A Trip to the Hardware Store

Finding the remarkable in the unremarkable is like finding treasure hidden in plain sight.

loppers 53117                                             My new pair of bypass loppers*

Remarkably, I bought several things at the hardware store yesterday.

You may ask, what’s so remarkable about that? Why write an entire blog post about a trip to the hardware store?

There are several reasons I found it remarkable, and you might too.

Before the 1,000 things projects, buying a bunch of stuff at the hardware store was as unremarkable for me as it would be for most people, but doing the 1,000 things projects made me much more aware about buying stuff. It changed the default setting on my buying habits from “yes, if” (as in “yes, buy it if I want it”) to “no, unless” (as in “no need to buy something unless I really need it”). This zero-based budgeting approach to buying most consumer items has become habitual for me.

So I haven’t been buying much stuff, period. In fact, this is only the second time this calendar year that I went to a store and bought non-consumable items (that is, things other than groceries, restaurant meals, gas and car repairs, fitness classes, massages, and various miscellaneous items). In February, I bought several sets of bed sheets to replace ones which had worn out. This time, I bought stuff for yard work: work gloves, masks, yard waste bags, and a pair of “bypass loppers.” The main reason for buying this stuff was to make it easier to clear out the invasive bamboo in my back yard (and the reason for that is another, longer story for a future post) and to tackle the poison ivy and other vines that are stressing the black cherry tree in my vacant lot next door.

So it was remarkable that this trip to the hardware store was remarkable for me; it was out of the ordinary instead of being ordinary like it used to be. I noticed the difference and appreciated it.

The second reason this trip was remarkable was that I bought the pair of bypass loppers* even though I already owned a pair. The old pair was seizing up and difficult to use on the thicker bamboo stalks I’ve been cutting down. I could have taken the loppers to the hardware store and asked them to sharpen and fix them, but I didn’t want to wait that long. Still, I asked myself if I was being wasteful somehow or if buying a new pair was really necessary, and I surprised myself a little by deciding to buy them. I think this was because I’d been focused more on the “No” part of the “No, unless” formula; I’d been saying “no” to buying new stuff a lot more than I had in the past. When I bought the bed sheets, the “unless” part was a little clearer; there, the decision was basically “no, don’t buy these new bed sheets — unless you want to stop sleeping on bed sheets with holes in them.” Well, in that case…  For the bypass loopers, it was “no — unless you want to make the task of cutting down bamboo easier, faster, and less frustrating.” Sometimes, as in this case, “unless” makes more sense.

The third reason this trip to the hardware store was remarkable was that my decision to buy the new pair of loppers became easier once I decided I would give the old pair away; they still worked fine, and someone else could sharpen and fix them if they wanted. This  is another big change for me: being comfortable with simply giving stuff away when I didn’t want or need it anymore instead of saving it up Just in Case I might need it Some Day. So I noticed and appreciated this too, that my willingness and ability to generate gratitude by giving stuff away had notched up a level.

Buying stuff thoughtfully instead of being mindless about the process, taking the time to appreciate something when I do buy it, and making sure that stuff circulates through my house instead of simply accumulating there, is all pretty mundane stuff. But the real takeaway from my trip to the hardware store, besides the things I bought, is that finding the remarkable in the unremarkable is like finding treasure hidden in plain sight, right under my nose.

So, time to go cut some more bamboo and put that old pair of loppers on Freecycle. Anyone need some bamboo stalks?

———————————————————-
*Of course, it was also remarkable that I was learning what these things were called for the first time in my life…

Ode to a Chocolate Croissant: On the Value of Thoughtlessness

plate 032417What, you were expecting to see a chocolate croissant? That puppy’s long gone…

This afternoon I’m sitting at Capital City Cheesecake, winding down my workday week by doing some writing and enjoying one of my favorite treats: a chocolate croissant. The chocolate croissants here are large and full of chocolate and yummy, and as I savored every bite of mine, I paid attention to its yumminess. I briefly thought about its flaky crust as I brushed the extra crumbs off my shirt and computer, but mostly my thoughts were limited to how yummy it was. Did I mention that it was yummy?

