Greener Grass

June 2003


Using up the world to have more now means there is less later. I wonder why it is so easy to ignore that obvious fact?

Things don't last these days and that's a fact. We are surrounded by the most diverse cornucopia of junk ever offered. There isn't but a thimble full that you can buy that lasts longer than it takes to wear out a pair of sneakers. I can vividly recall being a child of ten and wanting, more than anything in the world, a pair of black Converse High Top sneakers. I'd never set a pair on my feet, but I knew they would be wonderful. Of course, they cost too much for us to afford -- $10. I believe that most of my everyday footwear came from the Green Stamp Store.* Every day, for weeks that Spring, I'd go by the sporting goods store with those magic shoes in the window and I'd ogle them and dream. Never did succeed in getting a pair. By the time my financial resources had grown to enable me to buy a pair, my feet had gotten too wide to fit them.

I sincerely doubt that my life would have been noticeably improved if I had been able to get those shoes when I was ten. Indeed, to judge by all the things I have wanted since and actually gotten, I have to conclude that not getting things is often a much better thing for a person than getting them.

We want so much stuff these days. There isn't a day that goes by when most folks aren't picking out more things to covet. King Gillette has a lot to answer for in the hereafter, if you ask me. He was the fellow who figured out that he could give away razors if he sold razor blades. Of course, his idea was helped along by the fact that it was about 400% easier to shave with a safety razor than with a straight razor. But the real lesson was that Mr. Gillette made his millions where only hundreds had been made before. But his lesson has never been lost on a consumer industry that year by year turns more and more durable goods into flimsy disposables. We have made continents of garbage in our pursuit of convenience.

Years ago, I had a job where I had to interview people every day and write down notes about what they said. I was wringing the cramps out of my hand one afternoon, when one of my interviewees suggested that I use a fountain pen instead of a ballpoint. I tried it, and it was so much easier to write with, and my handwriting improved overnight to such an extent, that people I had worked with for years could not recognize who had written my notes, but they could read them so much easier. Then I read in a magazine that the human race discards something like a cubic mile of ballpoint pens every year. It seems incredible doesn't it. But then think of how many of the plastic sticks you go through in a month and how many years you've been casually reaching for another one.

The way we used to live: having very little and making do and wearing things out, is the way the rest of the world still lives. It is only the rich nations of the world that can afford to encourage profligate waste on a planetary scale. But that scale of living isn't sustainable. We're destroying the planet and we may have already destroyed ourselves. By the time the other 90% of the world's population has learned, to its cost, that they can't eat their cake and have it too, our environment will have its vengeance on us for our lack of foresight. It is a strange paradox that in search of greener grass we have made deserts.

Every wise civilization has stumbled onto the fact that life is a dichotomy of yin and yang, good and bad, right and wrong. When we get good things, there is always a consequence. When we do good things, there is a consequence. When we are selfish, we win in the short term and lose in the long term. This is, beyond any doubt or argument, the way the world works. But people in greed are people in denial. Everything we do has consequences. Most of the serious consequences will fall on our children and grandchildren -- and if we're lucky, we'll be dead. The problems have gotten so large that we despair of finding solutions, but they're not getting any smaller. How can we look our own children in the eye and say that we spent their children's future on junk that doesn't last two years before we have to buy it again?

So, don't buy it unless it will last. Do without it. Wear out what you have. Walk more. Relax. Let it go. Only buy the best and demand they make it better so you never have to buy another one. It can be done. We are each of us responsible for the future. We can do better. We have to.

*For those who don't recall them, Green Stamps came in long strips from the grocery store. You collected them in books and redeemed them for merchandise, carefully selected from the Green Stamp catalog. With enough Green Stamps, a pair of children's sneakers could be had for about 30 cents cash money.

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