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Consumers Need 12-Step Programs Too: My Counseling Session with Mother Earth

Last updated by on 20 Comments

We are all wasteful consumers. I am, and unless you live naked in the woods eating only the nuts and berries you find and walked to your local library to read this post – you likely are too.

It wasn’t always this way. For millions of years, humans lived in harmony with the planet – only using the renewable resources needed to survive. No waste. No ills on the environment.

Not us. Our “advanced” modern family typically boasts:

- a 2,000 sq. ft. home  made with tons of non-renewable materials

- two cars and a recreational vehicle or two

- enough clothes to suit the neighborhood

- food packaged in multiple layers of non-biodegradable plastic or aluminum

- the average U.S. CO2 emissions per person, is 20 metric tons, compared to a world average of four tons

- TV’s, phones, computers, stereos, appliances, light fixtures, furniture – all replaced every few years…

This is all stuff that is not going to disappear or biodegrade. Advertising, peers, and our governments encourage this wastefulness from the moment we are born. Our entire economy depends on it. But infinite use of finite resources is not a sustainable economic, societal, or planetary model. Tens of billions of wasteful, consumer-driven humans perpetually living the same as Americans do for generation after generation equals a catastrophic collapse in the not too distant future.

Does anyone doubt that we’ve taken this consumer thing way too far? If so, do a Google image search for Pacific trash vortex (there is a growing ring of trash the size of Alaska in the Pacific Ocean as many countries just dump their trash in the water), watch “The Story of Stuff“, take a look at some of these pictures, or head on down to your nearest friendly local landfill for your next Sunday picnic.

consumerism

Now that I’ve thoroughly depressed you and myself, lets move on to something a bit more constructive…

Consumerist Anonymous

I’ve always had strong inclinations to doing what’s right for the environment and have even dedicated an entire section of the site to cost savings that also help diminish your impact on the environment. However, I’ve never pieced it all together and made it a way of life. I’ve fallen off the wagon many times.

So I decided to express my heartfelt regret over past purchasing habits via a virtual apology/counseling session with Mother Earth and go public with it. It serves as the first step of my recovery as a mindless consumer. This is not tongue-in-cheek. These are real sentiments. And since this is a safe place. I’d encourage you to share your thoughts with the group as well. Who knows, you might just save some serious cash as a side effect.

My Chat with Mother Earth:

