Monday, March 10, 2008

want vs. need

A few hours after my last post, I came across this paragraph in an essay by Wendell Berry:

It is plain to me that the line ought to be drawn without fail wherever it can be drawn easily. And it ought to be easy (though many do not find it so) to refuse to buy what one does not need. If you are already solving your problem with the equipment you have—a pencil, say—why solve it with something more expensive and more damaging? If you don’t have a problem, why pay for a solution? If you love the freedom and elegance of simple tools, why encumber yourself with something complicated?

Berry is discussing technology in general--part of his response as to why he refuses to buy a computer (*cough*), but the same might be applied to our technologically-affected food. For some, the line may be drawn at not eating animals at all, affirming that one doesn't need meat to thrive anyway, so why go through something that is morally troubling? I suppose what I meant as a result is that the introduction of another complicated set of products might not really solve anything, either.

What jumped out at me the most was the sentence, "And it ought to be easy (though many do not find it so) to refuse to buy what one does not need." No, many do not find it so easy not to buy things. It actually seems to be really difficult for most people. This article in the Post last week was the first high-profile (albeit unnecessarily snarky) statement that finally brought some attention to the real bottom line: "green consumption" is a contradiction. Maybe we could call it "greener consumption," in the way that some folks prefer to make a distinction between "safe sex" and "safer sex".

My mom has been working for the last few months on the concept of "green fashion," and everyone who's interviewed her is interested, first and foremost, on what to buy. No one wants to hear that we've got a ton of surplus clothes in this country and the "greenest" place to get clothes is the thrift store, a yard sale, or your friend's closet. The "greenest" wedding is the one in which you don't replace all your mismatched (but perfectly functional) dishes, sheets and towels with new, coordinating ones from your registry just because you can. No one wants to hear that it might be a good idea to look for timeless "investment" clothing that will last you for the next twenty years--want it to last longer? Learn to mend clothes instead of throwing them away when they're worn. In many ways, "green fashion" is also an oxymoron, because fashion is, sometimes by its very definition, ever-changing, temporary and disposable.

It will take quite a cultural paradigm shift for people to really only buy what they need. Look around and you'll see we're not even close.


Mama Monster said...

I tell people that "I try not to participate in the primary economy as much as possible." Which means that I freecycle, craigslist,make, swap and thrift as much as I can. A lot of people look at me like I'm insane. Also, I'm impulsive so it's hard not to just go out and get what I want. But then the want vs need thing is difficult because we ALL have sooo much more than we need. Where do we draw the line?

maria said...

craigslist forever! i just got an $800 rug for $40! i think you'd have to be insane NOT to buy stuff used.

man, i am impulsive, too. luckily lack of money helps cut back on that :)

and the stuff we don't need is still inescapable. recently i was thinking how the average person doesn't know thing one about wine or about why using a wine glass to drink it is preferable to using a regular glass or a mug or whatever. i know i barely do, and i don't much care. yet i own wine glasses because it's just "what people do." they're $2.99 at ikea! let me put them in my house!

Bill said...

I'll tell you one of my Tom Polin stories. Tom was a neighbor of ours near Reedy when we first moved to WV. Tom got me my first job doing construction in WV. Tom was a master carpenter, among many other things, and was working for a local contractor. I was working as a laborer. Tom and I rode to work together.

One morning on the way to the job, we stopped at a building materials store to pick up something that we were going to need that day.

We walked in and Tom found what he needed. He went to the counter to make his purchase. The price must not have been on whatever he was buying, because he asked the clerk the price. When the clerk told him, Tom said, "That's too much." He left his erstwhile purchase on the counter and walked out.

Tom had a reputation for being "independent," not necessarily a compliment in a small rural community. I think the description fit him perfectly. In this and all my other dealings with Tom, it was clear that he had a very good understanding of the difference between what he wanted and what he needed.

I have lots more Tom Polin stories. He was quite a character and one of the few geniuses I have ever met. He is now deceased.

Kan said...

I love the library so much. I don't think my toddler quite realizes that there are places where you can actually purchase books, DVDs and CDs to keep. "We have them for awhile and then we bring them back," he explains to the librarian, in case she doesn't know how it works.