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THE SELF, CULTURAL CHANGE AND THE CONSUMPTION OF THINGS

THE SELF, CULTURAL CHANGE AND THE CONSUMPTION OF THINGS

There is a strange kind of irony when it comes to growing a healthy sense of self. It seems completely counterintuitive but the less we focus on ourselves the stronger and more true our sense of self becomes. We grow through focusing on other people, through diligently working on the task at hand, and through developing a deep sense of connection and care for the wider world around us. The more we let go of ourselves, the stronger and more stable our sense of self grows.

This is never easy. Like most worthwhile things in life it takes time and a lot of work. And even when we try we always drift in and out of periods of intense self-focus and moments of letting go. But cultivating an interest in, and concern for, more than just ourselves is a worthwhile pursuit that we stand to gain a lot from.  When we look back at our lives, the happiest moments are always those spent focusing on others, perusing meaningful activities and exploring the world around us and not those spent in self-rumination.

Throughout our life, we all shift from the unrelenting self-focus that marks childhood and adolescence to turning increasingly more towards the world around us. We grow into roles that require us to care for others and we slowly acquire the ability to pass on some of the experiences we inevitably accumulate after wandering this planet for several decades.

And as we do, increasingly we begin to lose our neuroses; we stop obsessing over our achievements and shortcomings and start thinking more closely about the impact that our choices and actions have on the wider world.

We have reached an interesting cultural turning point. For the first time in history, a significant proportion of the human population has more than they need. Not only do more of us have our basic needs met than ever before, but we have luxuries that were reserved only for the most privileged few at every previous point in history. With this privilege comes a deep sense of responsibility, the weight of which we have all been feeling recently.

I don’t believe in looking backwards for answers. Some things that are broken today used to work beautifully in the past but that doesn’t make them the right solution for the present. I believe in progress and in small incremental changes endorsed by ever larger numbers of people. I believe that with time these changes accumulate, gaining momentum and ultimately forming the crest of a cultural wave. When these cultural waves break, they create a tipping point that produces lasting cultural shifts.

As our focus begins to turn outwards we begin to realise that even the small roles we play can be meaningful. I think about the small role I play as a shopkeeper and consider the impact of the daily decisions I make. I contemplate how to do things with a little more thought and care. I consider whether the small and seemingly trivial might, in the long run, add up to something bigger, creating something that is worth more than just the sum of its parts. And I inevitably spend a lot of time thinking about our consumption habits. I think about our relationship to things and what happens to all of these objects when they are no longer in use.

I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t have any of the answers. I do, however, know that time spent contemplating these problems, considering how the small contributions we all make can add up to larger cultural shifts, makes me feel hopeful about our future and more connected to something greater than myself. 

Here are a few thoughts I’ve been thinking lately about the consumption of things:

Longevity, or rather a lack thereof, is one of the key problems of modern consumption. When I was little, my grandmother used to tell the story of the coats everyone wore when she was a young girl. These coats were worn and cleaned and once they were no longer in a wearable condition, people would take them to the tailor and have them taken apart and sewn back together inside out. They would then continue to wear the coat until the second side was fully worn out too. She always said that she was “too poor to buy cheap things” highlighting that cheap things are often not that cheap when we account for how often we have to replace them.  Today many items are designed to only last one season. But the rate of consumption this style of production encourages is difficult to sustain with such a rapidly growing population. When we think about doing things a little better, trying to extend the lifecycle of the products we buy is always a good starting point. Aiming to gain as much use out of each product as possible, taking care of the things we buy so they last longer, repairing them where possible and developing an appreciation for the signs of wear products acquire rather than seeing them as imperfections is a good starting point.

Something else worth considering is what will happen to the objects we own when they are no longer in use. If the items we don’t want are still usable we can always sell them or pass them on to someone who does. But when products reach the end of their life cycle, we need to give consideration to what will happen to them at this point too. An object made from a single material, for example, an item made from pure copper, is far easier to recycle or repurpose than something with multiple components made from a mix of materials. So, what an object is made from is also an important factor to consider when deciding whether to buy something or not. 

The materials objects are made from play an important role in another way too. An item made from natural materials can decompose once it is no longer possible to repurpose or recycle it. As we are all discovering, the same is not true of plastic. When we opt for objects made from natural materials (especially if they are sustainably sourced) we ultimately make less of an impact than if we buy something made from plastic. Ironically, many ‘disposable’ or single-use items are made from plastic as are so many of the cheapest products available on the market thereby encouraging us to throw away that which is least likely to decompose.

Many big cultural shifts happen gradually, over time, and start with small changes. It strikes me as worthwhile, for more reasons than one, to start moving away from seeing things as disposable. When we understand how something is created, the skill and resources required to make it, when we pay a fair price for the objects in our life and when we consider what will happen to them once they are no longer in use we begin to shift the way we relate to things from disposable to valuable. 

By changing our consumption patterns these small choices may add up to form a significant cultural shift that could have meaningful consequences for future generations. At the very least, time spent considering the wider world around us rather than focusing exclusively on ourselves will, in the long run, serve to make us feel more connected, contented and hopeful. And that alone is worth our time and effort.

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