Paying Attention: The Root of a Solution

The next time I go to Amazon to reflexively save a few bucks on a purchase, first I will pay attention…

More specifically, I will think about the intersection of these two articles: The Life and Death of an Amazon Warehouse Temp, and To Get at the Root of Spending, Pay Attention. Here are some excerpts from the first article:

“the company’s fulfillment centers are not sweatshops..At the same time, we are living in an era of maximum productivity. It has never been easier for employers to track the performance of workers and discard those who don’t meet their needs… [which] means showing up to work every day with the knowledge that you are always disposable…and yet …this precarious existence now represents one of the only remaining potential paths to a middle-class life.”

I’ll think about the Amazon worker story not because this is a story about horrible working conditions or outrageous exploitation or even moral clarity. The appropriate response is not immediately clear to me: do I stop shopping at Amazon and exhort others to do the same out of righteous moral indignation? Somehow, I find it easy to imagine a large group of warehouse workers who would exhort me NOT to do that. They would say that having their job may be a “precarious existence” but is still better than nothing; like Jeff, they would believe that they have at least a foothold on a path up, even if they literally die trying.

Which made me think of this second article that I read recently, in particular the following excerpts:

On my next trip, I made a point to pay attention to how much I spent for my lunch…I didn’t do anything with this information that day. I just noticed it and found it interesting… [an] outward focus on tips and tricks to control our spending might be important, but what is far more important is the inner work we can do by paying attention to what we do with our money… I just noticed what I was doing with my money and, for me, things changed.

What if spending without noticing what we’re doing is at the root of our problem with overspending? If that’s true, then the simple act of noticing what we’re doing is at the root of the solution.

Thoughtless consumerism (for lack of a better term; feel free to suggest one!) is a similarly ambiguous situation. Thoughtlessness can be a good thing; indeed, as individuals and as a society, we utterly depend on it. I’ve sat here typing these last 400+ words without giving a single thought to the multitudes of people who have made it possible — designers, manufacturers, transporters, salespeople, and others who have brought me my computer and the desk it sits on and the chair I sit in and the clothes I wear — including, quite possibly, someone like Jeff who snatched one or more of these items off a shelf in some faraway warehouse.

The issues, as usual, are boundary issues: when does thoughtlessness become harmful, even toxic? In my case, I have the luxury of not having to be particularly watchful about my spending, which makes it even easier to be thoughtless. But my 1000 things projects experiences have taught me that being thoughtless about my consuming has its perils.

The NYT article offers an antidote which I’ve found helpful: the simple act of noticing does change things; it is the root of a solution. So, the next time I go to Amazon to reflexively save a few bucks on a purchase, first I will pay attention. I’m not sure what I’ll think next: will I decide to purchase somewhere else? Will I decide not to buy anything at all? Will I come to some clearer sense of how my actions affect a few people working in an obscure fulfillment center? Will I decide to try to make a purchase that I think will somehow be a healthier one for those whose job it is to fulfill my purchase? I don’t know yet — partly because paying attention also opens the door to a potentially exhausting complexity of decisions.

One example: my last online purchase was some bath towels from Bed, Bath, and Beyond. I deliberately chose them instead of Amazon because they had a better selection and because it was not Amazon. I briefly had a passing thought of moral superiority because I forewent choosing Amazon. But now that I’m paying attention to that purchase retrospectively, I realize the foolishness of that thought: just because I’ve heard bad things about Amazon’s fulfillment practices doesn’t mean that BB&B’s are any better.

Paying attention to one’s purchases is a tricky bastard; the root of a solution is not a solution. But just noticing what I do with my consuming is the root, and the route, to a better place…

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One thought on “Paying Attention: The Root of a Solution

  1. Pingback: The True Cost of Thoughtlessness | Ideaphoriana

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