Broken Visa sign consumerism in America

Consumerism In America: How Your Stuff Is Killing You

“Armaments, universal debt, and planned obsolescence – those are the three pillars of Western prosperity. If war, waste, and moneylenders were abolished, you’d collapse. And while you people are overconsuming the rest of the world sinks more and more deeply into chronic disaster.” ― Aldous HuxleyIsland

A lot of people like to talk about the reasons they think America is falling apart.  I think the main reason is the amount of attention given to consumerism in America.  We have bought into the idea that the media and advertising sells that, “more is better”.  Whether it’s the latest technology gadget, skin cream, or dietary supplement, we are constantly buying more and more stuff. Parents put their kids in the best schools and buy them the trendiest clothes but spend very little time with them.  People buy the latest expensive phone to communicate with their friends but no longer have the attention span for a face to face conversation.  When will enough be enough?

As I have traveled to Bali and Mexico recently, I have noticed something very different that you don’t see in the US where I am from. I see families celebrating together and spending time together. I watch men, women, and families hanging out on the sidewalks in friendship and joy.  I see them telling each other stories, laughing.   I see happiness.

Balinese men sitting on sidewalk

Men In Bali Just “Being” Together

I have wondered why I don’t see these scenes in the US where I am from.  Instead, I see lines of cars waiting in traffic.  People grumbling about the traffic, forgetting that they are traffic.  I found myself having to “schedule” time to see my friends.  And when I finally did get to see them, I watched them spending more time on their phones than in being present in the moment with me.

“We’re consumers. We are by-products of a lifestyle obsession. Murder, crime, poverty, these things don’t concern me. What concerns me are celebrity magazines, television with 500 channels, some guy’s name on my underwear. Rogaine, Viagra, Olestra…” ― Chuck Palahniuk

Family spending time together in Bali

Family making music together-Ubud, Bali

I have thought a lot about why there is such a difference in the places I’ve traveled and in the US.  I am reminded of the story of the Mexican fisherman and the American banker.

In case you haven’t heard it, here it is:

The American investment banker was at the pier of a small coastal Mexican village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked.
Inside the small boat were several large yellow fin tuna. The American complimented the Mexican on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took to catch them. The Mexican replied, “Only a little while.” The American then asked, “Why didn’t you stay out longer and catch more fish?”
The Mexican said, “With this I have more than enough to support my family’s needs.” The American then asked, “But what do you do with the rest of your time?” The Mexican fisherman said, “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take siesta with my wife, Maria, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine and play guitar with my amigos, I have a full and busy life.”
The American scoffed, “I am a Harvard MBA and could help you. You should spend more time fishing; and with the proceeds, buy a bigger boat: With the proceeds from the bigger boat you could buy several boats. Eventually you would have a fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to a middleman you would sell directly to the processor; eventually opening your own cannery. You would control the product, processing and distribution. You would need to leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City, then Los Angeles and eventually New York where you will run your ever-expanding enterprise.”
The Mexican fisherman asked, “But, how long will this all take?” To which the American replied, “15 to 20 years.” “But what then?” asked the Mexican.
The American laughed and said that’s the best part. “When the time is right you would announce an IPO and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich, you would make millions.” “Millions?…Then what?”
The American said, “Then you would retire. Move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take siesta with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos.”
Balinese Celebration

Balinese Celebration. Don’t Miss The Monkey On The Power Line!

When, I read this story, it dawned on me that the places that I’ve traveled where the people are the happiest is where the people live very simply.  They aren’t working ten hours a day to try to buy the latest iPhone, or newest car, or the biggest house that they don’t get to spend any time in anyway because they are always working.  Here are seven reasons I came up with as to why I think these people who aren’t being influenced by Western consumerism have better lives because of it.

1.  They spend more time with each other.  Our relationships with each other are what make life rich and rewarding.  Children receive a lot of attention from their parents and feel very loved.  Friends talk and congregate just about everyday.  It is very rare that the people in other countries let a day pass without talking to their friends.

2.  They have more celebrations.  I think these cultures just tend to celebrate life more.  Their joy is contagious.

3.  They are more grateful.  They live very simple lives, so something as simple as a pot of beans simmering on the stove or a bamboo steamer of rice gives them reason to smile.  They look at everything they receive as a gift.

