The spiraling curse of consumerism |

The spiraling curse of consumerism

Alex Miller

I tend to emerge from malls with but a token ” a small lamp, a pillow, a flashlight.

The consultants who study shoppers’ habits probably have a classification for someone like me, and it probably sounds like “noncommittal browser” or “space taker-upper.” That’s in part because I’m cheap and in part because I get addled by the selection; I tend to retreat with either nothing or something small. Resistance to the siren call of consumerism is, I’ve found, much more enjoyable than the big purchase.

Stuff. Junk. Belongings. Crap. Whatever we call it, it’s as much a part of our lives as bad TV and cheap burger joints. Our society has evolved (or, perhaps, devolved) to the point where the amassing of stuff has taken precedence over almost everything else. We work harder and see our kids less so we can buy more stuff. We apportion large chunks of our annual income toward paying off credit cards used primarily to acquire more junk. One person I know has even forfeit the use of his bedroom to make room for all the crap he’s collected over the years.

So, you may ask, what’s wrong with having a few things? We work hard, right? Why not reward ourselves with a new TV, a new stereo, another salad spinner? In principal, there’s nothing wrong with that. People have been collecting stuff since the days in the cave, when Thak brought home a pretty stone to give to his mate. In practice, though, the machine that churns out goods today has gone haywire, like one of the devices in the old Jetsons show. It’s putting out more pretty stones and breadmakers than we need, but we’ve somehow convinced ourselves we can’t slow it down. Instead, we run around trying to grab everything that comes out of the machine, and, in the process, we cheapen our very lives at the same time we compromise the planet’s ability to keep up.

For junk is begot not from some fantastic machine, but from real factories using real materials. Much junk is made from plastic, and we know for a fact that the base ingredient ” petroleum ” is a finite resource. Just thinking about the extraordinary amount of material that goes into the construction of a single home is enough to make my head spin. Add to that all the material made to fill said home, multiply that by a few billion and … the Earth starts to look smaller and smaller as a materials provider.

Running out of plastic, though, is the least of our worries. The consumer mindset we’ve instilled in ourselves causes us to always want more. In Eagle County, the recently booming economy makes this readily apparent, as more and more wealthy second-home owners oversee the construction of their mountain retreats. And, just as I don’t give much thought to the lot of the fellow who put together the lamp I just bought (it says “made in China” on the box), neither do Ted and Judy from Dallas think much about the impacts their vacant-50-weeks-a-year home will have on Eagle County.

We’d better start thinking about it, though. And, to an extent, we have. Green building codes, energy efficient appliances and even some plastic being replaced by organic material is starting to make a dent. But for every biodegradable corn-based cup I buy, now there’s a guy in China who buys a sleeve of the regular plastic variety. As we tone down what our coal factories kick out, there’s a new plant going up in India that’s 10 times worse. It’s a global problem, all right, but the education about it is confined only to parts of the developed world, and it’s understandable if the billions who had nothing are now striving to have a few things on their shelves.

Me, I fantasize about it sometimes, but I’m not ready to be like the guy in the old “Kung Fu” show, who roams the West barefoot with a flute and a small bag. I do, however, try to give thought to the things I buy, asking myself if I really need it. I’ve found that, if I buy only one of the 10 things I want, that one item means a lot more.

And placing higher value on things is often the first step to obtaining less of them.

Alex Miller is responsible for the editorial oversight of the Vail Daily, Eagle Valley Enterprise and Vail Trail. He can be reached at (970) 748-2920, or

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