Now that I think about it, here are some of the things I didn’t think about when I ate my chocolate croissant: where it came from, what ingredients were in it, or how long it might have been sitting there. I don’t even know what bakery it came from. I didn’t think about what country the cacao beans came from, and I didn’t think about the farm workers who were involved in the harvesting process. I didn’t think about how the beans were fermented or dried. (In fact, I didn’t even know that cacao beans were fermented and dried until I did a web search on it.) I didn’t think about whether they used cacao or cocoa powder to make the croissant.

I didn’t think about any of those things because that is one of the blessings of modern life: the miracle of a system that affords the more fortunate among us to live a lifestyle abundant beyond the wildest dreams of medieval kings.

Why I am thinking about this at all at this moment? Because I’m trying to figure out how to rewrite the section in my book that describes my (re-)discovery of the value of thoughtlessness. I know — my 1,000 things projects were based on the value of being thoughtful about the process.  So it may sound like a total contradiction, but the time and effort I spent being thoughtful about getting rid of thousands of my things also renewed my appreciation for the value of being thoughtless.

In fact, being thoughtless is not just valuable in our society — it’s absolutely essential.

Imagine if I did have to think about where my chocolate croissant came from — if I had to think about the myriad of steps it took to bring that chocolate croissant to my mouth — er, into being. Imagine if I had to make my own chocolate croissant — well, that would never happen. But I didn’t have to think about any of that; in reality, being obliviously thoughtless about my chocolate croissant is what enables me to enjoy it, which is true for that matter for most everything else I consume.

Of course, on some level this is not anything new: the division of labor which brought my chocolate croissant to me has been a defining feature of human societies for centuries, millennia really.  So what’s different in our society?

I think it’s this: modern society has dangerously diminished — swamped, overwhelmed, overrun, you name it — our capacities to be thoughtful about our consumption and our lives.  I felt overwhelmed just listing a few of the ways I’m not thoughtful about a single chocolate croissant, and that’s just one little thing. (Big for a croissant, but small in the larger scheme of things.) Our lives are filled to overflowing with a myriad of things that are just as wondrously complex if we stopped to think about it; but fortunately we don’t have to, because if we did, it would be overwhelming.

How did this happen?  I think it’s the result of affluence and abundance, the complexity and sheer volume of it, along with a big boost from our long-standing love affair with labor-saving devices, which have captivated American life since the Industrial Revolution began over a half of a century ago. The key here is that these devices don’t just save us time and effort; they also reduce or eliminate the thought involved in using them — everything from home appliances to prepared foods to electronics to chocolate croissants, not to mention the computer I’m using to write this, perhaps the most significant labor-saving device ever invented.

This sheer abundance of things doesn’t just encourage thoughtlessness about acquiring things; it demands it. As a result, thoughtlessness becomes the mechanism which causes things to accumulate in our lives until we have far more than we need.  Meanwhile, our consumption patterns have remained driven by habits formed by scarcity. The result is that it’s all too easy for us to keep on accumulating things until excess gets in the way of how we want to live and what we want to be. In other words, thoughtlessness is valuable to a point, but we passed that point a long time. Now it’s a two-edged sword; we can’t do without it, but at the same time we have to do something about it.

Here’s what I’m doing about it:

1) Appreciate the value of thoughtlessness. I recognize that being thoughtless is essential, and I can’t do without it. So the question becomes, how can I be more thoughtful about what I consume and bring into my life? How can I recover and regain my atrophied capacities for thoughtfulness without wearing myself out in the process? For me, this inexorably leads to:

2) Remain calm and keep paring. Keep on removing unneeded things from my life, and remain very vigilant about what I bring into my life in both the material and non-material realms. I may reach a point where I don’t need to keep removing things, but I’m not there yet.

