Consumed by the Wrong Questions

American Public Media’s weekly personal finance radio show, Marketplace Money, is currently examining whether our consumer culture is sustainable with their series, “Consumed.” The theme of over-consumption is being explored in different ways throughout the APM family of shows in concordance with the current wave of environmental awareness, which appears to have experienced a tipping point earlier this year and is now being touted by everyone who wants to jump on the trendy green bandwagon, as if environmental issues haven’t existed for years.

The voice of Marketplace Money, Tess Vigeland, seems particularly fascinated with the subject of trash. Several weeks ago, she embarked on a mission to carry her trash around with her for two weeks. On the November 9th show, Vigeland recounted her experience driving around her neighborhood and all the way to the dump with her Pasadena neighborhood’s garbage man of 25 years. The purpose of the segment appeared to be to impart awareness to the listener that the items we throw away do not merely disappear, and that landfills don’t have infinite space.

Right now, all public emphasis is on the consumer to change his habits for the sake of the planet. He must recycle everything (regardless of whether his neighborhood has a curbside recycling program), take old computer monitors and cans of paint to hazardous waste disposal centers, pay a surcharge on recyclable cans and bottles, consider how much trash any purchase creates, vow to not buy anything new for an entire year, forage for edible plants in public parks, get an expensive hybrid car, ride a bike down dangerous streets designed for cars, and get broken items fixed instead of buying new ones even though a repair nowadays often makes little economic sense and is terribly inconvenient.

In fact, all of these choices are incredibly inconvenient, which is why so many of us don’t make them. Journalists should stop feeding the self-congratulatory fires of individual environmentalists and start asking how companies can reduce their waste, making it easy for us as consumers to be environmentally friendly. No, I don’t want to have to throw away a seemingly needless plastic container every time I buy persimmons from Trader Joe’s, but grabbing my canvas tote and heading to the farmer’s market is an inconvenience for me. The real solution here is for Trader Joe’s to stop packing their persimmons, apples, pears, grapes, peppers, and everything else in needless amounts of plastic. The pressure to change needs to be on the entities with the ability to make the biggest impact, not on the common man whose main incentive for making environmentally sound decisions is merely the ability to smugly pat himself on the back. Most “issues” and “causes” have a certain degree of snob appeal, but lately, environmentalism is the snobbiest of them all.

The concerns of environmentalists are real, of course. There’s no denying facts like those Vigeland presents: Since 1960, the population of the United States has increased by 60%, while our trash has increased by 180%. Getting a broken object fixed, whether it’s a shoe or a DVD player, is no longer economically viable. She also points out that landfills are the largest source of “human methane” (though one might argue quite compellingly that the meatpacking industry’s contribution to methane is also ultimately caused by humans). The average American throws away a pound of food a day according to a University of Arizona study, and many grocery stores are throwing away so much edible food that an entire movement of people called Freegans has sprung up to reclaim discarded food and other perfectly useful items they find in the trash.

Many of the arguments in favor of environmentalism are overly simplistic, such as one of this Marketplace Money episode’s opening lines: “What have you spent your hard-earned money on recently…eventually most of it ends up on the trash heap, doesn’t it?” Well, yes, eventually, but what about the utility we get from the item between its purchase and its disposal? Then there’s that pesky issue of all the trash created by our inability to predict the future: how could we have known twenty years ago that VCRs, cassette tape players, and cathode ray tube monitors would become obsolete so quickly?

Despite the amazing amount of trash we generate, many of us are actually pack rats, hanging onto things far past their useful lives and keeping them out of landfills. Why aren’t packrats lauded for their contribution to saving the planet? More importantly, why isn’t anyone exploring this peculiar phenomenon whereby some of the wealthiest people in the world hang on to material possessions they don’t use and in some cases have forgotten they own or even have to pay to keep in storage units?

Recycling is one of the most commonly lauded steps towards saving our planet, but how often does anyone point out that recycling uses resources, too? Why isn’t it commonly known whether the resources required to recycle so many aluminum cans is more or less harmful than adding to our landfills? Vigeland presents seemingly ominous facts that half of LA County landfills are scheduled to close in the next decade, and all will be closed by 2053. What the listener is supposed to conclude from these statements is that we are quickly running out of landfill room and are nearing a trash crisis, but are we really running out of landfill room? Perhaps there is no room for a landfill smack in the middle of Westwood, and we may start seeing our trash hauled longer distances before it meets its final resting place, but I seriously doubt that the trash will be backing up to my front door anytime in my lifetime unless I move to East St. Louis.

Vigeland asks, “Is it up to us to curb our voracious appetite for stuff, or should we simply find more places to toss it away?” The simple answer is neither: it’s up to our legislators and the corporations they supposedly govern to stop making decisions that are terrible for the planet, and as any economist will tell you, they need incentives to do so. Right now, there aren’t enough incentives for companies to play fair with the earth: the existing structure dictates that the best way to make the most profit is often to ignore environmental welfare.

The average person doesn’t see the landfills or many of the other direct impacts of our poor environmental choices, so in that sense, it’s a very good thing when shows like Marketplace Money bring these issues to our attention. However, when it comes to environmental issues, the media is currently using its far-reaching influence to cater to the popular girls in school instead of bringing to the table the real questions that need to be asked. When will a major auto manufacturer release a $12,000 hybrid vehicle? Who killed the electric car? Why don’t stores like Whole Foods start offering meaningful discounts to shoppers who bring their own bags? How can we raise enough money to build viable public transit options in our most polluted cities? Instead of spending its energies on hot-button, sound bite-style coverage of our country’s environmental problems, the media needs to start using its broad reach to ask the difficult questions that can effect meaningful change.

Photo by D'Arcy Norman

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