Abundance is grand and is celebrated as a symbol of all that is good about industrialized western society: free will, individual expression and of course, the freedom to choose! The more money we accumulate, the wider our spectrum of consumption choices and the greater the possibilities to live life to the fullest…or so it may seem.
In modern society, a trivial task like walking into a grocery store to buy a box of cereal turns into a mind-numbing mental exercise involving navigating through a maze of sugar free, sugary, whole grain, whole wheat, low fat, high-fat, low cholesterol options. Where we come out at the end of the ordeal depends partly on what we actually wanted to begin with and how well we manage to tune out the distracting options that are presented. Our experience shopping for clothes, shoes, personal care products, gadgets and other everyday items are not so different. With the exception of choices that address the needs of people with allergies and health conditions, a majority of them serve no clear purpose. We have way more choices than we can actually exercise in a lifetime, yet most of us don’t complain about it because we’re thankful the choices exist. However, every time some light is shed on how mindless and damaging a majority of products we consume are to our health and the well-being of animals and the planet, we get appalled and demand a better, more sustainable or humane option, which consequently leads to more products, and more choices!
The question we really need to ask ourselves is why do we choose what we do? If each of us can honestly answer that question, we may be able to put our consumption habits into context and figure out if we’re really in control of our choices or the abundance of choices control us.
We need far less than we think we do
The wonderful world of advertising has played a fascinating trick on us — it has convinced us that we don’t actually know what we need until we’re told about it. Want to know why people start lining up at the Apple store days before a new gadget is released? They’ve been sold an idea, not a product, and finding a practical use for it is often secondary. Of course, some advancements in technology do fulfill important needs in our lives, but do we really need to buy the latest version every year or two? We’ve all fallen prey to advertising that has managed to convince us that we really ought to be buying something, because we might not be happy, healthy, entertained, informed or good looking without it. If we actually paused to think about whether our choice to buy or consume something is actually tied to a need that existed before we heard of the product, odds are we will realize that most products create a need, rather than fulfill it. Further, once we think we need something, we then want more and more of it, we want it cheaper and we want it now. Sweatshops and factory farms exist because we demand abundance and this irrational demand has trapped us in a death spiral of mindless production and consumption.
Do you “know” what you’re buying?
Every product sitting on a shelf, whether it is an innocent looking box of cereal or a leather jacket has a story behind it. The product was made of raw materials that in many cases are sourced keeping quality (hopefully), but more importantly price in mind. That’s just the reality of the post-industrial age of mass production and apparent abundance. However, the consequence of this reality at a global scale is that compromises are often made, starting from the point of sourcing raw materials, to production, packaging and distribution. Take food for instance. We can’t get through a day without it, yet most of us don’t spend any time trying to learn about the journey our food took to reach our plates, and whether it aligned with our ethics and more importantly, common sense. We participate (albeit implicitly) in actions that most of us would not only find abhorrent, but also illogical (if we only bothered to learn about them!). To make matters worse, 30% of all food produced in the world each year is wasted or lost and it’s people with the most money that waste the most. Of course, who has the time to think about this? Don’t multi-billion dollar corporations exist to solve such problems? That’s why we pay the Government taxes, right? Whether we like it or not, we can’t vote for change or buy change and sit back and wait for it to unfold. Change begins with us.
The not-so-bottomless well
Abundance wouldn’t be a problem if our natural resources were limitless. Unfortunately, what appears to be a bottomless well is running out. The fact that we’ve also mistaken that well to be a trash can, has only further diminished our ability to extract anything from it. Industries shield the public from having to think about the moral and environmental consequences of their actions because people reach for their wallets quicker when they’re not obstructed by thought. So what good is abundance and choice, when it has unwittingly helped us abandon our ability to think freely and critically? Abundance is nothing more than an illusion and we’re finally in on the trick — it’s time we start choosing like it matters.