Consumption as a Way of Life

Relational Liberty >

The Islander Knows

“This is why

we buy stuff we don’t need,

with money we don’t have,

to impress people we don’t know,

for feelings that don’t last.”


Lua said that on her island, they like to tell the story of the Atonqi people:


The Atonqi people were a large tribe that lived deep in the interior of a rainforest. Some of the younger members of the tribe were ambitious and wished to expand their world by creating a path to the sea.


There were others in the tribe that were wary of this plan and chose not to participate and instead climbed the tallest trees to enjoy the view, make crafts and converse with one another about tribal matters.


At first, the clearing took much effort and progress was painfully slow and burdensome. Morale was low. But after some time, a few of the more clever workers suggested new cutting strategies and designed better tools that enable the workers to clear the path faster and more efficiently with each passing day. The enthusiasm grew and morale improved.


One day, the tree dwellers observed from their lofty vantage point that the path that the workers were clearing was leading them straight to the edge of a steep cliff, not to their dreamed-about ocean. When they climbed down to warn them, they were told that the workers were not to be bothered because they were finally making great progress.


Bob had come back in time to catch Lua’s story. After hearing it, he and I just stared at each other in silence.


Tucker, Jan, and Clara exchanged gestures of sardonic amusement.


Paul, quite amused by Lua’s story, added that our actual non-abstracted psychological and social experiences suggest that we are all, in fact, persons of community.


Our individual identity and feelings of well-being are very much defined by the quality of our social relations. We are, in fact, related not only by our individual desires to pay for satisfying our wants, but also by relations of trusteeship and compassion for the poor, future generations, and for other species.


To its credit, the free market system does channel individual greed to the common good without coercive social institutions.


But the value and contributions of community life that markets ignore are necessary at different geographic scales to define the social good, adapt the social order, and manage environmental systems collectively.


Indeed, homo economicus, as the self-contained unit of methodological economic individualism, is a rather cartoonish and absurd abstraction.


The current culture of excessive individualism and conspicuous consumption exists primarily to impress, to intimidate, and to generate envy.


This is why we buy stuff we don’t need, with money we don’t have, to impress people we don’t know, for feelings that don’t last.


Though the consequent decline in community life and concern with moral conduct are not the fault of Adam Smith’s invisible-hand economy, but his reasoning certainly played a decisive role in justifying individual greed.


There is an implicit understanding that one must compete by understanding and coming to dominate the natural and social systems one inhabits.


Desire to acquire and consume is taken to be psychologically unlimited.


Growth in the economic activities of extraction and excretion knows no bounds.


In the neoliberalist market philosophy dominant today, the individual must survive and flourish as an economic self, one must fulfill biological and psychological needs by competing successfully to extract value from the labor of others or to secure access to positions in which one’s own labor can provide the desired income.


The assumption is that individual tastes and preferences are fixed and given, and that the economic problem consists of optimally satisfying those preferences once and for all.


But this is not the case at all. Producers stimulate new ‘wants,’ then conveniently create the goods needed to satisfy them.


Preferences and desires can and do change quickly at the whim of a powerful and influential billionaire puppet master exclusively devoted to that very purpose — the advertising industry.


Advertising generates envy, which perpetuates high levels of consumption.


When preferences change over time under the influence of education, advertising, and changing cultural assumptions, desires, and expectations; a steady state of optimal satisfaction is quite elusive indeed.


Lua commented,


“You mainlanders are caught in some strange collective trance in your obsession with MONEY—a false god of value. It distorts your reality, limits your freedom, and will soon likely take you over a cliff. We, on the other hand, are deeply connected to Earth’s ever-evolving community of life. We see life moving, for its own deeply mysterious purpose, towards ever increasing awareness and beauty and complexity. We live every day with joy and wonder in our hearts at its full range of possibilities. We value our distinctiveness. We worship life, not money, and measure our success in the health of our communities and the happiness and well-being of our citizens and families, not on the frequency of monetary exchange or the size of numbers in a bank account. For us, business is not about money; it’s about relationships. It’s about belonging, not belongings. We nurture and protect our culture as the foundation for trust in our informal economy. Community, not things, brings happiness. I do not understand why self-described good and intelligent people would accept such a spiritually-impoverished, joyless economy.”


Lua’s comment made me think of the words of French philosopher Voltaire, ‘It is difficult to free fools from the chains they revere.’


She followed up her last comment with a witty song about an islander. She strummed a few opening chords on her ukulele and sang to us:


There was a time, not long ago
When folks were few, and change was slow
The Earth a-filled, with Nature’s gifts
No reason then, for pause and thrift


But now, it’s true, the world is full
And money games, have made us dull
We burn too much, we move too fast
We grow, we spread, this cannot last


The Islander, is one who knows
That there are bounds, to all that grows
That there can be, a size just right
That Life can thrive, without a fight


The Islander, has this to say
Yes, there can be, a better way
Yes, Man and Earth, can get along
Yes, there’s still time, to right the wrong


The Islander, whose bounds are real
Would surely say, look, here’s the deal
Find the balance, slow the pace
Lose the greed, or doom you face


The Islander, will tell you straight
Your wasteful ways, will seal your fate
Your wants and needs, are not the same
Your “Living Large,” a foolish game


The Islander, is one who knows
That there are bounds, to all that grows
That there can be, a size just right
That Life can thrive, without a fight


The Islander, has this to say
Yes, there can be, a better way
Yes, Man and Earth, can get along
Yes, there’s still time, to right the wrong


We were all quiet for a time after Lua finished her song, trying hard to see the world the way she did.


Her way of thinking was so foreign to us.


Find the balance. Slow the pace. Lose the greed or doom you face.


It makes perfect sense that on a full planet, we are all effectively islanders and need to start thinking and acting as islanders do and accept limits to growth — or deal with the grim consequences.


She then broke the thick silence by excusing herself so that she could start preparing lunch for the group.


Julie offered to help and got up to follow Lua to the galley.


Before she left us, Julie paused for a moment and told us that, as a long-time restaurant owner and community activist, she is beginning to see several encouraging trends:


The old institutions of an ugly extractive money economy are slowly dying and being replaced by emerging institutions of a regenerative living economy that respects the regeneration rate of natural resources.


Small family farms and farmers’ markets and locally owned, human-scale businesses are transforming communities and making them more self-reliant, resilient, prosperous, happier, and healthier.


Edge projects and networks such as BALLE, Transition Towns, Shareable, Peer to Peer, Open Source, Degrowth, Slow Food, Seed Freedom, Buen Vivir, and Canada’s Leap Manifesto are gaining real momentum.


Bike-friendly streets and walkable mixed-use urban places and communities, zero-waste local recycling systems, community-controlled wind and solar energy projects, local banks and credit unions — many good things are happening at the local level, and interesting times are on the horizon.


Re-localization may be our best — and perhaps our only — way forward from here as the overly complex, centralized, energy-and-materials intensive, infrastructure-heavy model of society and the economy on which we currently rely continues to crumble.


With those parting words, Julie left the group and we disbanded the all-hands-on-deck debate, feeling a little more buoyant and inspired.

Consumption as a Way of Life

Relational Liberty >

​© 2019 Rich 'Rico' Leon