On the seductive illusion of consumerism and happiness

We all know the classic tale of how humanity, with its insatiable greed, destroys Mother Earth. With our lack of foresight and lust for convenience and new gadgets, we have pumped so much carbon into the atmosphere that melting ice sheets could raise sea levels by as much as six feet during this century.

Deforestation, disappearing species and our convoluted food system of factory farming and pesticides are all symptoms of our skewed priorities and profit-driven mindset.

You have heard the story a million times by now and I’ll spare you the spiel, because instead of dwelling on the evils of humanity, I’d rather focus on how our less eco-friendly lifestyles affect our psyches. What has our abandonment of an earth-based lifestyle done to us on an emotional and psychological level? When we left the farms for factories and traded in our plows for office computers, did we gain or lose in the end?

I don’t want to use this column to ignorantly romanticize the authenticity of “living off the land.” I realize there were many troubles associated with that lifestyle, including disease, overwork, pests and famine. In many ways technology has improved our standard of living. However, my intuition keeps telling me the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction toward consumerism, modernization and convenience. The weakening state of our earth proves we’re doing something wrong.

I lodge my major complaint against consumerism – the notion that purchasing manufactured goods makes the world go around. For many years I never quite understood why groups like Adbusters treated advertising and product consumption as evils. Then I gradually realized I had grown up learning a lie: that buying more new clothes – ones I usually didn’t really need – would fill a tiny void in my soul. But as soon as a new shirt filled one pocket-sized void, another one would appear. I would need more music, another poster, a new skirt, a cup of coffee, a burrito. The cycles of consumerism kept me coming back for more because eventually those clothes became “outdated,” and I would need to go shopping again.

Soon, I realized that, although I could throw my money and energy at this endless cycle forever, my purchased happiness only provided me with a fickle, temporary contentment that required constant maintenance. My mind was always snooping around for its next fix. Thus, my happiness largely depended on what I owned or how much fun I could purchase. After I uncovered these flaws in the system, I found a deeper and more consistent happiness in simplicity – contentment with less, not more – in appreciating whatever life threw my way, in each moment.

Last semester I visited the Possibility Alliance, a homesteading educational center in La Plata, and this cemented my views. I always had a sense of completeness when hiking through nature that I could never quite grasp when doing homework on my laptop in the library. The homesteaders at the Possibility Alliance use no electricity or other modern conveniences. They bike wherever they have to go and make everything – down to the beeswax candles they use at night. However, founder Ethan Hughes told me, “We don’t go to restaurants or movies, and we certainly don’t go to Aruba for vacation, but we feel like we live like kings and queens. We have a daughter, and we spend time together doing what we care about, and what else is there? If our goal is happiness, then we’re way happier now.”

This comes from a family that lives on $3,000 every year. When I visited there, I could see why. No white noise muddles the air, only the natural sounds of wind and livestock. The air feels warm and peaceful. It’s difficult to explain, but I have a sense when I’m in this place – or any place in nature – that I don’t want or need anything else.

I feel duped by consumerism. It taught me to depend on coffee instead of self-discipline to get schoolwork done, to watch movies when I hung out with my friends instead of interacting with them, to depend on packaged food instead of making homecooked meals and to believe that nature was a novelty to enjoy in my spare time instead of throughout my day-to-day existence. We’ve lost bodies of knowledge about the earth because hardly anyone lives a sustainable, earth-based lifestyle anymore. Considering how little time we spend within an actual ecosystem, it’s no wonder we don’t think twice about harming them.

In addition, the lifestyles we have replaced this one with are not always psychologically healthy. With depression hitting 9.5 percent of Americans according to the National Institute of Mental Health, is it really working for us? Even now, we all spend our weeks chained to our desks. Then by the time Friday comes we have such a strong need to cut loose and communicate with other people instead of our computer screens that we spend all our money at parties and bars. Don’t get me wrong, I am incredibly grateful for the body of knowledge I have acquired at Truman, because it has truly shaped me as a person. But I do feel like my lifestyle is missing something organic and authentic, which is why I hope to someday live “off the grid,” similar to the people at the Possibility Alliance. In the meantime, I can’t mope around about it. I still have a lot of control over my lifestyle, so I am taking little steps toward simplicity whenever I can. I try not to buy anything I don’t need, and I try buying secondhand if I do. I mend my torn clothes instead of tossing them. I save my food scraps for compost and try to buy food from local sources to break down the concrete wall that separates me from where my food comes from. And most importantly, I try to spend a few minutes outside whenever I can.

To build a better world, the environmental movement should consider advocating the benefits of living simply instead of overloading us with tales of our cruelty and greed. Most of us were raised to live a consumerist lifestyle from birth and are taught to buy things to assuage our desires. We need to see that simple living will make us happier, not just ethical.

I leave you with the words of Ethan Hughes: “In the end, we all want to be happy. That’s the simplest summary of the world. We all play really bad means to get it. We’re still going after it, but we think, ‘Oh if I only had another hundred-thousand in the bank I would be happy. If I could only go to two more dance clubs tonight.’ It’s always something in the future.”

For more on the Possibility Alliance, visit:
“Radical Simplicity”
Testimonial from a former resident
My Index article
Ethan Hughes audio interview
The Superheroes (The Alliances serves as headquarters for a volunteer group of bikeriders who ride around the country to do free service)