  • Me: Mother Earth, please forgive me. I’m a recovering consumer. I’ve spent tens, hundreds (if you include my home) of thousands of dollars on stuff. Stuff that will all likely end up in a landfill or in the oceans somewhere. And despite all the hurt it has caused others (namely wildlife, you, and future generations of humans), I’ve continued to do so. I’m sorry. It’s inexcusable. It’s senseless. But I’m trying to get better. I want to get better.
  • Mother Earth: My son, taking responsibility and desire to change is the first step towards the healing process. Have you tried quitting cold (non-refrigerated) turkey?
  • Me: I don’t even think that is possible anymore. I wouldn’t know where to get food, clean water, shelter, or do anything without modern technologies.
  • Mother Earth: What about moving to one of those remote islands or in the middle of the Amazon to try to infiltrate with one of the last remaining tribes that live in harmony with me before they are overtaken by your tribe of consumers?
  • Me: I don’t think they’d take me. I don’t know how to hunt, build a shelter, cook from scratch, or even start a fire without modern tools. And I hate mosquitoes.
  • Mother Earth: Yeah, you are pretty useless… err… I mean, you’re probably right…. hmm…. well, why don’t we start by discussing the things you CAN change in the short term to wean yourself off of this consumer addiction.
  • Me: OK.
  • Mother Earth: What makes you happy?
  • Me: Well, I recently posted a list of the top 10 things money can buy that made me happy.
  • Mother Earth: I see. Well, I don’t see ‘stuff’ or ‘toys’ on that list. I see food, drink, and shelter – but those are necessary for survival. Even tribal folks need those things.
  • Me: Yeah, you’re right. Even though I’m addicted to consuming things… that consumption doesn’t really make me any happier over the long term. The short-term thrill wears out quickly.
  • Mother Earth: Stuff doesn’t lead to your happiness. That’s an important insight. What about those necessary things like food and shelter? How can you consume less in those areas?
  • Me: Well, I suppose I could put in a garden and start growing more of my own food. I could raise some chickens (my city just started allowing that). I could buy a share in a CSA – they grow and box up locally grown veggies and fruits that I can pick up. I could even start a produce share in my neighborhood. And I should also be more careful to buy only food that comes in renewable, recycled, or biodegradable packaging.
  • Mother Earth: And let’s not forget buying stuff in season. A lot of food out of season travels thousands of miles to get to your local grocery store.
  • Me: Yeah. I guess I could go without bananas.
  • Mother Earth: Yes, you could. And drink?
  • Me: Well, I mostly drink tap water. Tap water is cheaper than bottled water by a factor of over 2,000X, so that’s a no-brainer. And I buy beer from local microbreweries and wine made in my state.
  • Mother Earth: That’s a start. You could also homebrew more and make your own wine to cut down on transportation and material waste. Or, just don’t drink at all. We’ll save that discussion for another day. Now that we have food covered, let’s chat about shelter.
  • Me: I live in an older home right now. It’s ‘only’ 1,000 sq. ft. with a basement. Small by U.S. standards, but much more space than I really need, especially since I have been selling stuff on craigslist like mad. But I’m thinking some day I want to build move into a tiny home that is much less maintenance and much more energy efficient.
  • Mother Earth: Good. If you do build, just make sure you used reclaimed materials to do so. And don’t add to urban sprawl. Find an old urban lot.
  • Me: I will.
  • Mother Earth: The only other necessity I can think of is clothing.
  • Me: Yeah. That’s a problem. I’ve bought way more than I could ever wear. And the stuff I do wear usually wears out rather quickly. I have been donating a lot of it lately, so at least there’s that.
  • Mother Earth: I’d also recommend opting for durable, locally made fabrics, when possible. It’s better to have a few high quality clothes than many cheaply made pieces flown in from China. And don’t forget to repair or re-purpose things when possible. That pair of jeans you have with the hole in the crotch can be fixed.
  • Me: Yeah, I was about to throw ‘ole blue’ away. Good call.
  • Mother Earth: What else is left?
  • Me: It’s mostly just “stuff” after that. Stuff I use to make my life easier.
  • Mother Earth: Does it make your life easier?
  • Me: Well, it mostly does.
  • Mother Earth: If you sold most of your “stuff” would your life be harder?
  • Me: Hmm… Now that I think about it… probably not.
  • Mother Earth: Exactly. All that stuff pulls at you. It requires maintenance, storage, fixing, replacing… you get the idea. And for the stuff you really do need, I can guarantee you can buy it used locally for much cheaper and repair it if it does break. With Craigslist, Freecycle, and borrowing from neighbors – there is really no durable good you should have to buy new.  To free yourself from most of it will be liberating – those tribal folks only take what they can carry on their back when they move. Make that your goal.
  • Me: I’ve got a lot of work to do.
  • Mother Earth: Yes, but it should be rewarding work. Also, don’t get caught up in technological “advancement”. Yes, Blu-Ray looks great, but your DVD collection is just fine and would cost a boatload to replace. Your goal should be to make the existing technology last as long as it possibly can. And don’t buy any new technology. Remember the happiness thing we discussed. Happiness derived from these products is fleeting, at best.
  • Me: Yeah… but cassette tapes sucked.
  • Mother Earth: Yes. Yes, they did. Anyhow… you get the idea. Make sure that for everything you get rid of, you either sell it, give it away for free, or donate it. To do so means that someone else will get use from it and they in turn will hopefully be as responsible as you. This keep things out of the landfill. And whenever you purchase something envision that item ultimately ending up in the landfill or floating around in the ocean for some marine animal to choke on. Or what if you had to throw that stuff in your back yard? Just because it’s no longer in your presence does not mean it has disappeared or vanished into thin air. Waste “management” is the only thing keeping this consumer runaway train on the tracks as it blinds everyone to the reality of how wasteful we really are.
  • Me: Yeah. That’s not a pleasant thought. But it is reality, I suppose.
  • Mother Earth: Let’s talk about cars.
  • Me: I sold mine and bike to work!
  • Mother Earth: That’s great. But, you still have one that you share. And it’s getting old.
  • Me: Indeed. 12 years and 180K miles. I’ve done my part, right?
  • Mother Earth: No other invention has hurt me more.
  • Me: Aye.
  • Mother Earth: Stay close to work and keep riding your bike. Hopefully your wife can work closer to home and do the same someday. In the meantime, ride that piece of crap until it begs for mercy. Then fix it and ride it some more. And if you ABSOLUTELY (and I really mean absolutely) must replace it, replace it with the most fuel efficient used vehicle you can find.
  • Me: Having no car might create some inconveniences.
  • Mother Earth: $60 and increasing fuel-ups, insurance, maintenance, accidents, flat tires, and allocating 10%+ of your paycheck to leasing or paying it off creates a few inconveniences as well.
  • Me: When you put it that way…
  • Mother Earth: And finally – spread the words that we are sharing here today. Make it your lifestyle. Embrace it. And then go out and be a role model for others. Not only will you save a TON of money, but you will liberate yourself from stuff and be living a happier, healthier life. You will be joining a counter-consumer movement that is gaining strength. It’s a movement that will have to be adopted by everyone if your kind and every other species you share me with are to survive. Along the way you will encounter soul-less, heart-less, hateful f$%rs who claim no responsibility for their behavior. Be patient, teach, and stay on course.
  • Me: I will start today. My apologies cannot express the amount of regret I have about how irresponsibly I have lived. Thank you for the life and the health you have given me. I owe it to you. We all do.