4.  The conversations are more intimate.  I remember being a little shocked at first in Bali where just about everyone that I met on the road would ask where I was going and what I was going to do when I got there.  I was constantly asked if I was married and why not and the questions only got more intimate from there.  I soon realized these people were genuinely interested in me.  They told their stories and laid their souls bare not caring what I thought.  It was on this trip that I realized that I wanted more intimate friendships and was tired of shallow encounters.

5.  They live more in the present and in the now.  They have little money, so they don’t spend their time worrying about money.  They have nothing to lose.  They can sit for hours on a park bench and just watch the world go by.

6.  They aren’t bombarded with advertising.  I have loved being in Mexico and not seeing billboards.  There are no ads at the bus stops. I haven’t seen many ads anywhere.  In America, I had never given much thought to how my senses were constantly being assaulted by advertising.  Now that I am away from it, I really notice it.

7.  There is more time for volunteering. Here in Mexico, almost everyone spends at least some of their time volunteering to help others.  Also, people who aren’t “officially” volunteering spend time helping their neighbors.  My neighbors here seem to always know when I am home and when I’m not.  I feel like I am a part of a community that cares.  

San Migeuel de Allende father with daughter

Father with daughter in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

“We no longer live life. We consume it.”  ― Vicki Robin

Most people in the US don’t even stop to think of why they are working so hard.  You are considered to be living in poverty in the US if you don’t have a car, a microwave, and a TV.  (I have none of those things where I live in Mexico.) The crazier thing is that in the US, most of the products being consumed are made in other places in the world.  And once we buy things, that’s not enough. We have a house, but then we need a bigger house.  We have clothes, but we need new ones.

Credit card companies have done a lot to screw up people’s lives.  People don’t have the money to buy something, and so they “put it on the card.” They don’t stop to think about how they are spending much more than the item is worth with the interest the card is charging them.  So many people in the Western world have huge amounts of credit card debt for items that they didn’t need in the first place. In other countries, if people don’t have the money for an item, they just don’t buy it.  Period.

Even the US government doesn’t know how to stay within a budget.  Well, they say a government is a representation of its people.  No one has held them accountable to stay within a budget because they have not stayed within a budget themselves.

It seems like people’s health is getting worse and worse in the US. Many Americans blame it on stress, but they never stop to think of where the stress is coming from.  They never think about how to change it. They have willingly given their minds over to the advertisers, the big corporate America players, and have let themselves be owned.  And this, my dear friend, is how your stuff starts killing you.

And it did not happen all of a sudden. All in one day.  No, it happened slowly.  It happened as you agreed to work longer hours, so you wouldn’t lose your job.  Since you were told there were so few.  It happened as you ignored the carpal tunnel syndrome settling in your wrists.  It happened as you got caught up in having what everyone else had.  It happened through the subtle messages of advertising that you couldn’t be happy unless you had this or that.  We have become addicted to all of our pretty things and in the process  we have lost ourselves and we have lost each other.

“Nin knew how much humans loved money, riches, and material things—though he never really could understand why. The more technologically advanced the human species got, the more isolated they seemed to become, at the same time. It was alarming, how humans could spend entire lifetimes engaged in all kinds of activities, without getting any closer to knowing who they really were, inside.” ― Jess C. ScottThe Other Side of Life

But something is happening.  The housing market collapsed. The economy collapsed.  People have lost their jobs. They are for the first time taking a look at their lives and learning to live with less stuff.  They are enjoying the family time they now have.  They are starting their own businesses. Ones where they have created jobs where they are following their passions, their joy, even if it means making less money. (I personally did that).

They are finally offering the gifts they have to share with the world, and the world is getting better because of it.

So, I ask you?  Are you truly happy with how you spend your days?  Or do you dread Mondays like I used to? Instead, could you work part-time at your current job and spend your extra free time doing what you love? Is buying more stuff, going out every night for cocktails, and eating out for every meal really making you happy, or are they just habits you have to cover up the pain you have inside?  The pain you have of not living a full life, of not listening to your soul’s calling, of not being you?

What would it feel like to spend more time with loved ones, tap into your creative side, have time to watch the sunset and for picnics on the beach?  Ask yourself is your stuff worth it or is it time to say goodbye to consumerism in America and hello to your life?  Is it time to finally say hello to who you really are?

I think you know the answer.

I’d love to hear your stories!  Have you said goodbye to Western consumerism or would you like to?  Please let me know in the comments below!


Val Dawson