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Thesis: People over-consume because they lack in personal truth and personal insight.
When I was a teenager, I wanted to buy lots of things. Designer clothes were top of the list. I couldn’t afford them (and thankfully, was brought up with realistic ideas about credit cards: namely, never carry a balance) – and so had to figure out alternate ways to salve that desire to consume.
So I started to make clothes.
The simple process of deciding to create the thing that I really, really wanted – well, it made the desire go away. I stopped wanting to buy things that other people made. While I still did buy things, of course, it wasn’t based in the same consumption-desire. It was based on more practical needs.
I’m describing this little bit of my history because it seems like a useful thread to pull at while attempting to understand why people over-consume.
We know that most of us, in this country, all the time, over-consume. We buy more food than we can eat, or we eat more than is good for us. We buy more things than we need and then expect other people to gift us more things. We live in houses larger than necessary, have multiple big cars, live in places that we can’t walk to work, commute long distances as if that were the only choice, watch bad tv and over-consume media.
We over-consume medical services, probably out of fear. We over-consume, in the financial sense, education- not believing that better can be had for free.
What do those two last items mean? We are afraid, and we trust the opinions of others, those whom we pay, more than ourselves. I think this belief system, that individuals can’t intuit a personal truth- is the core of over-consumption.
What is it to sense a personal truth? It’s to recognize the fringes of illness and treat it via the psychological and emotional means before it becomes a problem. It’s to never over-eat because you are able to sense fullness at every bite. It’s to know that the wanting of the designer bag isn’t really about the bag- it’s about wanting creativity, joy or something delicious.
Most people follow the advice of doctors, without questioning, and without exercising their own critical thinking- or personal intuition. We’ve become vigilant about, and scared of our bodies. Doctors and the medical profession, for the most part, encourage this emotional reality. The stress of worrying about cancer probably doesn’t help prevent it! (see this surprisingly enlightened nytimes article.)
On a personal level, I’ve gone pretty far to the side of not-consuming health care services- primarily because I don’t trust in an establishment that exists outside of a market economy. Yes, I trust the market more than something opaque. While I buy health insurance, it’s super-high deductible, meaning I’ll never use it unless I were to get seriously injured or sick. (see: the benefits of catastrophic health insurance vs the over-consuming kind most people have.)
I also, personally, don’t believe in much of the medical paradigm that we currently live in. I believe physical illness is rooted in emotional/ psychological states, and mental illnesses are rooted in physical states. I know this point of view is far out of the main stream, and I want to be clear- I recognize that contemporary medical treatments often work- but the question is at what cost? And at what opportunity cost? Wouldn’t it be better to treat the root of the problem?
The desire to extend life indefinitely (Kurzweil) strikes me as grossly materialistic. Necessary for an atheist, perhaps, but selfish.
If individuals are able to, on a more personal level, start to assess their health and wellness, and address it from the level of stress management and emotional health- than the reality of more tailored, less wasteful, consumption on medical services is possible.
I love learning. LOVE self-education. It’s incredibly important, and one of the defining trajectories of my life. But my general thesis- that over-consumption happens when individuals lack personal insight- applies to the modality of higher education. Lower-education as well, though in most circumstances it’s little more than child-care.
Higher education is, perhaps, mostly over-consumptive in the financial sense, not the environmental sense. I can think of much, much better ways to spend a couple hundred thousand dollars. First of all, you can get the education other ways. Learning and creativity are accessible all the time, and information is available to everyone with access to a library, the internet, or an apprenticeship. They still take an investment of time, of course.
Additionally, all the state-level or local institutions would be improved markedly if all the “smart” and going-places people decided to learn via the cheaper option. What’s preventing this? I believe that it’s an entrenched, unwilling-to-evolve base of teachers- if the local schools were faced with the best and the brightest, the teachers would need to be more flexible, more open to innovation, more open to personalize approaches to learning. Why do people want to go to the expensive, prestigious school? Because they either 1. believe they’ll learn more, or 2. believe they’ll develop a better network. Number 2 is true. Number 1 is not. Learning happens on the individual level.
If you really had the choice of $100k to spend on starting a business, or supporting yourself during apprenticeship, or going to college- which would you choose?
Food: perhaps the most visible way we over-consume. Of course, it’s closely linked to medical costs. (actually, obesity related issues are around 20% of the medical costs in the US) – and, to quote the Supreme Court ruling on the Affordable Care Act:
“To consider a different example in the health care market, many Americans do not eat a balanced diet. That group makes up a larger percentage of the total population than those without health insurance. … The failure of that group to have a healthy diet increases health care costs, to a greater extent than the failure of the uninsured to purchase insurance.” (p.28)
The obvious question is – why do people overeat? If you are healthy, and balanced in your body, overeating does not feel good. It feels awful. I can think of only a few times in the past ten years that I’ve over-eaten during a single meal- and it’s not fun.
But the reality is- most over-eating happens in a small way- bite by bite- so it’s much harder to monitor. If you’ve looked at lots of ladies’ magazines over the past years, you’ve probably read of that internal gauge called an “appestat” – it’s supposed to regulate what you eat. If you practice over-eating, eating non-nutritious food, under-eating, or any other form of eating disorder, it gets “confused”, and you have to re-teach it consciously.
I’d say these three things are most responsible for the tendency towards over-consumption of food:
– fake food – fake sugars, food with the fat reduced or removed, etc. It doesn’t provide balanced nutrition so the un-satiated eater keeps eating.
– delegating care of the body to a “professional.” As for medical over-consumption, the lack of personal insight/ intuition about one’s physical state, or the delegating of that insight to someone who can’t have it (a doctor, a nutritionist) reinforces over-consumption.
– belief that a good diet is the same for all people …i.e. vegetarianism is good for me but might be bad for you. Paleo might feel great for you but it makes me ill….etc.
clothing & things, cars & shelter
These last material goods are the easiest, least controversial elements of over-consumption. They are physical, they are measurable, and everyone basically agrees that we should use less of them. There’s a clear correlation between buying lots of things and environmental impact, and there’s an even clearer correlation between horrible working conditions and our desire to buy a lot of things cheaply, rather than a few things at a fair price.
And really, these material things are, perhaps the easiest ways we have to start to pull the threads on our cultural over-consumption. We need most of these things, but we clearly need them at a lower level then we usually buy them. We’re also more open-minded about consuming less of the material goods, compared to that sacred trifecta of food/ healthcare/ education.
If you start to think seriously about over-consumption, it becomes evident that those three more complicated issues- food, health, education- over-emotionalized and opaque as they are – are the by-product of lives that over-consume everywhere they can.
To go back to the thesis: having stronger personal, individual insight and awareness naturally leads to less consumption. Being able to be less consumptive in one area of life also makes it easier to consume less in others- it’s a self-reinforcing thesis. If I’m able to start to trust my own intuition about my health, maybe I can trust my intuition about my education. About my food choices. About what I really want when I think about buying something material. Pick any sector of the consumption-circle, preferably a non-emotionalized area- and try to sense out what the true truth is behind the desire to over-consume.
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