About the Author
I am G.E. Miller, & this is my story. My goal is financial independence ASAP. If you share that goal, join me & 7,500+ others by getting FREE email updates. You'll also find every post by category & every post in order.


20 Comments »
  • Stephanie says:

    What a great dialogue :) I wish She would have this conversation with everyone.

    One topic that tends to get glossed over when discussing a minimalist lifestyle as it relates to the environment is travel. I recently read the book “How Bad are Bananas?” which really brought my carbon footprint into perspective. I don’t own a car, I almost always buy local and in season, and I rarely purchase new clothes, electronics, etc…. but I fly once per month, on average. So it really doesn’t matter how good I am about composting, recylcing and reducing my purchases. If I’m still taking cross-country flights, I’m still hurting the environment. Heck, someone who shops at Walmart once per week for food and clothes but has never gotten on a plane in their life may have less of an impact on the planet than I do.

    All this to say, travel is something everyone should factor into their lifestyle evaluations.

    • Alyssa says:

      Stephanie, I always have a hard time reconciling my insatiable wanderlust with my attempts at a minimalist lifestyle. I think travel helps people realize just how little they need, but the environmental factor is tough.

      G.E., what do you think about travel v. minimalist lifestyle?

    • G.E. Miller says:

      @ Stephanie/Alyssa – that’s a great point. And a tough pill to swallow, to be honest. I only fly about once per year outside of required business travel. It can easily be justified by saying “that flight would have happened regardless if I were on it or not” – but that’s just me trying to make myself feel better. Is rail an option for vacations?

      Most of my vacations are local. At some point, I plan on taking bike tours for vacations and will just leave from home.

      There are undoubtedly great life experiences that can be gained from traveling all over the world, but you have to consider traveling in the larger timeline history of mankind. It wasn’t until 90 years or so ago that you could only travel so far as your feet, horse, or sail could take you. We have the ability to fly anywhere we want now, but that should be considered an extreme privilege, and not necessarily a right.

