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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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    Last Updated on July 8, 2020

    3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

    3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

    It is easy, in the onrush of life, to become a reactor – to respond to everything that comes up, the moment it comes up, and give it your undivided attention until the next thing comes up.

    This is, of course, a recipe for madness. The feeling of loss of control over what you do and when is enough to drive you over the edge, and if that doesn’t get you, the wreckage of unfinished projects you leave in your wake will surely catch up with you.

    Having an inbox and processing it in a systematic way can help you gain back some of that control. But once you’ve processed out your inbox and listed all the tasks you need to get cracking on, you still have to figure out what to do the very next instant. On which of those tasks will your time best be spent, and which ones can wait?

    When we don’t set priorities, we tend to follow the path of least resistance. (And following the path of least resistance, as the late, great Utah Phillips reminded us, is what makes the river crooked!) That is, we’ll pick and sort through the things we need to do and work on the easiest ones – leaving the more difficult and less fun tasks for a “later” that, in many cases, never comes – or, worse, comes just before the action needs to be finished, throwing us into a whirlwind of activity, stress, and regret.

    This is why setting priorities is so important.

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    3 Effective Approaches to Set Priorities

    There are three basic approaches to setting priorities, each of which probably suits different kinds of personalities. The first is for procrastinators, people who put off unpleasant tasks. The second is for people who thrive on accomplishment, who need a stream of small victories to get through the day. And the third is for the more analytic types, who need to know that they’re working on the objectively most important thing possible at this moment. In order, then, they are:

    1. Eat a Frog

    There’s an old saying to the effect that if you wake up in the morning and eat a live frog, you can go through the day knowing that the worst thing that can possibly happen to you that day has already passed. In other words, the day can only get better!

    Popularized in Brian Tracy’s book Eat That Frog!, the idea here is that you tackle the biggest, hardest, and least appealing task first thing every day, so you can move through the rest of the day knowing that the worst has already passed.

    When you’ve got a fat old frog on your plate, you’ve really got to knuckle down. Another old saying says that when you’ve got to eat a frog, don’t spend too much time looking at it! It pays to keep this in mind if you’re the kind of person that procrastinates by “planning your attack” and “psyching yourself up” for half the day. Just open wide and chomp that frog, buddy! Otherwise, you’ll almost surely talk yourself out of doing anything at all.

    2. Move Big Rocks

    Maybe you’re not a procrastinator so much as a fiddler, someone who fills her or his time fussing over little tasks. You’re busy busy busy all the time, but somehow, nothing important ever seems to get done.

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    You need the wisdom of the pickle jar. Take a pickle jar and fill it up with sand. Now try to put a handful of rocks in there. You can’t, right? There’s no room.

    If it’s important to put the rocks in the jar, you’ve got to put the rocks in first. Fill the jar with rocks, now try pouring in some pebbles. See how they roll in and fill up the available space? Now throw in a couple handfuls of gravel. Again, it slides right into the cracks. Finally, pour in some sand.

    For the metaphorically impaired, the pickle jar is all the time you have in a day. You can fill it up with meaningless little busy-work tasks, leaving no room for the big stuff, or you can do the big stuff first, then the smaller stuff, and finally fill in the spare moments with the useless stuff.

    To put it into practice, sit down tonight before you go to bed and write down the three most important tasks you have to get done tomorrow. Don’t try to fit everything you need, or think you need, to do, just the three most important ones.

    In the morning, take out your list and attack the first “Big Rock”. Work on it until it’s done or you can’t make any further progress. Then move on to the second, and then the third. Once you’ve finished them all, you can start in with the little stuff, knowing you’ve made good progress on all the big stuff. And if you don’t get to the little stuff? You’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you accomplished three big things. At the end of the day, nobody’s ever wished they’d spent more time arranging their pencil drawer instead of writing their novel, or printing mailing labels instead of landing a big client.

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    3. Covey Quadrants

    If you just can’t relax unless you absolutely know you’re working on the most important thing you could be working on at every instant, Stephen Covey’s quadrant system as written in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change might be for you.

    Covey suggests you divide a piece of paper into four sections, drawing a line across and a line from top to bottom. Into each of those quadrants, you put your tasks according to whether they are:

    1. Important and Urgent
    2. Important and Not Urgent
    3. Not Important but Urgent
    4. Not Important and Not Urgent

      The quadrant III and IV stuff is where we get bogged down in the trivial: phone calls, interruptions, meetings (QIII) and busy work, shooting the breeze, and other time wasters (QIV). Although some of this stuff might have some social value, if it interferes with your ability to do the things that are important to you, they need to go.

      Quadrant I and II are the tasks that are important to us. QI are crises, impending deadlines, and other work that needs to be done right now or terrible things will happen. If you’re really on top of your time management, you can minimize Q1 tasks, but you can never eliminate them – a car accident, someone getting ill, a natural disaster, these things all demand immediate action and are rarely planned for.

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      You’d like to spend as much time as possible in Quadrant II, plugging away at tasks that are important with plenty of time to really get into them and do the best possible job. This is the stuff that the QIII and QIV stuff takes time away from, so after you’ve plotted out your tasks on the Covey quadrant grid, according to your own sense of what’s important and what isn’t, work as much as possible on items in Quadrant II (and Quadrant I tasks when they arise).

      Getting to Know You

      Spend some time trying each of these approaches on for size. It’s hard to say what might work best for any given person – what fits one like a glove will be too binding and restrictive for another, and too loose and unstructured for a third. You’ll find you also need to spend some time figuring out what makes something important to you – what goals are your actions intended to move you towards.

      In the end, setting priorities is an exercise in self-knowledge. You need to know what tasks you’ll treat as a pleasure and which ones like torture, what tasks lead to your objectives and which ones lead you astray or, at best, have you spinning your wheels and going nowhere.

      These three are the best-known and most time-tested strategies out there, but maybe you’ve got a different idea you’d like to share? Tell us how you set your priorities in the comments.

      More Tips for Effective Prioritization

      Featured photo credit: Mille Sanders via unsplash.com

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