don't know how to live here. That is, I don't know how to live here with an engaged conscience. Every choice seems wrong, a violation of someone else's rights, a failure on some level.
I cook from scratch most nights. I grow some of our own food. I buy second hand. I do the things that I know to do, but there are so many, many ways I feel we are falling short.
I don't know how to explain how a clear conscience is part of the lightness I feel living in Australia. In America we are not bad people. We are not trying to take advantage of others. We are not trying to poison the planet. It's more like we're stuck in a web, or that "consumerism is a slippery slope, and it tastes like chocolate."