Intolerable Beauty: Portraits of American Mass Consumption
For his series Intolerable Beauty, photographer Chris Jordan peered into shipping ports and industrial yards around America. Though these sites remain unseen by the majority of the population, they hold the stunningly massive remains of our collective consumption. Jordan’s findings include seemingly boundless troves of cell phones, e-waste, circuit boards, cell phone chargers, cars, spent bullet casings, cigarette butts, and steel shred. Jordan describes the immense scale of our detritus as simultaneously “desolate, macabre, oddly comical and ironic, and even darkly beautiful.” Like Edward Burtynsky’s photographs of our vast industrial landscapes, Jordan’s images portray a staggering complexity that verges on the sublime. The photographs reflect the loss of individual identity that results from actions that occur on such a large scale, but Jordan hopes his work can “serve as portals to a kind of cultural self-inquiry” and inspire people to reestablish a personal stake in issues of energy consumption.
Her: *ends phone conversation with her adult son* He has this whole drama going on, he borrowed some money from the monastery, and he keeps calling me.
Her: Yeah. But the good thing is, I took my final vows? So I gave up all my worldly possessions - not that I had many! - so now I can’t lend him any money, obviously. It’s like it’s not my job to be the mom anymore! I get to just send him to the prioress.
Me: You have found a way to retire from mom-ery. You hacked the system.
Consumerism becomes excessive when it extends beyond what is needed. When we begin consuming more than is needed, boundaries are removed. Personal credit allows us to make purchases beyond our income-level. Advertisements subtly reshape our desires around material possessions. And the consumption culture that surrounds us begins to make excessive consumption appear natural and normal.
Excessive consumption leads to bigger houses, faster cars, trendier clothes, fancier technology, and overfilled drawers. It promises happiness, but never delivers. Instead, it results in a desire for more… a desire which is promoted by the world around us. And it slowly begins robbing us of life. It redirects our God-given passions to things that can never fulfill. It consumes our limited resources.
And it is time that we escape the vicious cycle.
It is time to take a step back and realize that excessive consumption is not delivering on its promise to provide happiness and fulfillment. Consumption is necessary, but excessive consumption is not. And life can be better lived (and more enjoyed) by intentionally rejecting it.
Consider this list of ten practical benefits of escaping excessive consumerism in your life:
1) Less debt. The average American owns 3.5 credit cards and $15,799 in credit card debt… totaling consumer debt of $2.43 trillion in the USA alone. This debt causes stress in our lives and forces us to work jobs that we don’t enjoy. We have sought life in department stores and gambled our future on the empty promises of their advertisements. We have lost.
2) Less life caring for possessions. The never-ending need to care for the things we own is draining our time and energy. Whether we are maintaining property, fixing vehicles, replacing goods, or cleaning things made of plastic, metal, or glass, our life is being emotionally and physically drained by the care of things that we don’t need—and in most cases, don’t enjoy either. We are far better off owning less.
3) Less desire to upscale lifestyle norms. The television and the Internet has brought lifestyle envy into our lives at a level never before experienced in human history. Prior to the advent of the digital age, we were left envying the Jones’ family living next to us—but at least we had a few things in common (such as living in the same neighborhood). But today’s media age has caused us to envy (and expect) lifestyle norms well beyond our incomes by promoting the lifestyles of the rich and famous as superior and enviable. Only an intentional rejection of excessive consumerism can quietly silence the desire to constantly upscale lifestyle norms.
4) Less environmental impact. Our earth produces enough resources to meet all of our needs, but it does not produce enough resources to meet all of our wants. And whether you consider yourself an environmentalist or not, it is tough to argue with the fact that consuming more resources than the earth can replenish is not a healthy trend—especially when it is completely unnecessary.
5) Less need to keep up with evolving trends. Henry David Thoreau once said, “Every generation laughs at the old fashions, but religiously follows the new.” Recently, I have been struck by the wisdom and practical applicability of that thought whether relating to fashion, decoration, or design. A culture built on consumption must produce an ever-changing target to keep its participants spending money. And our culture has nearly perfected that practice. As a result, nearly every year, a new line of fashion is released as the newest trend. And the only way to keep up is to purchase the latest fashions and trends when they are released… or remove yourself from the pursuit altogether.
6) Less pressure to impress with material possessions. Social scientist Thorstein Veblen coined the phrase “conspicuous consumption” to describe the lavish spending on goods and services acquired mainly for the purpose of displaying income or wealth. In his 1899 book, The Theory of the Leisure Class, this term was used to describe the behavior of a limited social class. And although the behavior has been around since the beginning of time, today’s credit has allowed it to permeate nearly every social class in today’s society. As a result, no human being (in consumption cultures) is exempt from its temptation.
7) More generosity. Rejecting excessive consumerism always frees up energy, time, and finances. Those resources can then be brought back into alignment with our deepest heart values. When we begin rejecting the temptation to spend all of our limited resources on ourselves, our hearts are opened to the joy and fulfillment found in giving our personal resources to others. Generosity finds space in our life (and in our checkbooks) to emerge.
8) More contentment. Many people believe if they find (or achieve) contentment in their lives, their desire for excessive consumption will wane. But we have found the opposite to be true. We have found that the intentional rejection of excessive consumption opens the door for contentment to take root in our lives. We began pursuing minimalism as a means to realign our life around our greatest passions, not as a means to find contentment. But somehow, minimalism resulted in a far-greater contentment with life than we ever enjoyed prior.
9) Greater ability to see through empty claims. Fulfillment is not on sale at your local department store—neither is happiness. It never has been. And never will be. We all know this to be true. We all know that more things won’t make us happier. It’s just that we’ve bought into the subtle message of millions upon millions of advertisements that have told us otherwise. Intentionally stepping back for an extended period of time helps us get a broader view of their empty claims.