3) Appreciate what I do have in my life. Slowly but surely, I’m learning how to do this in practice with more and more things in my life. This afternoon, I focused my appreciation on a chocolate croissant. I could have a chocolate croissant every day if I wanted to; my budget, diet, and waistline can all afford it. But I wouldn’t appreciate these chocolate croissants if I treated them as routine entitlements. Instead, I treat my chocolate croissants as treats: something to be had once a week or so, something to look forward to, something made a little more precious by making them a little more rare. That way, I can enjoy them more for the miraculous treats that they are. And did I mention that they were yummy?

Cutting the Cable Cord: Three Weeks Later

It’s been three weeks now since I cut the cable cord (well, technically 20 days, but I’m not counting… ;-)), and the verdict: so far, soooo good…

dvd-player-117
        The DVD player has the shelf to itself now that the cable converter box (& its clock) are gone…

Do I miss cable TV? No, I don’t, with one odd exception.

The only thing I miss is the digital clock on the cable converter box. Turns out I looked at that clock a lot, probably because it was the only clock in the living room. Apparently I had looked at it a lot when I was leaving the house and when I first came into the house. This must have been a deeply ingrained habit because I’ve looked for it a couple dozen times at least since it’s been gone. Still, if having a clock in the living room was that important, I’d just put another one there, and  I haven’t done that yet.

The TV remains dark and silent most of the time, but it has not gone entirely unused. My son has hooked his computer up to the TV and watched various things now and then, and I’ve watched a couple of movies that my son played from his computer.

Other than that, I’ve barely glanced at the thing. I was a little surprised to learn that looking at the TV was not a big trigger for me.  Instead, as expected, my most common triggers are related to sports, most often from reading about a sports event online. Other common triggers happen around meal times, especially starting or finishing meal prep. Passing through the living room at the end of the work day or later in the evening has also been a trigger a few times.

Having said that, I have not followed my plan to track my triggers as rigorously as I did for my social media/news diet/habit reformation. The main reason it feels OK is that it doesn’t feel like tracking triggers is as necessary when there’s nothing to trigger.  There’s no TV to watch, so I don’t need to understand so well what triggers me to watch.

As I also expected, I really don’t miss watching soccer or other sports; they seem to be important when I’m watching them, but once they disappear, their importance fades as well. As for channel surfing and mindless aimless watching, I do not miss that at all, not in the slightest.  Nor do I miss anything enough that I have felt the urge to get a Roku or antenna or subscription of some service.

Instead, I’ve gone out to a couple of movies with my son (at his suggestion). This is a big deal in that I had gotten entirely out of the habit of going out to movies. It seemed like there was a long stretch where there just wasn’t anything worth watching, and they’ve gotten rather expensive if also more comfortable and amenable. But in the past three weeks I’ve seen Hidden Figures and Lion, both very well worth the price of admission.

And without the easy choice of watching TV to fall back on (literally, by plopping on the couch), I’ve been getting out and doing things much more often — Spanish conversation class, improv classes, exercise classes, lunches and dinners with friends, protest march. In the process, I’ve entirely avoided the toxic soup of cable news that has accompanied the dawning of the Chinese Century — oops, I mean the start of the new presidential Administration — which is quite possibly the most salutary benefit of all so far.  My (now more carefully managed) news consumption from online sources supplies me with more than enough information and sense of outrage; I even read a print newspaper on the Metro once last week.  So it definitely feels like I’ve replaced my cable TV viewing time with other, far healthier choices.

Still, I don’t feel quite like an advocate or acolyte of the cable-free lifestyle just yet — not so much because I have doubts about its value, but because I have doubts about the value of proselytizing others. I don’t want to be like that person who bends your ear about the benefits of giving up sugar or processed foods or animal products until all you want to do is find a grateful escape. I’d rather it be the case that this new habit (in conjunction with and supportive of other new habits as necessary) have such a positive effect on me that you start to notice. And then you might venture to say something about it — ‘You seem happier/livelier/calmer/more centered lately. What’s going on?’  And then I’ll happily bend your ear about how wonderful it’s been to be cable-free…

Cutting the Cable Cord

At long last, the deed is done: I am cable TV free, and then some…

fios-cord-010917          This is one way to cut the cable cord (but not the way I did it…)

Well, I finally did it!  This past Sunday, I cut the cable cord.