      And if you feel you must fly, you could try out a site like carbonfund.org to see what you can do to offset the carbon emissions you are creating by donation, planting trees, etc. You can’t “un-know” the impact of your activity – but if you do the right things to offset it, perhaps that will offer some peace of mind.

  • Bryce says:

    I’m on board with reducing the amount of transportation costs, buying higher quality and wearing things out versus buying cheap stuff over and over again. I love the freshness that comes with buying from the farmers market, and the prices are generally better too.

    Could you help me with this: I have some ties to people from the Far East and some central and south American countries. One element in the “buy local” philosophy that always bugs me goes something like this: If I buy lower-priced items that was manufactured in a less-developed country, I use capitalism to help people in less-developed nations improve their quality of life. I also get the benefit of encouraging them to improve themselves through their own efforts, not through handouts. And once they have the basics covered, they are in a position to start caring about things like the environment. If I buy local, I am much more likely to be promoting someone that is less price competitive, which takes away the incentive to improve technologies, efficiencies, etc. because people will buy just because it is local.

    Any suggestions?

    • G.E. Miller says:

      Hey Bryce – That’s a tough one. In Western culture we tend to think about increased economic opportunity and buying power as a very desired state. If everyone in the world lived as Americans, can you imagine where we’d be environmentally? The more money a culture has, the more havoc they tend to cause on the environment. If the people of a culture live in shelters they made, and don’t have vehicles, computers, AC, furnaces, dishwashers, microwaves, phones, TV’s, etc. – then from an environmental standpoint, the planet is better off and perhaps even their cultures are better off for their lack of purchasing power. Most companies that operate in these countries pay their employees peanuts and provide terrible work conditions for them. Often times those same companies strip them of their local traditions. Are they really better off if you buy from the companies that employ them? There are some good, ethical companies out there operating in these countries, but they are far and few.

      There is a lot of evil out there and I never want to see another human being starve or suffer from disease. Most of the problems that we see though have been driven by over-population, which has been driven by our manipulation of nature for our benefit (Ishmael is a great book, if you haven’t read). We can’t all go back to being hunter-gatherers, so I don’t know that anyone has the answers.

      • Bryce says:

        I see that part of the argument, but I struggle with how much weight to give it. It seems to me that we can focus on the environment when we have excellent options for food to eat (even when seasons change, natural disasters occur, etc.), excellent options for shelter, excellent transportation options, excellent communications options, and a great medical system (despite its flaws). But for people that are, in many cases, the first in their family tree to have access to a fraction of this kind of wealth and quality of living, it seems a bit presumptuous to tell them that they are better off without many of those things because they are living closer to nature. I know that as much as I enjoy overnight car-camping, I’m glad to get home to a shower with hot water, a nice couch to sit on, kitchen appliances for making food preparation faster and more sanitary, etc. Not to mention that I still have straight teeth (courtesy of rather expensive orthodontia), wisdom teeth removed (another expensive procedure), immunizations, etc. My relatives have their insulin for diabetes, treatments for cancer, bypass surgery and pacemakers for heart trouble, etc. For the peasants moving from the countryside farms to the manufacturing cities (so they can make stuff for us), we’re asking them to give up the most obvious path to the dream of a substantially better life and share our dream of a cleaner environment.

        As for the corruption and the ethics of the companies, the standards of acceptable corruption in some of those places is different than ours, but I think your generalizations may be a bit over broad. Not all corruption is equal. “Grease payments” (money paid to expedite processing) are often built into the system in other countries. For us, it’s completely expected for a person to pay a tip when waited upon at a restaurant and that the tip be based on the level of service provided. Also, the expectation is that a waiter or waitress will receive tips, so their employer-provided wage rate is artificially low. In other countries, grease payments are factored in as part of the employees compensation, and likely correspond with the level of service provided. But because it is difficult to distinguish between a grease payment and bribe to get undeserved treatment, we consider grease payments to be evidence of corruption on the same level with other kinds of bribes and illicit transactions.

