Let's be Citizens, Not Consumers

by - Saturday, June 09, 2018

America citizens or consumers

The 4th of July is coming up, and it has me asking the same question over and over again.

Are we American citizens or American consumers? 

My least favorite phrase in the English language is "the customer is always right"

I think we all know that is essentially not true (at least for other people and DEFINITELY when you work in service), and yet, on some level we believe it for ourselves. What we want as consumers is always right. What we want, just this second, is right.

This blog spend a lot of time trying to talk people into doing things that are good for them, will make their life happier, and that are better for everyone they know and love. Pretty consistently, people don't listen anyway.

I am sure some of this is human nature (the competing drives to do what is good vs what is easy and feels good RIGHT NOW), but I think this law of consumerism rules our lives in ways we can't see in ourselves.

For example, I try weekly to talk people into eating less beef (and before you think I am looking down on you specifically, remember my own husband still eats a burger pretty often, and he is my favorite person). Beef conversations go this way:

"Beef is one of the most environmentally-damaging things we do."
"But I like steak"

"Beef is bad for your heart and body and doesn't have as much nutritional value as previous generations thought it did"
"But I like steak"

"Unless you are buying (very expensive) local and humanely-treated beef, the animal you are eating was terribly mistreated"
"But I like steak"

I can appeal to their vanity, their faith and stewardship, the literal air they are breathing in, but no point matters as much to them as the fact that they really like steak. What they want is more important than what is right.

Now, we as humans are always driven to do things that are bad for us, that hurt us or the people we care about (or deity- I mean I am basically talking about sin, right?). My issue with our identities as consumers is that none of that is as important as what we want. That if you want something or like it, the ugliness behind it is inconsequential.

I am not immune to this either. My son's baptism just happened, and I can't tell you how much time I have wasted oogling dresses to wear that I know weren't made ethically. But they are soooo pretty. I didn't end up buying one, but I did buy him brand new dress up clothes, even though I know I can find something similar (if not exactly what I wanted) secondhand.

We have been told again and again that what we want is right.

Even worse, we have internalized the argument that we should get what we want as quickly, cheaply, and thoughtlessly as possible. In fact, we can perceive things as "wasteful" if we spend more money and time on something when we can get it as less.

But of course, this is a huge, ridiculous lie. And this one huge ridiculous lie has spread into every area of our life, doing tremendous, ugly damage. We spend a lot of time frustrated that we aren't getting exactly what we want. It has spread into politics, so that politicians who we blindly believe will fix the problem with as little cost to ourselves can win (think about it- a lot of supposedly instant solutions to problems floating around right now... can you say border wall?).

I notice it in every facet of our public life. In my hometown, people complain endlessly about the lack of jobs, closing businesses, etc. And then they go and shop at Walmart (instead of supporting local businesses and business owners). Because that is easier and cheaper for them (even if it comes at a much larger longterm cost).

Our identities as consumers have overcome our responsibilities as citizens.

What we want (right now, cheap, and easy) looks more important to us that what is right (which is almost always slower and a lot of work). 

So if we said ENOUGH and became citizens first, what would that even look like? These are the best steps I can think of ; no one can do all of them, and we all have to make it work where we can (time, money, and local options are all individual factors, but these could be good places to start.

We would commit a lot less time and money to shopping and stuff. What if we worked off the premise that (other than food) we already had what we needed? Buy one great gift instead of five. Focus on experiences instead of things. Go to a park instead of going shopping. Choose different pass times.

We would turn off the ads of our lives. No more cable. No more magazines. That doesn't mean you have to break off from the world, but we know in certain media we are being fed TONS of ads to tell us that we aren't enough and we need such and such thing. I mean, people watch the Superbowl just for ads!

We would get involved in our communities. Join a Buy Nothing Group. Volunteer for Meals on Wheels. Advocate for Recycling or Green Waste where we live. Join city band. Go back to church. Join communities on Facebook if we don't have the time in real life.

We would shop like citizens instead of consumers. Sure, you may get the best deal at Walmart or the Dollar Store, but the dollars you spend at community businesses stay in your community. Money you put toward national brands, whether it be stores or restaurants, are gone from your community forever. Buy ethical or fair trade. Buy local. This is important.

We would divorce stuff from our celebrating. Do you need to go out and buy so much stuff every winter? Do you need matching outfits and 400 types of sparklers on the 4th of July? How did Thanksgiving become about shopping?

The fruits of this are pretty profound too. Right now, Anthony Bourdain is on my mind. He went all over the world and ate all sorts of food, but he never felt like a tourist traipsing around consuming other cultures. Why is that? Partially because I think he really acted like a citizen, getting to know the people making the food and never buying things where he didn't know where they were coming from. He made people all over the world seem not so far away and not so scary because he really reminded us that everything we consume is made by someone, and that person has value.

Certainly, his privilege as a rich white man partially allowed this globe-trotting, but I still think we could use some of that in our everyday lives. Being a citizen is recognizing the humanity in each other and seeing every person as having value. Wanting to make the world a better place, and you can do that by changing your values in how you shop (and by shopping way less).

"A passive and ignorant citizenry will never create a sustainable world." 
-- Andrew Gaines

The role of citizen has never been more important than now in the face of ecological crisis and climate change. If we stay blind consumers and don't take responsibility for how our consumerism is making the world unlivable for future generations, then we are dooming our children and grandchildren. Our Earth is being destroyed because we think our consumer choices are about what we want and not about what is good for the world.

We are so wrong.

Every plastic-wrapped object adds plastic to our waters. Every Made in Elsewhere purchase endorses the waste of fossil fuels and the mistreatment of another human being. Every time we buy more than we need, we are costing the world. Every purchase we make is a REAL and urgent test of our citizenship. It's the chance to do something good.

To be a good citizen, you HAVE to change your relationship to consumerism.

A few years into this, I can say for a fact that being a citizen of this Earth, and putting the care over the Earth above my wants as a consumer, has completely transformed my life for the better. It has connected me to people I love, sent me on adventures, become a much better parent, and finally broke my own addictions to shopping. I am not saying we are perfect, or that we make perfect choices, but it has shifted our paradigm and made life so much better.

Being a citizen takes more work and more time, because getting to know another person or really facing down a problem is so complex. But this effort is rewarded in experiences, relationships, and communities with more depth and value. In short, if you give up your identity as a consumer, you give yourself the freedom to learn and grow. That's a better life for you too.

I think self-identifying as a citizen first has amazing, transformative potential for our country and communities. Try taking that responsibility on (whatever that means to you), maybe even just for the month of June, and see how it feels. Citizenship and consumerism are at odds in each of us, but we have a choice about who we are going to be. You can "be right" or you can do right. You can't have both.

Want more inspiration to do this? This blog is trying to fight this battle everyday, and this month our focus is on NOT buying things that aren't good for America and buying Made in the USA stuff instead. Read on!

I have found a lot of help and good ideas on the Non-Consumer Advocate group and blog on Facebook. Lots of people coming to the problem for lots of reasons. Might be a great place to start!

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