The decision was a big deal, which is why a strange mix of thoughts and emotions passed through me after I returned the remote device and converter box. I felt a keen sense of detachment and release, as if I had removed a horse bit from my mouth or some other apparatus that I’d worn for so long that I’d forgotten it was not really a part of me. I felt the presence of attachments waving frantically like tentacles trying to regain their hold on me, as if I was freeing myself from one of those disgusting human birth pods in The Matrix movie series. (Yes, those images really did come to my mind.) Maybe that would also explain why the phrase “naked and afraid” kept running through my head.

There’s another reason I had such a strong reaction: because I’ve replaced cable withnothing.

That’s right; no Roku or Apple TV or anything like that. No TV at all, in fact — at least for now. Unlike my recent social media/news diet, I went cold, cold turkey on this one.

This decision evolved from my ongoing quest to build a healthier relationship with my stuff. Now that I’ve dealt with most of the physical things in my life, moving on to other types of clutter seems like a natural progression.  Watching cable TV was for me probably the biggest example of the mental and digital clutter that inhabits my life. The bulk of my viewing time was spent watching sports — soccer, baseball, and an eclectic variety of others. Most of the rest of my viewing time was spent channel surfing through programs which I really didn’t care much about. There were certainly some occasional nuggets here and there, but mostly it felt like a not-very-effective way to relax and decompress and possibly a huge waste of time as well.

So cable TV was a ripe target for some zero-based budgeting  — setting the counter back to zero to determine the actual value of watching TV through questions like these:
– What do I really need and want for TV consumption?
– What will I miss so much that I’ll be able to calculate that it’s worth the time, energy, attention to purchase it, knowing what I’ll be paying for it instead of having the cost hidden in a cable TV “package”?
– Since being able to afford it is not an issue, what other factors will form the basis for my decisions?
– Will I be able to discern what I’ve removed from my life that needs restoring? Will I find that I can replace what’s valuable to me by other means? Or will I find out that my TV consumption was in fact just a huge waste of time?

This decision has been a long time coming and involved a lot of unraveling for me to get to this point. I’d been meaning to do this for well over a year, but I kept putting it off. There were plenty of reasons to keep dragging my feet on the decision. There was the time back in April when someone reminded me that I wouldn’t be able to watch Washington Nationals baseball if I got rid of cable. That stopped me in my tracks for a while. Then there was the unnecessary need to time the event with the end of my billing period, which hardly seems like a savvy cost-savings decision in retrospect, given how many months it took for me to make the decision. The last straw was having the complete Verizon FiOS service — cable, internet, and phone — stop working on Saturday night. I thought, well if I’m not going to have cable for the next couple of days anyway, why not go ahead and do it now? Spending hours trying to troubleshoot Verizon FiOS on a smartphone also helped push the decision; adding on the extra two hours or so it took to cut the cable service on top of the hours I was already spending on dealing with the service issue didn’t seem like much of an extra effort  (see above pic for the cause of the disruption).

Many people I know will say, ‘So what? Big deal.’  Most of these folks got rid of their cable (if they ever even had it) a long time ago. But many other people I know are surprised or even thoroughly appalled at the very idea of cutting the cable cord (‘How could you even think of doing that?’). Maybe this was why, while it felt as if I’d made the right decision, it didn’t feel 100% right: because it also felt as if I was cutting myself off from an important part of society. If consuming less feels faintly un-American in an economic sort of way, cutting the cable cord feels faintly un-American in a cultural way.

But in fact, my intent is the opposite: to get in closer touch with myself, others, and society by removing mindless distractions of TV viewing which had become obstacles to connecting.  I imagined myself as an observer who had stepped to some outside and was now looking in. I imagined trying to cajole people to join me ‘out here’ but finding that their digital lives made them difficult to access, maybe even impossible.

