Can Modern Humans Tell the Difference Between What They Want and What they Need?
Maybe It’s Time to Readjust Our Priorities
The other day, we bought a rotisserie chicken at Costco. It fed us for six days.
First, we enjoyed the chicken with a side dish, but by the third day, I made a pot of homemade chicken noodle soup from the bones and left-over chicken bits. It fed us for another four days.
The refusal to waste food used to be the norm in American households.
Back in the day, waste not want not was a motto that average citizens lived by. A throw-away world came later. Now, Americans throw away food and stuff in general like there’s no tomorrow. The idea of saving for a rainy day and practicing frugality went out with wringer washers and hand-me-down clothes a long time ago.
Food doesn’t grow on trees but apparently money does.
This backwards interpretation of life is pretty much what we teach kids today. We have little idea where food comes from, and we think that our money grows on trees. Money is there to give us access to everything that we need. Food, clothes, toys, cell phones, cars, and so much STUFF that we lose track of what we own and where it came from.
Yet, as we squander, adding daily to the trash in our oceans and landfills, we have lost touch with what matters. How did this happen?
It wasn’t an accident?
We became a nation of consumers during the early part of the last century. Our economy depends on selling more tomorrow than we sold today. Thus advertising, marketing propaganda, was devised to convince us that we deserved to have whatever we wanted. The desire for stuff had to keep up with the need to sell stuff.
A Brief History of Consumer Culture
Over the course of the 20th century, capitalism preserved its momentum by molding the ordinary person into a consumer…
Along came credit and before you knew it the consumer market doubled, tripled, quadrupled.
Of course, humans have always longed to be the king living inside the walled fortress with maids, extravagance, and big full bellies. Who wouldn’t prefer to be the king.
So, along came the American Dream.
You know, the promise that if you work you can live like a king, too. If you didn’t eventually become a king, it was your own damn fault. You weren’t working hard enough. Go out and conquer other nations if you want to be the king.
The combination of easy credit and the American Dream became the gold standard for success.
We idolize our rich. We hate them but love them at the same time. Opulence is seen as success. Unscrupulous waste is glorified. If you can spend 3 million dollars on your 4th wedding like Ivana Trump did, invite 400 guests, and then divorce your new husband barely a year later, well, bravo.
Everyone wanted to be Ivana.
I’m not picking on Ivana. Her recent passing has been in the limelight of late. I read about her lifestyle in the news reels. However, if it wasn’t Ivana it would be Johnny Depp who has been reported to spend 30 thousand dollars a month on wine alone, owns 14 properties across the world, living a ridiculously lavish lifestyle. Americans swoon. We want that.
Yet, we live in a world where resources are limited, climate change is a threat, people are starving, trash is out of control, and happiness is nonexistent.
We’ve become a hedonist nation, collectors of junk, and totally dependent on a floundering system to take care of us. We’re more dependent that any other time in history. Self-reliance has gone out the window. The many survival skills of our ancestors have disappeared.
We really do think that money grows on trees and that there’s an unlimited amount of STUFF for us to collect.
Now, we no longer can tell the difference between what we NEED and what we WANT. We’ve lost perspective. Food, clean air, water, and shelter, the most basic needs of any living creature, aren’t seen as crucial to our survival. We think they’ll always be there, so we risk losing our homes, leave the larder with empty shelves in favor of eating out, and pollute our water and air as we acquire plastic junk.
Yet, these essentials are things that lots of other humans do without.
Food insecurity and substandard shelter have always been with us, but our artificial world of Instagram, movie stars, the super wealthy, private jets, flashy cars, and endless fads and fashions have created a world of constant longing. Life has become fake and unfulfilling. Our sense of security false. Our ability to prioritize diminished. Our expectations skewed and overinflated.
But what happens whenever the supply chain looks untrustworthy.
We storm the local markets as though tomorrow will be the apocalypse. We become even more anxious than we already were, making our anxiety meds seem less effective at helping us manage our mental health. Americans take more anti-anxiety and depression meds than any other nation in the world. Apparently, the richest country in the world doesn’t guarantee tranquility.
When you live in a world where dumpster diving can provide a portion of one’s daily needs, including food, reality has been successfully skewed.
Maybe it’s time for modern humans to get back to the basics. Maybe we need to readjust our priorities. Maybe the good old days where mom stitched our clothing and then passed it down to little brother could serve us well today. Maybe if we planned a weekly menu around getting the most out of a single cut of meat instead of running to a fast-food chain and throwing our money out the window, we’d lower our food bills. Maybe we don’t need to upgrade to the newest thing, live in the biggest house, or drive the newest car.
I’m just thinking out loud even though it sounds like I’m pointing fingers. We’re all a part of the consumer culture, even me.
I’ve lived long enough to see the expectations of the general population change dramatically over the years. Most of us really couldn’t afford to live the big, bigger, biggest lifestyles being promoted on our televisions, in our magazines, and online, but we tried. Boy, did we try. We were convinced that we deserved that life. We were told that we couldn’t be happy until we had that life. So, we became a nation of indentured servants. We took on lifelong debt and worked to buy stuff. That became the basis of our entire economy. Mission accomplished.
Should we continue to live like this?
How many Earths do we need?
It has been suggested that if everyone on the planet consumed as much as the average US citizen, four Earths would be…
Can the planet support this lifestyle for every baby born? Is equal opportunity even possible? I’ve read that if everyone in the world lived like the average American, it would require the natural resources of numerous planets. Some say as many as 4 or more planets would be needed.
Clearly, it’s questionable as to whether living in a throw-away world is sustainable.
Planned obsolescence doesn’t seem like the smartest thing. Living like a king may be a death sentence even for the king. Mass production of mindless goods doesn’t seem wise. A plastic world feels cheap. Destruction and waste of natural resources appears gluttonous not admirable. To accept that some of us were born to be waited on and others were born to serve is to continue the mindless pursuit of material things over the possible evolution of societies.
We shall see. We shall see.
Maybe this is as good as it gets. Or maybe, just maybe, we can use our big brains to create a balance for the first time in the history of humankind.
But first, we need to be able to tell the difference between what we want and what we need.
Teresa is a retired educator, author, world traveler, and professional myth buster. You can find her books on Amazon.