The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

January 17, 2008

Living in a material world

The holiday season has been over for several weeks now. And for several weeks, I’ve been contemplating the complaint we seem to hear every year from social critics bemoaning the rampant materialism of our culture. People, they say, care more about buying new things than they do about caring for each other and the planet. These critics decry the commercialism of Christmas. And while I agree that our society has become dangerously acquisitive, I’m wondering if the solution isn’t for people to become more materialistic rather than less.

If we really were materialistic, wouldn’t we care more for the materials of the world than we do? Wouldn’t we spend more time enjoying the material things that we already have rather than mindlessly consuming more? Wouldn’t we place a higher value on each item with which we come into contact, considering where it’s been and where it will end up when we’re finished with it, than thoughtlessly tossing things away as if they never existed in the first place?

A few months ago, I had the privilege of giving a presentation on the do’s and don’ts of Bay Area recycling at a Green Sangha meeting. This was during the “practice discussion” portion of the meeting, “practice” meaning a state of mindful awareness and compassion that Green Sangha members strive to cultivate. At the end of my talk, someone asked me how this information informed my practice. At first, the question took me by surprise. But after a few seconds of thought, I realized that having to consider the proper way to dispose of things forces us to slow down and appreciate, be mindful of, the materials that pass through our hands, the matter that sustains us and also gives us pleasure.

I’ve heard complaints from people when asked to recycle their waste that it’s too hard to remember to do and takes up too much time. My gut feeling is that if having to consider the full lifespan of a product causes us to slow down, then perhaps we’ll be less likely to consume more than we actually need and learn to appreciate what we already have.

I’ve also heard of folks doing “gratitude practice” where they silently thank God or the Universe or Fate or whatever for each thing they encounter as they go through the day. As I’ve said before, I’m not a religious person, my personal feeling being that this amazing physical world that we live in is it for us, so you’d maybe expect me to value the materials of this world. But believers in a Creator of the universe also have every reason to give thanks and to slow down and care for the material pieces of this world as well. After all, if God created them, if they are in fact parts of God, who are we to use and dispose of them recklessly?

My husband Michael, a.k.a. Mr. Linguistics, told me that actually, the word “material” comes from the Latin “mater” meaning “mother.” So instead of meaning selfish overconsumption, the word “materialism” ought to mean care for our mother, our Mother Earth, in fact.

Maybe we can learn to savor the small, seemingly insignificant objects in our lives as if they too mattered. Weight loss programs teach us to slow down while eating and enjoy each bite in order not to overconsume. This is a tricky practice for me. I like to wolf down my meal as much as the next person with “food issues.” But maybe we’d lighten our bodies and also our impact on the earth if we tried to be more materialistic, not less.

Let’s take a breath and consider the paperclip as well as the paper, the cheese wrapper as well as the cheese, the gate hook and also the blister pack in which it was sold, the cat litter as well as the cats, our plastic eye drops container as well as our drops and pain-free eyes, or our filter cartridge in addition to the clean water it provides.

These are all parts of our material world, our mother, our earth. And whether she was designed by a Creator or by random chance, she’s the only one we have. Let’s honor her, and all her trillions of pieces, by considering more and consuming less.

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15 years ago

Beth, I’ve been thinking about your statement “consider the cheese wrapper as well as the cheese” for a couple of weeks now. I like its potential as a very simple rule to live by. But at the same time I’ve been sad that you’re giving up the cheese that you love so much, because of the plastic. And so I’ve come up with the corollary to your maxim, which is to consider the cheese as well as the wrapper. For me, it’s important to think of both sides of this equation, so as not to lose sight of what I love and value for the pleasure it gives me in my pursuit of an ideal. Is there a balance? Can pleasure and aesceticism coexist?

15 years ago


That’s interesting… I never thought of materialistic meaning that you care more about the stuff, i just assumed that it was acquiring more and more stuff.

But they could stop putting everything on styrofoam plates at the cafeteria at our school……

15 years ago

I know how you must have felt! Because I have also personally tried to convince fellow grad students to bring their own lunch boxes rather than using a polystyrene foam box everyday.

They’re grad students, mind you, and I really thought that they would have a wee bit of sensitivity and knowledge on the importance of NOT using those non-biodegradable boxes, but no.

They didn’t care one bit. I felt like biting their heads off! LOL.

15 years ago

Looking at the behavior of children when they receive presents on Christmas morning, you will immediately see more is not more. The more they get, they less time they spend on each gift they receive. The frenzy becomes going to the next one, and the next one. I always believe children’s behavior is often an unpolluted gauge of adults. We may invent convoluted ways of explaining our behavior, children display it in the most unsubconscious form. Give a child one toy, s/he will spend time investigating it and getting to know it. Give a child 10 at once, s/he disregards all. More is not more in most cases.

