A hundred years ago, residents of the United States were called citizens. However, in order for them to be of greater service to capitalism, we started calling them consumers. In the 1960s, consumer overtook the word citizen as a way to describe an American.
Also about a hundred years ago, capitalists came up with the notion of disposability. Starting with paper cups, which were largely invented to protect people’s health by limiting the spread of germs, capitalists realized that by creating products that people threw away, there would always be a demand. As it turned out, turning materials into garbage was very profitable.
Unfortunately, the short-sightedness of this methodology has caused a number of bigger problems.
Obviously, for starters, there is the realization that we are running out of resources that we can turn into garbage in order to make a few quick bucks. Our incessant need for disposable paper products, from toilet tissue to advertising flyers that few people read, has caused massive deforestation, which the vast majority of scientists agree contributes to climate change.
Our addiction to fossil fuel has many speculating that we will soon reach a time of peak oil, meaning that we have sucked as much of the life blood from the Earth as she is capable of giving. Yet, capitalists are still finding ways to squeeze more drops from her through destructive practices like fracking, which is quickly poisoning the planet’s water supply and making it unfit to drink for humans, animals, and plants.
And of course, although we ingeniously figured out how to turn oil into plastic, a substance that will not decompose for 500 years, capitalists have convinced us to make disposable products out of that as well. This has resulted in a floating mass of plastic in the Pacific ocean that is larger than the state of Texas. Scientists predict that another 30 years of disposable plastic will result in it outweighing the total number of fish in the ocean.
Yet perhaps one of the greatest challenges that has been developed through this disastrous practice of cultivating a culture of disposable consumerism is how much it devalues human life. For the sake of convenience, we sacrifice mindfulness. Our value to this throwaway society is all too often mistaken for merely how much we are capable of consuming instead of what we are actually capable of contributing.
One day, we may make laws that will force corporations to limit the amount of refuse and pollution they create through the manufacturing and distribution of their products. But currently, our economic system has been designed for them to turn as many resources as possible – wood, oil, coal, metal, and time – into numbers on a computer. In order to turn the tide, eventually, human beings will have to recognize their value again and what it means to be a citizen.
Fortunately, there are a number of ways we are capable of doing that. If you want to be more of a citizen than a consumer, here are a few things that you might want to consider.
Be a better materialist. While unhealthy materialism has given materialists a bad rap, there is such a thing as healthy materialism. It involves actually appreciating material instead of seeking out ways to dispose of it. How can you more greatly appreciate the materials you use everyday instead of merely producing more garbage?
There is actually no such thing as garbage. Just like money, corporations, and Twinkies, garbage is a human invention that does not exist in nature. For millions of years, nature has never wasted anything, but has used every last molecule in an endless cycle of the development of more life. In what ways can you consciously cultivate your lifestyle to emulate the natural world?
Convenience castrates character. It was once believed that patience was a virtue and that waiting for things helped build character. Unfortunately, in the culture of consumerism, we have been trained that we should have everything whenever we want it and never be inconvenienced with having to wait for anything. What conveniences could you sacrifice in order to increase the quality of your character?
There is great power in responsibility. It will certainly be a great day when we as a society find the political will to confront this scourge of disposable consumerism and limit it accordingly. In the meantime, those humans who put wisdom into practice without being commanded to make an investment in their soul that those who merely follow orders will never be able to understand. Society will change when we understand that we create society through our own behaviors.