Like most of you reading this, I've made - and continue to make - changes in my daily habits that I hope will have a positive effect on the environment. As I do this, I notice that these changes prove useful in three distinct ways.
One, there is the effect on the environment itself. We contribute less to landfill, we use less water, we emit less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. We try to leave a smaller footprint on the earth.
Two, we provide an example to others. Months ago, I saw someone coming out of the supermarket with a cart full of fabric shopping bags. We bought some, and now we use them all the time. Perhaps someone else will see me or Allan with our fabric bags, and decide to do the same. Perhaps one day people still using plastic bags will look and feel conspicuous, and change their habits.
The third effect of these changes is raising our own awareness.
Now that I bring my own mug for coffee on the way to work, anytime I don't have a mug with me and buy coffee with a paper cup, I'm aware of it, and I try to keep those instances to a minimum. We refill the water bottles that we keep in the car, but any time I need to buy bottled water, I feel bad, and I try to do it as little as possible. Same goes for plastic bags, unnecessary packaging, wasteful water use. We recycle so much household trash now, that we seem to challenge ourselves to reduce the non-recylcable trash down as far as we possibly can.
We often forget that the first step to making sustainable change in our lives must be increasing our own awareness. You have to know - really know - what you do, in order to do something different. If you try to make changes without that first step of awareness, your chances of succeeding plummet.
Anyone who has tried to change their eating habits should know this. If you want to eat better in the long run, you need a finely tuned awareness not just of what you eat, but when you eat, and why. That's why a good nutritionist will advise you to keep a food diary, recording your food choices and how you felt as you were making them. If you aren't aware of your eating patterns in the first place, any change you make will likely be short-lived.
One thing I've always been very aware of is my level of consumption and materialism. On the continuum between the ascetic monk and the shopaholic, I might be closer to the non-materialist end of the spectrum. But compared to many people I know who live consciously very simple lives, I am a creature of vast material comforts.
Within the context of my own life, here are some guiding principles. I don't buy things I don't use. I don't shop for recreation or entertainment. I try always to distinguish between want and need. While I do buy things that I don't need to survive, I know that I really don't need them, and I don't try to fill up my life (or my space) with want. And I would rather spend money on experiences than on things: travel, dining, theatre. The two things we buy most - books and music - could also be viewed as experience more than things.
Now, none of this feels like a conscious decision. I didn't make a resolution to live this way. It's just who I am. But I have made a conscious decision to stay this way, and not get sucked into a more material life than I need. I'm very aware that I don't fit in to the majority consumer culture, and I want to keep it that way.
And this brings me to the place where these concepts intersect: awareness of habits as a precursor to change, and why we buy what we buy.
I want a new cell phone.
Here I am, a generally non-materialistic person, who does not shop for the sake of shopping, who uses everything - furniture, shoes, clothes, computers - until it falls apart, who doesn't care about being cutting-edge, who doesn't own gadgets that she doesn't use, who doesn't care about fashion trends.
And I want a new cell phone.
I don't use my cell phone very often; it's not my main phone, and I don't talk on the phone a lot anyway. But I do like having a mobile phone for my own convenience and safety. That is, I made a conscious choice to own a cell; I didn't buy one because everyone is "supposed to" have one these days. I'm just happier to have a mobile phone than not have one.
My phone is in working order. It does what I need it to do. Yet here I am, wanting a new phone. A better-looking phone. A sleeker phone. A hipper phone.
I tried to deny it, but the desire kept returning. New phone. New, better-looking phone. Ooo, look at the new phones. I want one of those.
For a while, this desire baffled me. I don't care about buying a new computer until my current computer actually breaks down. We would never buy a new TV or DVD player until the old one no longer works. So why was I coveting those sleek new phones in all the ads?
Then it came to me.
It's the public nature of the cell phone.
No one sees my computer or TV except me and my partner. But people see my cell phone, and it screams "three years old". At Campaign meetings or at work, when people whip out their phones, they're all holding these dark, angular, new models. My rounded silver phone reveals that I am hopelessly out of date. Every time I use it, I cringe a little, knowing that it reflects badly on my hipness.
None of the "types" portrayed in those incessant mobile phones ads resemble me. I'm not trying to get ahead in business. I'm not super chic, and don't aspire to be. My days of spontaneous road trips with my buds are well behind me. I'm middle-aged, I'm heavy, what little hipness I ever possessed has all but vanished. But I don't want to lose it altogether! I don't want to look stodgy, boring... [gasp] matronly. But now my phone announces to the world that I am an archaic specimen. A fossil. I am unworthy.
Ah-ha. Even me. Even non-materialistic, non-trend-following, not-susceptible-to-peer-pressure me.
Consumer culture demands that we buy, buy, buy. We are surrounded by advertising, every bit of it designed to get us to buy more stuff. Since we, the targets of these ads, presumably have everything we need, the ads must urge us to buy what we don't need, but what we want. And if we don't want it yet, the ads exist to create that desire.
And since many of us already own what we want - yet still we must buy, buy, buy - marketers must induce us to discard what we already own.
This is accomplished in two ways: planned obsolescence - the manufacturing of crappy products that quickly become junk - and perceived obsolescence. Perceived obsolescence means my perfectly good, working cell phone is suddenly unacceptable to me, because it's last year's model.
Carrying a new-model cell phone shows we're hip, we're cool, we're up on the new trends. So carrying an old cell phone must mean we're old, boring, ugly, undesireable.
If you haven't already seen "The Story Of Stuff", I highly recommend setting aside 20 minutes and watching it from start to finish. It's an excellent graphic depiction of consumer culture - its causes and its effects.
There are many reasons not to buy a new cell phone. The deplorable conditions of the cassiterite mines, which sound like something out of the 18th Century. My local landfill. My wallet. My RRSP. My perfectly good working cell phone.
And there is only one reason to buy a new cell phone: someone has planted an idea in my head that I'm not good enough.