Just about anyone who ponders the perils we presently face as a civilization will eventually trace the roots of the crisis to the fact that modern people—Americans in particular—are born into a cult of consumerism. It is inherited servitude to an addiction that, so far, has seemed to grow more entrenched in every new generation. And we intuitively know it is killing us (along with a great many helpless others).
That’s why, if you have read the many books, blogs, articles, and opinion pieces written about the unsustainability of our way of life, you have certainly run across this bit of “what-you-can-do-about-it” advice: Stop buying.
It is a logical conclusion and a powerful strategy. Production and consumption are a millstone continually grinding away at what remains of a life worth living. So, if enough consumers were to go on a buying strike in unison—well, let’s just say it might put a wrench in the works and bring a few Important People to the bargaining table for once.
But, we have yet to follow that excellent advice in any meaningful way. Sure, consumer spending is down from the bubbly highs we reached in 2006, but generally not by design, not as an act of collective non-cooperation. We simply don’t have as much money as we did then.
So far, our potent capacity to deflect the course of humanity toward catastrophe goes untapped. Though we complain bitterly about income inequality, class warfare, and corporate insanity—in the end we keep writing the checks that pay for it all. Every month. On time. With interest. We keep taking their trinkets to the check out lines like the addicts that we are.
That’s because the words “stop buying” barely scratch the surface of what is actually required of us. It is like saying to an alcoholic, “Just stay away from bars”—when he drives by twenty of them on the way home from work each day. No, to challenge the mad machine world we’ve built—and we must challenge it—we have to dig deep.
We have to stop wanting.
This is a radical thought that marketers spend billions of dollars every year to keep you from thinking—to keep you from knowing you even can think it.
Many people will cry foul about now. “Stop wanting? We are human beings. You might as well tell us to stop breathing.“ Very well, let’s rephrase: Stop wanting things that are not real. Better still—train yourself to want something new and better.
A few years ago I happened to be in a mall at Christmastime—not my first choice or my natural habitat. But I’ll admit, the food court smelled good. The clothes on mannequins in every window were appealing. The music was uplifting, the 25-foot tree was beautiful. Most everyone (not working) was happy to be there, pleasantly high on the experience.
Suddenly I realized where the buzz was coming from—it emanated from a shared feeling of power. Our culture defines that kind of power like this: the ability to walk into the mall at Christmas and leave again with anything you want. “Purchasing power” is the phrase we use.
Here is the alternative source of power I saw clearly that day: the ability to walk into a mall at any time and not want what they are selling. To not be fooled by the marketing sleight of hand that conceals what the spectacle of consumption actually costs the earth and people who are far less empowered.
You see, what they are selling is not clothes, or shoes, or phones, or furniture. They are selling the “right” to think of ourselves as special—as powerful. They are selling an illusion that blinds us to the truth: we are addicts, and the whole world is paying for our habit. That price may be the death of us all.
The first essential step to recovery is to resurrect and strengthen our will to choose which kind of power we value and will invest in. Do we want the counterfeit kind that keeps us dependent on systems that are inherently cruel and destructive? Or will we choose the power we all are born with to be more, to be better—to be free?
This is the question of our time. How each of us answers it may very well hold the key to our survival. Because once we decide to align with authentic power—power that instills and rewards honor, integrity, self-sacrifice, and courage—then we’ll be ready to stand and fight.