In any event, it felt good overall, as if I had really turned a corner in my life — from where to where I don’t exactly know yet, but I know that my life will be significantly different somehow and in a positive way. It felt liberating.

So back to zero it is. It’s only been a few days, but I haven’t missed having cable so far. This decision is also a perfect way to launch my next habit reforming project, which is to change my TV and sports viewing habits. (More about that in a future post.) So I’m keeping track of my urges and triggers to watch, and it’ll be interesting to see how they emerge as time goes on…

Time to Retire an Old “Friend” (?)

14425564_10210856952964345_1651240331554574813_o

Yesterday, I decided that it was time to retire one of my “beach shirts,” a short-sleeved, vertical striped button-down casual one.  I’ve had this shirt for at least 23 years; once it was a full-duty casual shirt, but eventually its main role became that of a reliable beach companion. In fact, I’ve taken it to the beach every time I go for over 20 years. I wore it at the beach just a month ago this past August.

It’s not really appropriate for social wear anymore. The collar frayed open a long, long time ago, and strings are continually popping out there and there all around the collar. Even so, the looks don’t bother me, and the frayed collar never rubs my neck or causes any discomfort, so it had remained quite suitable for “I don’t care what you think about how I look” wear on many occasions. What pushed the shirt into retirement territory was my discovering a couple of rips in the back of the shirt itself.  Maybe it’s an arbitrary line, but for me when the body of a shirt develops sizable rips, that’s means it’s become a rag.

At least that was my first impulse. But I got a few interesting suggestions after I posted a picture of the shirt on Facebook. One suggestion was to duct tape it back together. I appreciate the sentiment behind that suggestion, but I don’t need to hold onto the shirt that much. It wouldn’t feel the same (either physically and emotionally) with duct tape on it, and it would need a lot of duct tape, especially after I ripped one of the tears all the way down to the bottom of the shirt. I have other old beach shirts, and I’ve had this one such a long time that I am ready to let its beach shirt days to be over.

Another suggestion was to turn it into napkins. An intriguing idea… sounds like a lot of work though… but I decided at least to look it up on Google. It turns out that everyone from the Happy Housewife to greenworlders to Martha Stewart has instructions for how to do this (the search on the words ‘how to turn an old shirt into a napkin’ produced over 1.13 million results). However, it takes a sewing machine, which I don’t have. Still, I’ll keep the shirt at the top of the rag pile and try to remember not to use it as a rag, in case I get the ambition to borrow a machine and undertake a sewing project after all.

A third suggestion was that there was a short story in that shirt. This suggestion is the easiest for me to do, so here goes.

I’ll start with a small confession of sorts: a particular story about this shirt did not come to mind. This is not the case with some of the other beach shirts I own. There’s the one with horizontal orange and white stripes which I’ve also had forever (i.e., ~25 years or so) that has a small rip in it which I made not long after I got the shirt; it also has a couple of grease stains on it from my bicycle chain; the stains have faded but are still visible decades later.  There was a time when I considered it to be a relatively nice shirt, and I remember being mad at the time for being careless because the shirt was relatively new then but already had a rip and stains on it. Now, those are merely marks of character.

beach-shirt-orange-white-striped-916

Then there are the two button-down shirts of similar vintage — one blue, one sea green — which I got at a thrift store in Pennsylvania for $4 each. I actually bought four of them at the time; one was peach-colored, the other one I don’t remember now, but those are gone. I remember being proud of having gotten such a bargain then; talk about being a bargain now (at about 15 cents per shirt per year)!

