Thursday, October 2, 2008

Buy Less Crap, Local or Otherwise

I'd like to say that this post was inspired by Scott Adams. But it wasn't. It was inspired by all the dingi (how DO you pluralize "dingus"? "dinguses" has too many syllables...) who responded to his Buy Some Local Crap Tax post.

Okay, not everyone who replied is a dingus; there are some genuinely good ideas on how to "fix" the economy, at least in the short term -- and there's the problem.  Every time someone talks about tax cuts, or stimulating the economy, they are only proposing a short-term fix, because they are missing the real reason that any economy crashes: we spend our money on crap.

Don't get me wrong.  I like spending my money on crap.  Especially gadgets and coffee.  But time is money, so I realize that whenever I spend cash on something I don't need, I'm robbing myself of time.  Doubly so if I spend it on something that wastes my time (56-inch HD TVs come to mind -- no, I don't own one).

I could go on ranting for hours, so lets get right down to basics.  There is only ONE class of "real" jobs in the world:  the primary producers of our economy, farmers and such.  People who convert natural resources -- specifically, sunlight, since that's where all our energy (nuclear excepted) ultimately comes from or came from -- into the stuff that keeps out bodies running.  Scientific note: land and water are just catalysts; but for this reason we might lump "water purification" and similar positions into the same category.  Oh, ok, we need places to live in lets throw a few builders into the mix.  Waste management too.

Got that all?  Okay, then we have an economy that should last for a while, so long as there aren't any major catastrophes and the sun keeps shining.  Of course, when a disease comes along we'll need doctors...and if we use horses and tools to farm, a blacksmith would be nice...if machines, machinists...and so on.  You get the idea.  So far, we are more-or-less OK.

Now the problems begin.  Retail.  Marketing.  Cheap plastic toys which get thrown out after 2 months of use.  At first, these influences seem innocuous.  But over time, more and more of our workforce is devoted to jobs that do nothing.  They are working just to make/help people buy more stuff.  The are wasting their own time to make others waste their time.

By the time we've reached this point, other villages/states/countries are looking our way, thinking "Hey, cheap plastic crap!  We want some!"  Or, worse yet, we have so many people living in one space, producing nothing useful, that we start running out of food and land and water, and start thinking we should go find some more.  Either way, people start building swords, then guns, then warplanes, and we're running off to other countries to take their crap.  We spend billions of gallons of oil just getting across the ocean to blow other folks up so we can take their oil.

If you're still with me at this point, you either don't think I'm crazy (foolish, foolish reader), or you do but find my insanity to be the compelling, manic kind, not the boring, lithium-induced variety.  If you fall into the latter group, take a minute to ask yourself: how many people do you know who actually produce or provide something important on a regular basis?  Do you spend your afternoons growing organic tomatoes which you'll trade for pasta at the local market?  Or do you, like me, browse YouTube at the nearest internet cafe -- burning electricity on a resource-intensive piece of plastic and silicon produced in China, while sipping coffee shipped 8000 miles across three continents and one ocean?

Don't get me wrong; I'm not implying that we should all drop our retail jobs, give up computers, and go farm the land.  But I am suggesting -- nay, stating -- that unless you are an ag worker or a plumber or a sanitation engineer, you have a responsibility to live a little more simply and waste a little less.  Not out of some hippie-yuppie compulsion, but for the sake of our economy.   Every time you throw away an iPod because it's not the latest and best model, every time you drive to the corner store instead of walking your lazy butt the half-mile, every time you buy a Power Rangers figurine instead of reading to your child, you hurt the economy.  You make the whole nation a little less efficient, putting more cash into stuff which creates waste, spending your hard-earned time to waste your time, trickling your income up into the pockets of CEOs and marketers.

Scott has it half-right: DO buy local.  But DON'T buy crap.

DO spend more money on fresh, local, organic produce than you do on your monthly cable bill and gasoline combined.

DON'T drive when you can walk.

DON'T watch advertisements: the mute button is your friend (if you can manage, don't watch TV at all).

DON'T buy anything "disposable"; that word is just a synonym for "wasteful".

DO recycle and reuse: give up tupperware, rinse out that glass salsa jar and put your leftovers in it instead.

DO carefully consider every purchase you make: do you need it, will you throw it out, does it waste your time and money?


PS larrythelabrat's comment (link below) prompted me to add the following:

DO allow yourself to buy things that are worth the time and money you put into them: books, music, art you like.  We all need to have some fun in our lives!  Simply DON'T buy things that give back less than you pay for them.  $1.25 for a bottle of water which is just redistributed municipal water?  Use a mug or a drinking fountain -- it's free and equally healthy.  $4 in gas to drive to work?  Bike for free (and get in shape too) or spend half that much on the bus, where you can get some reading done instead of swearing at other drivers.


LarrytheLabrat said...

I'm amused that you follow this post with a post about Niel Gaiman. Because at a basic level, Gaiman's work is an invitation to waste time. You buy a book, read it once or twice, maybe lend it out a few times, but it hasn't given you any calories or sheltered you from the weather.

But you know, Gaiman's novel has given you something. It's helped you relax, or see something in a new way, or helped you form a connection, etc. I get really down on a lot of commercial products, and can't understand why anyone would want to do advertising. But people do, and people enjoy different things. Who am I to say that my book collection or lego collection is somehow better or worse than someone's collection of DVDs and CDs, or Teddy bears and plastic widgets? People buy crap that I don't understand, but I don't have to because they're not me.

Life is about more than just surviving. We do things so that we have the time and resources to relax and enjoy leisure activities. Otherwise you're just working till you die.

Jon Peck said...

A good point...but Larry, I know you're more of a lab rat than a pack rat; you have fewer useless possessions than the average American. What I'm railing against here is not so much things people might term "collections"; books, CDs, and Lego models are all things we (hopefully) revisit often.

I probably should have put more emphasis on the "disposable" problem in my post, since that is what really irks me. Generally speaking, if already I own a novel, I won't go and buy the newest reprint just because it has a shinier cover or better typeface. Books and CDs are a different class of thing...they are items we buy, hold, and cherish.

Consider these examples of waste, which are very different from the collectables you're describing:

- Americans discard 125,000,000 cell phones each year (EPA), creating 65,000 tons of waste.

- Every day in Washington state, 4 MILLION ( plastic water bottles are thrown away because people want a new container, and can't be bothered to carry around a mug to refill.

- The average US household has 2.7 television sets, simply because folks can't be bothered to walk to the next room or sit down with a family member to watch a show together.

We're a society obsessed with new, fresh, and better; we've lost sight of the benefits of moderation, reuse, and stability.

And stability is what our economic system needs most right now.

LarrytheLabrat said...

I agree, the disposable culture is causing a huge problem ecologically, and a lot of that is driven by marketing. The old marketing saying "a good ad makes someone insecure" shows how they feed and feed into our fears to sell us things we don't need.

So yes to the "buy less crap" but the whole phrase there means less crap, not necessarily less overall (although I think in most cases that would be a good step too).