the fantastic, or, why we really have to stop buying stupid crap

Often, facing down all the misery in the world, the best I know how to do these days is to do a little less. More specifically—it all starts, for me, with being kind to my neighbors and buying a little less.

As a kid, “doing the right thing” seemed so easy. People are poor? OK, we’ll send them money. I didn’t know it was more complicated than that; that greed and graft and the complex interplay of history, politics, and culture prevent dollars from doing good. I certainly didn’t know that well-intentioned dollars could make a situation worse.

As a college student, I learned about the slavery and near-slavery required to produce a cheap cup of coffee or bar of chocolate for people hundreds of times wealthier than the workers.This seemed so extraordinarily unfair—that every Halloween, for example, we’d all been munching away at something made with literal slave labor—I fought an impulse to un-know it, to just not believe it, or to believe that this was how things had to be for some reason.

Now I know so much more, and I know so much more about what I don’t know. From fashion to furniture, strawberries to Spaghetti-O’s, all you can really count on about the average product at the average chain store, lacking any specific information, is that its production and sale were intended to maximize profit. Large amounts of profit can be obtained by respecting the Earth, laborers, and consumers. Maximal profit can’t.

The truth that I’m still absorbing is that once we start peering beyond the prim store shelves and seductive advertisements to find out where our things come from, we realize that we don’t get to just shift our consumption habits down the aisle, from the blue bag of coffee to the green one. If we want to change our relationship with the world, we have to…well, change our relationship with the world.

We need to think of buying things as an activity that connects us to the people who made and sold them, and to the Earth that supplied the materials.
We need to re-prioritize our budgets to reflect a willingness to pay more for quality items.
We need to look at our things as precious: to choose repair and re-use over replacement.
We need to buy from our neighbors more often than from corporations.
We need to examine our shopping addictions and put down the things we don’t need.

And at the same time, my mantra remains something like ever forward…one step at a time; or, more realistically, do whatever the hell you can manage today, sweetheart. I’m not under the illusion, after all, that my personal buying decisions make a speck of difference to the machinations of the consumer-society machine. That’s what tends to bring me to tears, really: a sense of futility. Maybe buying a pound of direct-trade coffee puts an extra 50 cents in the pocket of a Central American family, and maybe my refusal to buy new clothes makes some kind of statement, but these things feel so small in the face of lobbying groups and bribes and corporations functioning like cartels and, good heavens, the poverty of people in the U.S. and elsewhere that prevents them from even considering these more expensive items.

So every once in a while, I let all of that wash over me and I just sit with it. And then I cry in the grocery store. And then, eventually, I peel myself off the floor so someone else can stare in bewilderment at the coffee, and I make the best choice I know how to make, and sometimes I even go home and remember to find a local coffee roaster who’s actually transparent about the source of their beans.

It is, like most difficult things, a balance between self-gentleness and trying super hard.

Your personal buying decisions do, after all, make a difference to you. The challenge of making principled choices can create a person of integrity and a prayerful shopper. Saying no to an unnecessary Target run gives you the chance to ask yourself whether peace or happiness was ever in the Target to begin with. Trying to consume fewer new goods or less meat inspires creativity, resourcefulness, groundedness, thankfulness. And your purchases can become connections to others in your community, fueling efforts to do things differently. To create a better web.

And in the end, it’s not just about trying to attain fewer crappy plastic Halloween decorations or fewer miserable cows. This is—I really believe—this is among the many moments in life where we are being called to choose faith in what we do not see. A rational person is supposed to believe that the system can never change; that even if somehow laws about this got past lobbyists, maximal profit would find a way to win; or we even believe the lie that the world economy would simply fall apart if things changed too drastically. And somehow we fall for these lines. After a hundred stories of impossible situations, hopeless underdogs, and false dilemmas between two evils, we still, deep down, won’t let those stories be true for ourselves; we won’t act on our convictions; we won’t believe that love can shatter those false dilemmas. love does the fantastic.

By buying less of what we don’t need, we can be people who offer more integrity, more creativity, more thankfulness, more relationships.
That is what will change the world.

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