12 May 2009

Sustainable Consumerism: An Oxymoron

This semester, my understanding of the definition of development has been shaped by its relationship to sustainability (social, environmental, etc.). Therefore, I have begun to see my role in development as living sustainably—or as sustainably as possible. When creating this role for myself, I have had to rethink my concept of sustainability in light of what I have learned this semester.

My understanding of sustainability has changed drastically after spending time in the rural villages of Thailand. At home, I measured my own sustainability by the items I purchased that made me more “sustainable” (e.g.: hybrids, earth friendly laundry detergent, Chicobags, etc.). But now I realize that buying into consumerist society is not the true definition of sustainability. In fact it is ironic that sustainability is used to market “green” products in the U.S. because consumerism is, by definition, inherently opposite. Being sustainable has become a trend that makes people feel good about themselves. In reality, it is likely that they are damaging the environment even more without even knowing it by following latest “green” trend.
I bought into it. I strongly encouraged my parents to purchase the Toyota Prius when they were in the market for a new car. Through my introduction to mining in the CIEE program and then further research on my own, I have found that Priuses are not as environmentally friendly as they are marketed to be. The nickel used in the battery comes from environmentally unfriendly large-scale development mining operations. On top of that, the battery only lasts 100,000 and then must be thrown away. Not so sustainable anymore, Prius, are you? But my family has already invested in three. But now that the damage has been done, in my new understanding, informed by the articles I have read and the waste I have witnessed in the landfill, it would be worse to give up on the Prius in order to purchase another new,“greener” car (which might have other-yet-to-be-revealed harmful impacts).

A change I have decided to adopt into my lifestyle is to change my relationship to consumerist culture and material objects by using things as long as possible and buying used. Before this program, I did not think twice about the waste created by purchasing things new. Similarly, I had never critiqued consumerism in the same comprehensive way (that takes into account social, environmental, etc. impacts).
But now that it is in the forefront of my consciousness, it makes decisions even more complicated and unclear. Answers are even more obscured, even in the exchanges with P’Bamrung and P’Suwit, leaders of NGOs in North East Thailand. During our exchanges one question that came up was: If it is impossible to buy organic, local, and fair-trade, which one should we prioritize? Or even here in Thailand: is it better to buy coffee from Starbucks, an international corporation that provides fair-trade coffee options or to go to the local coffee shop and support Neste CafĂ©? Even these esteemed academics and leaders of NGOs did not have a clear-cut answer for us.
But even terms like “organic”, “local” and “fair-trade” must be deconstructed in each specific instance to determine which has the overall lowest negative impact on the world and its people. Therefore, I’ve come to question those terms within themselves. What is local? If there is a huge industrial farm next to my house is that local? Or does local now refer to a philosophy?

While my previous conception of sustainability revolved around the purchasing of “green” items, it has been changed drastically after our home stays in rural villages. I didn’t understand that being sustainable is a way of life, not just items on a grocery list. After living with villagers who raise, grow, forage, and hunt their food (only visiting the market to minimally supplement their provisions), and build their houses out of materials from the surrounding environment (wood, clay, etc.), I realized that it is possible to live, and live richly, without ever exchanging Baht for essential living materials.

The difference, I have concluded, is that in the U.S. we consume to be “sustainable” within the larger context of the environment as a whole. Yet we are disconnected from the result. However, in the Isaan villages we have visited this semester, the villagers approach sustainability as a combination of self-sufficiency and respect of natural resources.

In light of my new understanding, I see it as my role to attempt to transform my sustainable practices into a sustainable way of life; however, I can when I return to the states. Appropriately, included in this new vision of sustainability is a pass-on, to anybody who is open to this new way of approaching it.

Mikaela Sutherland Dunitz - Georgetown University

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