10) Greater realization that this world is not just material. True life is found in the invisible things of life: love, compassion, and solidarity. Again, we all know there are things in this world that are far more important than what we own. But if one were to research our actions, intentions, and receipts, would they reach the same conclusion? Or have we been too busy seeking happiness in all the wrong places?
Escaping excessive consumption is not an easy battle. If it were, it would be done more often… myself included. But it is a battle worth fighting because it robs us of life far more than we realize.
Excessive consumption promises happiness, but never delivers. True life must be found somewhere else.
One of the most essential terms with regard to Marx and Marxist theory that often comes up in conversation and tumblr discussions is the word “commodity”. While a commodity, most simply put, is a product of labor – either a good or service – that can be bought, sold, or exchanged in a market, it is important to break down the meaning of “commodity” as a concept.
First, a commodity is produced by a worker’s labor (or the labor of many workers). Under capitalism, commodities are consumed – purchased and used – but first must be produced. Workers, whose labor is exploited under capitalism, produce commodities, while those who control the means of production – the bourgeoisie – aim to make maximum profit from the sale of such commodities primarily by lowering the cost of labor and creating surplus value in the form of underpaid labor. Workers sell their labor to the bourgeoisie in order to get paid so they can secure for themselves food, water, shelter, and other basic means of survival. When labor is sold, it becomes a commodity, and becomes alienated from the worker because the labor no longer belongs to the worker; it belongs to the factory owner.
Culture can also be a commodity, as we see in the current phenomenon of gentrification – wealthy (typically white) individuals spend extra money to live in a city neighborhood in order to “consume” the idea of “other cultures” or the cultural value created by the presence of artists and community gardens, while at the same time pushing out longtime residents who cannot afford increasing rent prices. This is just one example of how culture is a commodity – going to a movie, buying music, and paying to see art are also forms of “consuming culture”.
It is important to remember that a commodity is not just something that is tangible, that can be held in your hand (like an iPhone), but can also take the form of workers’ labor and culture. There are many forms of consumption that parallel the many forms of commodities, and a Marxist perspective on consumer culture emphasizes the endless nature of production, the exploitation of workers, and the irony that we are all workers, but are also forced to consume the goods we produce.
‘As you grow in mindfulness, you take your life back. You begin to see how much time we lose in empty consumption. When we are consuming, we are also being consumed - we have become the objects of other people’s consumption. The Buddha said, “Dear friends, you are being eaten by form and feelings. You are being consumed.”
We make ourselves into merchandise for other people. We want to be alluring and sought after, so we buy new clothes or a new perfume. We work out at the gym to make ourselves more attractive and turn ourselves into objects of desire for other people, other consumers. Although we must take care of ourselves, we do many of these things because we believe this kind of consumption will bring happiness. We should look more deeply to see that this empty consumption brings us no happiness, only suffering.
The objects of our consumption are always changing. And our desires for the objects we consume are always changing from moment to moment. We are always running after something new. We may be infatuated with what we buy for a while, but soon we throw it away and buy something else. When I first came to live in France, our sangha bought a little car, a secondhand Peugeot. We went all over Europe in it, using the car to transport not only people but sand, bricks, tools, books, food, and many other materials. We used it for all our needs and kept it for many years. When our car was old and could not be used anymore, we had a difficult time letting it go. We were attached to our little Peugeot, because we and the car had gone through so much together. It had survived breakdowns, numerous accidents, and untold repairs. My friends in the sangha and I were sad the night we had to abandon it. I even wrote a poem in remembrance of it.
these days, people rarely develop a connection to the things they buy, they just desire to possess the newest things. Manufacturers know this. It is not by accident that merchandise in modern times is not created to last. If these products were to last a long time, there would be fewer profits for the manufacturers, who depend on us to constantly buy the new, new thing.
We feel that we never have enough because we are caught up in the philosophy that too much is never enough. We have not given ourselves the opportunity to look deeply into our way of consuming. However, when we take the time to live mindfully, we will discover that living a simple life and consuming less are the true conditions for happiness.
The Buddha taught that we should be satisfied with the basic conditions of life and know we have enough. The way monks and nuns lived in the time of the Buddha is a vivid example of this practice. They had no more than three robes and a bowl. They understood that material possessions do not bring true happiness. We live a simple lifestyle in order to be happy. The practice of living simply has many advantages: when you are no longer running after possessions, you need less money and can afford to work less. You have more time to do things that are meaningful and enjoyable.
There is a Confucian saying that expresses this well: “If you know what is enough, then you will have enough. But if you wait until you have enough, you will never have enough.”’
- Thich Nhat Hanh, Creating True Peace: Ending Conflict in Yourself, Your Family, Your Community and The World.
“Today we use far fewer materials than we once did to get the same things done—a phenomenon known as “dematerialization.” But, paradoxically, this efficiency seems to drive up overall consumption. In Making the Modern World: Materials and Dematerialization, a deeply researched statistical profile of global material use, author Vaclav Smil lays out just how much stuff we need to live modern lives.
“We Make More with Less…
“Material intensity continues to fall dramatically. In the U.S., the amount of resources extracted per dollar of GDP has decreased by nearly 75% over the past 90 years.(…)
“But We Consume More Than Ever
“As efficiency rises, so does affordability, putting ever more products within reach of ever more consumers. As a result, the amount of resources extracted for every person on the planet has skyrocketed even as the global population has multiplied….”
“All over the place, from the popular culture to the propaganda system, there is constant pressure to make people feel that they are helpless, that the only role they can have is to ratify decisions and to consume.”
In January, photographer Gregg Segal decided to put some imagery to those numbers. His ongoing series, “7 Days of Garbage,” shows Californian friends, neighbors, and relative strangers lying in the trash they created in one week.