        I hope you can appreciate how I wrestle with this issue and have trouble finding a satisfactory position.

        • G.E. Miller says:

          We undoubtedly have higher employee rights levels here in the U.S., one-sixth of people who want full-time jobs can’t find them, and the products have less of a carbon impact if sourced and made in the U.S. When I look at those three things combined it’s hard for me to make a compelling case for spending globally, in comparison. You make great points though.

          This is the dilemma some people have with every purchase they make. Maybe the best option is to try to always buy used so those products don’t end up in a landfill and you are helping support members of your local community. Plus it costs less for you. And you sell or donate when you are done and someone else benefits. That’s a win, win, win.

  • Brantley says:

    Mother Earth: You need to do your share
    Me: How much is this going to cost me?
    Mother Earth: Green technology and products are at least twice as expensive (often more) and we’re in an uncertain economy but now is the perfect time to act.
    Me: How will I pay the bills?
    Mother Earth: Do you really need good tasting food? Do you really need reliable transportation in sketchy neighborhoods when your wife is pregnant? Just lower your standard of living and do your part!
    Me: Ok, you’ve convinced me.

    • G.E. Miller says:

      Funny comment, but in all seriousness living a scaled down lifestyle should not cost twice as much – in fact, it should cost much less in comparison if you do it right – excluding electric cars (opt for mass transit, bikes, walking, or a used high mpg vehicle if necessary) or solar power (cost is quickly coming down, but a smaller living quarters or a whole host of cheap products with almost an immediate positive ROI are available).

      There’s always a good excuse, right? I should know, I’ve made plenty of them myself, so I can’t judge. I think it’s really a question about how much effort you want to put into the actions needed to limit your impact and how comfortable you are being a part of the problem and not part of the solution. For me, I’m very uncomfortable at the moment.

      • Brantley says:

        It sounds like you live in a white suburban neighborhood where you wouldn’t think twice about your wife or even yourself going for a bike ride. I’m glad that works for you but we’re all not that lucky.

        Also it’s widely known that attractive and popular people make more money via raises, promotions, or keep the job over the alternative (See the CNN money article on why blond women make more money then brunets). Since most places of employment don’t have showers near the office, I don’t know if it would be a good idea to bike to work in 109 degree days. You’d be pretty uncomfortable to be around which could harm your bottom line. Forget about the raise, the promotion, or even surviving that layoff.

        Did you know I have to pay for trash and recycling service even if I don’t want to? There is a recycling center and dump within walking distance from my house but I have to pay $30 a month for the service. That price goes up every year too.

        Interesting fact: If you spread out the population of the entire world across Texas evenly. That means every man, woman, teen, and baby, each person would get over 1,000 square feet each. That’s larger then a lot of 1 bedroom apartments. Also, I do a lot of flying. Every city I fly over, all I see is green. We’re not as dire as people would make it out to seem. I’m not saying we should be wasteful. Given the market state and the economy the way it is, 20 something men and women should become financially responsible first.

        If I had $30,000 credit card debt, would you encourage me to give lots of money to green charities knowing it would force me to add more debt? That’s exactly what the government has been doing for who knows how long and they’re trying to push us to do. Yes these ideas are good but we can’t afford them yet.

        Green things that often cost more:
        * bike vs drive
        * Electric or hybrid cars
        * Recycled anything (plus I have to pay to recycle so double cost on me)
        * Biodegradable anything
        * Solar panels (10+ years to break even, that’s 5 years more then * you’ll likely live there)
        * Geothermal heating
        * Free range food
        * Organic food
        * etc…

        • G.E. Miller says:

          OK, I understand. You wanted to let us know that you have:
          1. a racist attitude that shows fear towards minorities.
          2. a shallow view on appearance and employment.
          3. a lack of concern for the environment and the attitude that if it doesn’t effect me directly, I don’t care. Money supersedes ethical environmental consideration in all cases.

