By Peter D. Schaller
I had only been in the supermarket for about 10 minutes by this point, but I had surely seen at least 500 different brands, labels, logos and special offers.
I was in Cincinnati a few months ago and found myself with a few extra hours on a chilly Sunday morning in November. It had been a long week of fundraising events and meetings with donors, so nothing sounded better to me than a long walk to stretch my legs, mind and imagination. I stayed at a sterile, boxy hotel in the suburbs and the whole place (even the elevator) smelled like cheap bacon from their complimentary breakfast. I made a mad dash for the door.
I took a left out of the hotel parking lot, heading in the direction that looked the least paved and commercial. As I started out, it occurred to me that perhaps I could find some small shops to pick up some gifts for my three kids. I don’t travel to the United States that much, so I usually try to find something local and crafty to carry back to Nicaragua for them. After a mile or two, I came across an excessively average strip mall, though it didn’t look very promising. There was an auto parts store, insurance office, tanning and nail salon, fried chicken joint, a few random modules and a supermarket.
It was not one of the mega-supermarkets that hover over several city blocks, but it was a chain store, one that is immensely popular in the Midwestern and Southern states. I walked towards the door, suddenly remembering that I hadn’t had much breakfast, since the free breakfast spread at the hotel looked like it had enough preservatives in it to last for another year. It was only about 10 a.m. and my 1 p.m. lunch meeting seemed a bit distant at that point.
I didn’t really think I would find any gifts for in the supermarket, but now my brain was talking to my stomach and they had agreed on the topic of snacking.
A couple of months ago, I did some research on advertising trends for a workshop I was giving on nonprofit communication strategies. Although there was some disagreement among researchers about the amount of information we are bludgeoned with on a daily basis, one report I read estimated that we see at least 5,000 flashes of advertising a day, even if through brief encounters. As soon as I walked into the store, I had no doubt about the veracity of that calculation.
In less than two minutes, I must have seen at least 200 different brands, all colorfully and greedily displayed on boxes, bags, bottles and cans.
Even though my brain was still stuck in snack mode, I was sure I would not find anything that I wanted to put into my body in the regular food aisles. It seemed there were enough varieties of junk food to assign one to each of the seven and a half billion people on the planet, but none would be sliding down my throat. After a few minutes of confused searching, I found the “natural foods” section. In my absence from the United States, it’s obvious that “green washing” has become overwhelmingly popular, if not deceitful.
It seemed that there was as many “natural” snack options, including fancy drinks, as there were in the junk food section.
It was dizzying, to say the least. It was at that moment, surrounded by an abundance of self-proclaimed, health foods that I simply decided to say no. The fact was, I really didn’t need anything.
It suddenly occurred to me: in just a few short days of re-immersion into life in the United States, I was being sucked into the consumption vacuum.
Everywhere we turn, we are bombarded with temptations to consume, usually things that we don’t need or even want. The psychological powers of modern marketing and advertising are so strong, we begin to consume unconsciously, filing over the edge like perfect lemmings at the slightest suggestion to buy, spend, devour. Although the consumption epidemic is more pronounced in the United States, it is certainly not exclusive to the 50 kissing cousins. In Central America, the shift from an austere, agrarian culture to one of unrestrained consumption has come on quickly and furiously over the past decade. Admittedly, it has coincided with the influx of many North American and European businesses and chain stores—a new and more perhaps more ruthless form of colonialism.
At this point in our sordid history, we should be well aware that we are consuming the world’s natural resources at a much faster rate than they can be replenished.
In short, we are consuming ourselves out of a home and perhaps out of existence. With our current addiction to consumption, human extinction is practically inevitable. However, we must be aware at all times, in all places, that we have the power to simply say no.
And so, on that brisk Sunday morning in the suburbs of Cincinnati, I said no. I walked out of the supermarket, past mountains of chips, cookies, rainbow colors of soda pop, produce grown and flown in from all corners of the world. I left without spending a penny, without generating garbage or demand and without creating a chain of impact across the globe with my decisions.
Every time we consume, we impact.
I felt an enormous surge of peace as I rejected all of the frenetic advertising; corporate dope dealers trying to get me hooked on something, anything. An amazing wave of grace fill my soul: I had made a decision rooted in principle, rather than personal gratification. We must be conscious of the fact that rampant consumption creates a change reaction that contributes to climate change—resource depletion, as well as social, economic and gender inequality—byproducts of corporate capitalism in the 21st century.
So, as we continue to glide into a new year—a pivotal year for a world that has forgotten about balance—tolerance and compassion, we can each make a small contribution to our collective well-being by consuming less. Reducing consumption is a responsible and mindful practice, with benefits that go far beyond economics. Consuming less is a compassionate choice, it allows us to want less and live more. In the wise words of Thich Nhat Hanh:
“When we have peace, then we have a chance to save the planet. But if we are not united in peace, if we do not practice mindful consumption, we cannot save our planet.”
Peter Schaller is an artist and activist who lives and works in Nicaragua. He spends most of his time trying to figure out how to reduce his karmic and carbon footprints. He is the author of After the Silence, a collection of poems, essays and photographs, and he can be reached by email or on Facebook.
Editor: Alicia Wozniak