The True Cost of Thoughtlessness



Beautiful view, isn’t it?

I’m here on vacation in Destin, Florida — a vacation from work and from social media, but it’s also a “writing vacation,” so I’m here to write and renew myself. (The latter part is where the beach comes in.)

Destin is one of Florida’s best-kept secrets, or at least once was — it’s hard to call any place lined with condos and beach houses up and down the shoreline as far as the eye can see a “secret” — but the Destin area is still relatively unknown to most outsiders.

The place is beautiful — white sugar sand that’s so fine it even squeaks sometimes when you walk barefoot on it; clear aqua green water that goes out much farther than other beaches I can recall; and other beautiful qualities that I’ve yet to discover. I’m told there’s no other place like it in the continental US; you have to go far afield to places like Bali or Fiji to find other beaches that are fine like this.

And yet, there was a time when I would have taken this view for granted. Not so much this view in particular since this is my first time to the Florida panhandle and to this area of beaches. I mean, take it for granted that Florida beaches would always be there. Not for time immemorial, but at least for as long as I could imagine. Probably it’s their sheer vastness — over 660 miles of beaches, almost 1,200 miles of coastline, and almost 2,300 miles of tidal shoreline (according to the Florida Department of State)  — that makes them seem so indestructible, so permanent…

A few days ago, one of my nephews started a conversation on Facebook about an article describing a “new” UN report which found that almost no industry was profitable if environmental costs were included.  The report itself is three years old (April 2013), so it’s not really that new, and the article also contains a misleading contention that when environmental costs vastly outweigh revenue, “industries would be constantly losing money had they actually been paying for the ecological damage and strain they were causing.”  The report itself is more accurate, noting that industries would simply pass their environmental costs on their consumers if they were required to do so.

For quite some time now, we’ve referred to this condition as “the true cost(s) of [x].” For instance, the 2015 documentary “The True Cost” tells the usually untold story about the price we truly pay for our clothing. It has become commonplace, at least within circles of people and communities who care about it, to inveigh against companies who externalize environmental and social costs while keeping the profits for themselves. The aforementioned article and the UN report describe how most industries wouldn’t be profitable at current prices if they had to pay the costs of the environmental and social damage they produce.  But beyond these numerous examples of the true cost of this or that, I believe there is a singular reason that we fail to account for the true costs of our consumer goods and our material things:  Call it the true cost of thoughtlessness.

As I’ve learned through my 1,000 things projects, our consumer society encourages us to be thoughtless about our things in several key ways.

One way is disconnectedness: the things we consume and use allow us to be disconnected from them. We don’t have to know how they were made or where they come from in order to use them happily and effectively; indeed, most consumer products are designed to enable us to use them in a thoughtless and disconnected way.  In fact, this ability to be thoughtlessly disconnected from our consumer goods is not just handy; it’s an absolute necessity, one which we utterly depend on as individuals and as a society.

As a result, there is sometimes a tendency to blame the companies that produce goods for their environmental and social costs, while at the same time disconnecting ourselves from that process. To some extent this criticism is unfair — as consumers, we have some responsibility for our actions — but it is also fair, as it is asking a lot to expect consumers to be watchdogs over everything we consume, so companies should shoulder their share of the responsibility as well.

In effect, consumerist society has subjected us to a form of continuum fallacy: the belief that if we can be disconnected and thoughtless about some of our goods, that we can do the same with an indefinite number of goods without suffering any negative consequences. We have learned that it doesn’t work that way.

Another, more insidious way that consumer society encourages us to be thoughtless about our things is through sheer overload. Just. So. Much. Stuff!!!  And more importantly, so many decisions to be made about the things we buy and use.

I first learned the power of this from my failed attempts to build a green home back in 2007 and 2008. The sheer volume of decisions that I needed to make was exhausting: bathroom fixtures, countertops, deck materials, etc. etc. — style and color and greenness and cost and location and on and on. I hadn’t yet heard of the concept of decision fatigue, but I certainly understood it immediately when I encountered it a few years later.

In much the same way, our consumer society requires us to make a multitude of decisions about everything we use. Most of the time we barely notice, and that’s part of the point: we tend to buy more when decision fatigue overtakes us. More to the point, it’s really hard to start being thoughtful about consumer choices when the sheer volume of choices quickly becomes overwhelming and the process exhausting.

An even more insidious way that consumer society encourages us to be thoughtless about our things is through abstraction. The connection between our actions and, say, a trash dump or a plume of black smoke or even the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is concrete: you can see it, feel it, even smell or taste it sometimes. By contrast, the connection between our actions and, say, asthma or cancers or global warming is much less direct and tangible. This makes it harder for us to understand or (for many people) even believe that there is a connection. Our abilities to understand the world abstractly have not kept pace with our need to do so.


So even now, as I stand looking at this Florida beach, the idea that it could be gone in 50 or 100 years seems unfathomably — and, dare I say it, comfortably? — remote. I can’t get a grip on the concept or what I should do about it.  I often suspect that this is a human failing: our perceptual systems are ill-equipped to deal with long-term, slowly developing crises. So maybe it’s not so bad; maybe I can ignore it, at least for a little while (longer).

But no, I can’t, not in the case of a Florida beach anyway. I’ve been to Florida and stood on its beaches dozens of times throughout most of my life, to the point where a little bit of ‘been there, done that, time to move on and explore new areas’ started to creep into my thinking. Not anymore. Now when I stand on a Florida beach, I can’t help but wonder how long it will be before they vanish. My experience of visiting a Florida beach has turned from one of overwhelmed awe to one of slightly sad appreciation of their fragility.  The idea — some are now saying the likelihood, even the certainty — that this beach, that these 660+ miles of beaches will be gone someday soonthat is one of the true costs of thoughtlessness.

Sometimes I almost think that Florida should consider using the threat of global warming to promote their beaches — “come walk on our beaches while they’re still here.”  Maybe not the best marketing strategy on its surface. But it would work for me — I look at where I’m standing here and wonder, how many years will it take before I’d be standing underwater here?  Will I still be alive? And is there anything I can do about it?  The larger answer is a complicated, effortful one, but the first step I can take right here, right now is a simple one: pay attention, appreciate, and never take this shoreline for granted again…