Advertising
Advertising

Blog Action Day: You the Consumer

Blog Action Day: You the Consumer
You the Consumer

    Today is Blog Action Day, and over 14,000 blogs have agreed to write about the environment. Since I expect there to be hundreds of “how to” articles about making your own household cleaners and cutting your gas consumption, I decided to try something else, to try to address the framework in which we as individuals relate to our environment.

    Most of the environmental destruction we face in the world today has its roots in the choices that we make every day as consumers — whether global warming, the disappearance of rainforests and wetlands, groundwater contamination, or just the blight of discarded plastic bags and soda cans littering the side of the road. While it’s likely that the long-term solution to these and other environmental problems will require legislation, it’s important to keep in mind that legislation wouldn’t be as necessary if we as consumers didn’t buy, use, and throw out so much stuff.

    Advertising

    As Pogo noted so many years ago, “we have met the enemy and he is us”. With these problems looming so large, it can be hard to lose track of our own involvement — especially since information about manufacturing processes, corporate track records, and legislative action being either hard to find or, once found, hard to make sense of. Instead, we’ve seen a host of companies that have risen up to offer us “sustainable” or “eco-friendly” shopping options, which is fine but not really a solution. The answer is not so much to buy different stuff but to buy less stuff — and more than that, to think about why we buy the stuff we buy in the first place.

    A Short History of Consumption

    With the rise of the Industrial Revolution, the relationship between people and the goods that they made was broken. No longer did peasants plant, tend, and harvest their crops; now agricultural workers labored over someone else’s crops in exchange for wages. No longer did artisans design, plan, craft, and sell; now factory workers repeatedly carried out a single step in the production of a product, again in exchange for wages.

    Advertising

    In short, people were no longer producers. Ownership was vested in those with the money to back production — and those people didn’t do the actual work. Our identities were no longer tied up with the work we did, but with the buying power our work left us with. At the end of the day, workers were left not with the means to live but with a handful of wages to spend on the means to live.

    So people found their identities not in their work but in the things they could buy by working. People with better jobs could afford to buy better-quality (or even just sufficient) food, clothing, household goods, transportation, and so on. The idea of choice — in fashion, in lifestyle, in entertainments, even in sexual partners and habits — arose, as people began to build their identities not through their productive lives but through their lives as consumers, through their interactions with the market. People became consumers, not just in the way they got what they needed but in who they felt themselves to be.

    Advertising

    Living Consumption

    The rise of consumption as our primary interaction with the rest of our society has had profound effects. For example, social status is obtained and marked by the things we buy and use. A car, for instance, is not just a way to get from one place to another but has to “say something” about who we are — and even the lack of a car says volumes. Unlike the artisan who could express his or her identity through the things s/he created, we have learned to do so through the things we buy: the t-shirt with the logo of our band or team, the bamboo towels that show our environmental commitments, the alternative album that shows off our indie cred, the designer shoes that place us as part of the trend-setting elite, the minivan that shows us to be part of the dependable, hard-working, family-oriented suburban middle class, and so on.

    The problem with finding ourselves through consumption, though, is that consumption literally means using things up; the interaction with the market that defines us is momentary and fleeting, leaving us with things that will eventually be eaten, wear out, or go out of style. This means that we need to constantly acquire new goods to maintain our identities as consumers — goods which we consume and must again replenish. On top of that, advertisers understand and take advantage of this necessity by producing new needs (ten years ago, who knew or felt we needed a thousand songs in our pocket?) that demand to be met.

    Advertising

    So What to Do?

    For most of us, simply dropping out, growing our own food and living off our own labor, is not an option and is hardly desirable even if it were an option. The answer to the dreadful over-consumption that fills our landfills with completely unnecessary crap, pollutes our water sources, kills off species after species (something like 40 a day!), and leaves us in a world of ever-diminishing beauty and diversity can’t be to drop out of consumption entirely, because it’s simply not an option.

    But we can change the way we consume, and more importantly lessen the demands we place on consumption to complete us as individuals. This means developing a higher sense of self-reflexivity about what we do buy, and replacing our identities as consumers with identities as part of our families and communities — and maybe even as producers, once again.

    Here are a few ideas:

    • Ask Yourself: What do you really need? We grow accustomed to feeling our desires as “needs”, but rarely examine those needs. Do we need fast food every day, for example? A lot of people cite time concerns, but how much time are you really saving — and what else are you losing? Forget health concerns (though they’re important), what about the pleasures of family time and knowing your family is eating food you made them yourself, or just the joy of eating good food? Or, do we really need to own the latest best-seller; perhaps it can be enjoyed just as thoroughly if you checked it out of the library?
    • Make something. Start a garden, and eat food you produced yourself. Or take up a craft — paint, or make jewelry, or knit, or make your own paper. Write. Find a way to express yourself through creating and not through consuming. (Of course, you’ll probably have to buy the materials for your new hobby — like I said, there’s no way off this ride, you just have to find ways to work within the system we’re given.)
    • Join something, or if there’s nothing around worth joining, start something. Find ways to connect with other people who share your interests. Civic participation in the US and other Western countries has dropped sharply over the last few decades, leaving us with even more need to “complete” ourselves through consumption. Spend a few hours engaging with your community instead of shopping for new ways to be yourself.
    • Pick a cause and make it your own. This follows from the last point — find ways of being part of your community that aren’t simply participating in the economy. If you can afford it, spend your money helping others instead of filling non-existent needs of your own, but even better, give your time, knowledge, and skills to those whose needs are real.
    • Shop wisely. If you’re going to be forced to construct at least part of your identity through your role as a consumer, make sure that you are consuming thoughtfully. Ask how your values jibe with the product you’re buying. Choose sustainable products where available. I have a pair of scissors my grandmother bought in the 1930s — long-lasting, durable, high-quality products that are well-maintained can keep dozens of cheap ones from ever being produced — and that saves all the energy and raw materials that would go into their making as well as space in the landfills.

    The Temple of Apollo at Delphi is reported to have had two sayings engraved at its entrance. The better-known is “Know thyself”; the other was “Nothing to excess”. Though I hardly think the temple’s builders had us and our current environmental dilemmas in mind, the advice is good for our current consumption-driven society. Know yourself — your needs, your wants, who you are and want to be –and match your consumption to those needs.

    More by this author

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain) How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works) Building Relationships: 11 Rules for Self-Promotion How to Become an Expert (And Spot out One Nearby)

    Trending in Featured

    1 The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain) 2 How to Stay Motivated and Reach Your Big Goals in Life 3 How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques 4 How to Stop Procrastinating: 11 Practical Ways for Procrastinators 5 50 Businesses You Can Start In Your Spare Time

    Read Next

    Advertising
    Advertising
    Advertising

    Last Updated on July 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

    Advertising

    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

    Advertising

    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

    Advertising

    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

    Advertising

    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

    More About Goals Setting

    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

    Read Next