Green Bean
15 years ago

Hear, hear! Slowing down to appreciate what we’ve got brings things into perspective. Great post!

15 years ago

Nice thoughts with which I agree but…cost is what drives people. If things were very expensive than folks would drastically scale back consumption…carefully thinking about how something would be used and if it were necessary to buy it. They would have a mindset like my parents did, shaped by experience of deprivation when things came dear (the Great Depression), and the ease with which money can be lost. Recent generations don’t have that experience (though it may be coming to a neighborhood near you as we speak). It is the cheapness of things in hard cash that makes us careless about what we do.

Plastic is a godsend for a consumer culture because it is dirt cheap, and can be tailor-made to have characteristics for any purpose, size, shape, texture, color, smoothness, hardness, pliability, weight, etc.

When I was a kid I would imagine what it might be like to have a machine that you could use to create anything you wanted. Turn it on, wait a few minutes, open the door and there would be what you desired. Plastic comes awfully close to allowing that.

Consumption as we know it is a mindless pursuit driven by psychology, not need, and limited only by cost and, recently, not even by that if the price can be put off with credit to the future. Few things even pretend to be practical in the way they are advertised. It’s all an appeal to the emotions and lifestyle…is this or that “you”? Why not buy it and see?

Reflective people can think their way out of this, but for the hungrily consuming and constantly stimulated multitude, only a crash will bring the mind back to reality. The kind of financial crash that will revive the long lost phrase, “I can’t afford it”

Of course, those of us who read this blog realize the planet can’t afford what humanity is doing, but the only way that comes through down on the ground is when there isn’t a wad of bills or a stash of credit cards in the wallet.

Radical Garbage Man
15 years ago

I love this post, Beth. It is so much more positive to think of this as awareness and appreciation rather than neurosis.

I think, however, you’ve identified the exact problem: most people don’t want to be aware, let alone to slow down. I realized this when, feeling particularly wise, I showed a friend a picture I found on
“Bring Your Own”
. The text reads “It is pretty amazing that our society has reached a point where the effort necessary to extract oil from the ground, ship it to a refinery, turn it into plastic, shape it appropriately, truck it to a store, buy it, bring it home…

is considered to be less effort than what it takes to just wash the spoon when you’re done with it.”

Feeling a kind of enlightened-Buddha smugness, I was shocked when she said, “yeah, but sometimes it is easier.”

We may do bus ads in our municipality modeled off of the image linked to above, and I think that’ll be great, but after reading this post, I’m trying to imagine myself addressing the municipal taxpayers and saying “try to be mindful of the life cycle of the materials that surround you.” It would clearly be better than the heavy guilt trip we work on laying. Guilt breeds excuses (“since I already did x I can get away with not doing y”) or petulance (“you can’t make me”) or class privilege (“I pay my property taxes, now shut up and take my recyclable water bottles to the landfill”).

Unfortunately, my little daydream casting me as St. Patrick holding up a plastic shamrock and gently correcting the good heathens about their natural resource use ends with, not the plastic snakes driven off the island, but me (now as Joan of Arc) being burned at the stake on a toxic fire of burning plastic bottles (what will get him first, the flame or the fume?), or, if you prefer, a buff St. Sebastian pierced not with Roman arrows, but plastic sporks. Apologies to all those not raised Catholic in the 1950s or having a degree in Art History for the images.

15 years ago

Thought provoking post!


Deb G
15 years ago

I like what you’ve said here very much….

15 years ago

Judeo-Christian scripture demands that we be caretakers (“stewards”) of Creation.

The Biscuit Queen
15 years ago

Very well said.

I have found as I seek to reduce my use of plastic the very same thing. I have slowed down, I consider each purchase rather than just cramming things in the cart. And when I use these things, especially when there is plastic involved, I am more aware of the process of opening, using, and disposing of these things.

In church last week we learned of egyro (I am not sure how it is spelled, only that it sounds like a long ‘e’ and the greek sausage dish. It means awareness, concentration, clarity, being plugged in. It was a very meaningful word to me, and has struck me deeply in the sense that I now am aware when I am aware. I appreciate these moments when I really am seeing everything around me rather than mumbling through time in a mental haze.

I think with people so busy we all wander around most of the time mentally multitasking, thus doing nothing with clarity.

Your mood is contagious, maybe I should go write my own philosophical blog entry!

15 years ago

Nice post Beth. Regardless of one’s religious (or non-religious beliefs), you’re right. We need to all slow down and think about what we are doing with all of the items that pass through our lives.

Your kitties have made you quite philosophical :-)