Confronting consumption through excerpts of Thomas Princen’s book

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We read excerpts of “Confronting Consumption” for Wealth & Poverty and I’d like to reflect on it.  I think people, especially in America and overly consuming cultures, like to take the easiest and least work-filled path. More often than not this means consuming, shopping, buying. And that means more production so more goods are made.

Princen’s overall point is a very important one. He explains that too much consumption is detrimental to society and to the larger world as a whole and that we should try to find other means to get our needs met. He stresses local means of production, or smaller/less energy producing ways, such as growing your own food or taking public transportation or bike riding or walking to work or anywhere. These less energy producing means of getting needs met are more environmentally conscious and help in forming community. I sense that community is an important part of getting needs met in a less consuming way.

I think Princen makes an important distinction about consumption, that it is an inherently negative process, as defined by expending or using up, “to degrade or destroy.” Consumption can have a positive, appealing aura–buying things you want, shopping, looking better with products, goods goods goods (goods are good so more goods must be better, as Princen sarcastically said). But the bottom line is that consumption is negative — it degrades and destroys, it uses up resources, it must be used very cautiously. Our culture as Americans, as Westerners, as people of today, are not very cautious with our consumption. I think Princen is saying we need to be more aware and cautious of how much we consume, if we really need what we’re consuming, or if there are any other alternative ways to consume or get the goods we are consuming.

Princen also makes an interesting contrast between two forms of consumption.

  • Overconsumption: defined by Princen as “the level or quality of consumption that undermines a species’ own life-support system and for which individuals and collectivities have choices in their consuming patterns”
  • Misconsumption: defined by Princen as “concerns individual behavior, the individual consumes in a way that undermines his or her own well-being”
Photo courtesy of Google Images.

It was interesting to discuss these two concepts in class.  Both shed a negative light on consumption.  Some people in my class were more moved by the idea that misconsuming is hurting yourself, almost like abusing food.  That this can affect you, the individual, really troubled some people and had a bigger affect on them.  For me, though, it was overconsumption that influenced me more.  The fact that overconsumption, that I as an individual can affect whole species, whole communities really affected me and seemed more powerful to me than if I were to just misconsume and hurt only myself.  The concept that I alone can affect many others really stayed with me and helped me to understand Princen’s point more.

I don’t think Princen is arguing that consuming is unnecessary or all evil. He’s arguing that there are more sustainable and local ways we can be consuming the goods we do, we just are too lazy or focused on other things to pursue those alternative ways. We need to figure out these ways and pursue them in order to consume more sustainable and more equally for everyone. Princen explains that the level and amount of consumption our society and today’s world is taking part in is wasteful and not sustainable for our world. Consumption is necessary for survival, but there are better ways to consume and Princen is bringing this point up in his article.

This video is very interesting and kind of goes along with consumption, I think. It was an NPR Frontline video filmed after the recent Haiti earthquake. It’s called “The Economy of a Tent City” and shows the temporary settlements where Haitians have come together. There are economies that have formed in the settlements. The journalists found that there is more small business competition in this Port-au-Prince settlement than before the earthquake.

I think this video and the themes in it go along with Princen’s call for local consumption, local production, more cautious consumption. While this video is an example of where natural disasters displace people and make them have to do whatever necessary to survive — sell TVs they find, salvage nail polish and open up a salon — it kind of goes along with Princen’s idea of producing goods yourself, in a more sustainable manner, and then sharing this with the local community.

Also, I found that some social activists participate in Buy Nothing Day. Buy Nothing Day is an international day of protest. On this day, people can participate by not participating, by not buying anything, by refusing the consumerist culture we live in. It started with an ad by Vancouver artist Ted Dave. The first day happened in 1992.


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