Fixing Our Material-Driven Economy

(Just file this post under the category ‘We’re doomed.’ Seriously.  I just created it and moved all posts that included either the phrase ‘We’re screwed’ or ‘We’re doomed’ into it.)

Last week, my local radio station’s morning show was about superpowers. If you could choose one, what would it be? I started fantasizing about being able to talk to animals (Brie!) or to teleport (have afternoon tea in England? Why yes, I think I will). Seems like I’m in the minority: out of the four callers whose responses I heard, two wanted to be able to shoplift with impunity. One wanted to be able to rob banks without getting caught.

So, let me get this straight. We now live in a society where we have more stuff than we’ve ever had in the whole course of our evolution. Given a choice of any super power — transmogrification, telekinesis, omniscience, shooting spiderwebs out of our wrists — we just want…more stuff?

Looks like the real cost of stuff is not only the amount of space and time it takes up in our already brief lives, but also our ability to imagine happiness as independent from pointless acquisition. Sad. Even sadder is the fact that we’re raping the planet and exploiting workers from around the world just to have lots of stuff that doesn’t even make us happy. (See The Story of Stuff.)

Our economy is based primarily on stuff: using increasing resources to produce and sell increasing numbers of products, some of which are specially designed to conk out after a few years so we’ll have to keep buying new ones. Unfortunately, the whole system hinges on having natural resources that renew at or above our rate of use. Most of them don’t. 

Are there any alternatives? I can’t currently find or remember the name of the book I was flipping through (1970s paperback, talks about how our use of resources is going to outstrip supply), but it proposed that an economy that focused on the experiential rather than the material wouldn’t require unsustainable amounts of resources and could grow almost indefinitely. Education, art, and religion were some of the examples it mentioned.

I’m not big on religion, just because I think it’s a good thing for people to think for themselves and am skeptical that the total influence of religion on human interaction has been primarily positive, but education? Art? Sounds good. I doubt anyone ever died wishing she had spent more time at the mall, but plenty of people do wish they had taken a special trip, written a novel, or spent more time with the people who were important to them.

We would need some major infrastructure changes to transition to a stable, less-consumerist economy. I’m not holding my breath waiting for the government to jump on board.  But on an individual level, we can prioritize experience over stuff on a consistent and daily basis. It’s not about cutting out all material possessions or never going shopping again; it’s about giving more of your time to whatever makes you feel happy, healthy, and connected. And maybe realizing that spending time with people, cats, or trees you love, lingering over aroma of a simmering soup, savoring the spine tingle of great music played live — enough of these experiences, and you don’t need retail therapy or mounds of stuff. 

Let’s just hope we wake up before we destroy our own lives and the planet.


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