          Touche, my friend!
          Is there any other tidbits of wisdom you’d like to share with the group?

  • jason says:

    Great article. Very unique…a challenging task for the internet. National Geographic is doing a great series this year as the world prepares to have 7 billion people consuming it. They have some amazing graphs showing consumption by country, birth rates correlating to education levels and many other interesting facts about how people are affecting the planet. Too bad earth couldn’t be saved by spending cuts. I think congress might believe it can be. Taking the good ole bike to the library and having a look at the NG series is well worth your time and might be another way to get on the right path.

    I think the hardest thing for us to give up will be coffee. Guessing that footprint looks similar to bananas. The only option I’ve heard of is if someone sailed it up to the US, and somehow I think that doesn’t come close to solving the problem. Any ideas on that one?

  • Leslie says:

    Hi – you know I struggle with wanting to be a minimalist and I do help the environment as much (well I could be doing more) as I can, but another topic that worries me is “posterity and legacy.” You see I come from a family of hand me downs and that includes “stuff” that has sentimental value for me and for several family members and I am the only one that has the space and the attitude to take care of it. For example, family antique suitcases or glassware or old tins that food used to come in from the grocery store (they are really neat!). How can I justify letting go of the past generation of “soon to be monetarily valuable” and sentimentally important family antiques?

    • G.E. Miller says:

      Was the stuff made by your family? (furniture, for example) Was it earned (Purple Heart, NCAA championship ring, etc.). If not and it was simply purchased with money, does it deserve the sentimental value you are assigning it?

      • Leslie says:

        Good point, and there is probably a mix of things that are made or earned or bought. That gives me a huge step forward mentally now to look at the things that are bought. I think about those things bought and do they have a story or not that is important for the family, and my guess is that I don’t have the stories, they were not passed down, so I will feel better letting them go.
        THANK you!

      • Brantley says:

        Dude, are you serious? Are you saying because something was bought with money we’re not allowed to be attached to it? Human empathy much?

        Our grandparents worked much harder then we can ever imagine and because of their sweat and toil, they have been able to buy things that they like. Now you’re saying that their hard work was worthless and I should throw it out?

        I’m glad it works for you but you’re not right about everything. Nobody is. Consider others have things they value and who are we to tell them they’re worthless?

        • G.E. Miller says:

          I am absolutely serious. Stuff is stuff is stuff. If you want to keep it and it means something to you, that’s great. It’s the receiver’s call. If every generation kept every previous generations stuff and it didn’t mean anything to them, what’s the point? People can make their own decisions. Nobody should be guilted in to keeping things that have no sentimental value for them. It seems like Leslie was pretty excited to receive advice from someone to make her own judgment call. I didn’t tell her to get rid of everything.

  • Tyler says:

    GREAT post! I think all too often people focus too much on stuff and forget about the things that are truly important in life. Outside of human relationships, nothing makes me feel more fulfilled than being awestruck at the beauty of mountains, the sea, gardens, ect.

    One thing I would like to add, though, is reducing our carbon footprint by using less climate control. There are very simple ways to reduce home energy usage. Use efficient light bulbs (apologies to any Michelle Bachmann supporters). Purchase energy efficient curtains. Open windows on cool summer evenings, and wear heavier clothing in the winter. Turn the heat/AC down when at work and while asleep. Furthermore, our bodies are made to adapt to a wide range of temperatures. Keeping the house at 67 degrees may feel a little chilly for first couple weeks of November, but your body will adjust after a couple weeks. Same goes for keeping the house in the upper 70s over the summer. Doing these things can save hundreds in home energy costs while harming the environment less than you otherwise would have harmed it.

  • Ethan Walnuss says:

    The story of stuff is incredibly biased. Companies don’t go to other countries to ruin them and somehow preserve America. They go because the labor is cheap, the people are willing, and the plants are close to each other. I don’t like it any more than the next person, but we at least have to get the facts straight, first.

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