I couldn’t think of a similar story behind this striped shirt, so I cheated a little bit; I got out some old photo albums to see if I had any pictures of me wearing the shirt in the past. Sure enough, second album, first page I opened, I found a this picture of me holding my son Chris as a baby — not sure where, but it’s from September ’94. (Note how the collar was still in fine shape then.)

shirt-me-chris-994

Finding this pic so quickly fooled me into thinking that I would easily find other pictures me with wearing this shirt, but that was not the case. Looking through albums and boxes of pictures, I encountered lots of other shirts along the way, some forgotten but now fondly remembered for a moment. There were also pictures of me wearing other shirts I still have, including the blue and sea green and peach $4 shirts at the beach and elsewhere. Surprisingly, I discovered pictures that showed I was wearing the orange and white striped shirt on the day Chris was born. (Well, it was mighty hot that day, but still: nice enough at the time for ‘expectant father at hospital’ wear, apparently…)

Eventually, I came to realize that it didn’t matter. I could make up my own stories about my shirt, even if they weren’t specific or even accurate. Walks along the ocean strolling past crowds of beachgoers or in solitude. Casual meals at outdoor cafes in the city on mild summer evenings. The mild but welcome surge of excitement as the act of packing this shirt in a suitcase signified the onset of another vacation. This shirt and I have been through a lot, good times and bad times, and it’s not too much to say that we’ve become friends of a sort after all these years. Clothes like these make it easy to tell stories about them and to understand how we form attachments to our things. Even so, it’s a friend of a different sort — one I can, if a bit reluctantly and sadly, throw away. Or perhaps repurpose — because maybe this is one of those things that deserves a better fate…

Slow on the Flow #1

Or, how I became SWAG-averse and goodie bag-intolerant…

When I started the first 1000 things project, my consumer intake habits were a mixture of conscious and mindless. Many things I bought based on some prior or present set of conscious decisions, but there were still many things I bought as if on autopilot.

By being thoughtful about deciding what to do with a thing, the 1,000 things project helped me become more thoughtful about getting rid of my stuff (Thoughtful In, Thoughtful Out, or TITO for short). I started learning how to turn those controlling inner voices, which kept me attached to my things whether I wanted to be or not, into healthier inner voices that allowed me to let go of things or keep them as the result of a thoughtful process. In other words, I no longer accepted things mindlessly or uncritically into my home or my life. I had started to go slow on the flow, and one early sign of this was becoming goodie bag-intolerant.

   The end of goodie bags

The first time I noticed the onset of goodie bag intolerance was from an event I attended not long after the start of my second 1000 things project. At the event, we were all given a goodie bag as a thoughtful gesture of good will and caring. As the name implies, of course, a goodie bag is filled with goodies, and this particular bag was filled with fine goodies as goodies go. But now that I was becoming slow on the flow, this goodie bag did not feel good to me. It actually felt more like a burden, and I found myself asking, what was I going to do with all of these things?

This was a big shift for me in my relationship with new things. I wasn’t a stellar goodie bag person in the past, but I could certainly hold my own when it came to goodie bags. No childhood birthday party or other festive event is complete without a goodie bag, it seems, so I’d given out plenty of goodie bags in my time, and we’d collected plenty of goodie bags in return. Then there were all those goodie bags collected from client meetings, professional development workshops, and other work-related events — not to mention all those conference goodie bags thinly disguised as travel bags or reusable canvas bags.  Not so long ago, I thought of these things as goodies as we are conditioned to do. In particular, I fondly remember being on the lookout at conferences for stuff that my preteen son would like — really good markers to write with, objects that cleverly blinked or glowed, red dart plastic thingys that stick to the wall when you throw them right (also see picture below).  Many a time I assembled my own goodie bag filled with a good score of S.W.A.G. (Stuff We All Get). Who doesn’t appreciate S.W.A.G?

darts red
red dart thingys (which I still have for now)

Apparently, I don’t — at least not so much anymore. I ended up giving away or throwing out all of those things in that goodie bag (well, except for the food, which I consumed in short order). It appeared that my goodie bag days are now behind me, although I do keep an item or two now and then, and of course chocolate remains an exception. As far as SWAG goes, I still have the red dart thingys (for now), but I don’t take much of anything home from conferences anymore, and I usually give away the bags as soon as I can…

The True Cost of Thoughtlessness

 

IMG_3715

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.


IMG_3716

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…