Connecting us to nature by spending wisely

Our constant endeavor to affirm our social status through conspicuous consumption only makes us more alienated from people around us.

A friend of mine has developed a habit of making unplanned visits to a nearby branded outlet, and would not hesitate after espying a good bargain.

I sometimes want to question whether he really needs any more clothes, but then I see the pleasure he openly displays from the purchase as he relates how he landed the trophy for only a small fraction of the labeled price.

There are buyers and buyers. There are also buyers who appear to be able to extract contentment from paying a ridiculous amount of money for a simple handbag or wallet. There are also more spiritual types, those who buy for its own sake, alleging that the purchase has the magic of relieving stress after long hours at the office.

We learn from our textbooks that the real price of everything is the toil and trouble of acquiring it. But apparently the prices today can mean much more.

At a matter of fact, price is no longer so closely tied up with labor or usefulness, thanks to a process of mystification otherwise known as branding.

Economists would continue to speak glowingly of the latest consumer spending growth, and notwithstanding our eagerness in trying to extract satisfaction from the multiplying consumer products surrounding us, the indiscriminate enshrinement of consumption for so long also leads to self-reflection.

One of the most notable negative externalities of unchecked spending is its impact on the environment, as suggested in the depletion of the resources, rising landfills and pervasive signs of pollution.

On the other hand, the satisfaction from consumption tends to be short-lived and narrow, as the versatility of consumer goods often succeeds only in setting us against each other.

Our constant endeavor to affirm our social status through conspicuous consumption only makes us more alienated from the people around us, by eroding the sense of belonging and adding to the sense of loneliness.

The People’s Daily observed last week in a commentary titled “Let consumption return to simplicity and naturalness” that in Japan, some people have posted on social media a ranking of handbags on the basis of their prices. This drew an avalanche of critical responses, with some defiantly posting images of their modest bags, some made of such makeshift materials such as rice sack.

Some scholars divide Japanese consumption into four stages, beginning with the stage where a Western consumerist lifestyle becomes entrenched. That the family becomes the center of consumption follows that stage before consumption becomes individualized and brands come to the fore. The fourth or current stage is when consumption becomes decentralized, brands cease to matter and affordability and function become the chief considerations in making a purchase.

Apparently people have gone a long way in arriving at this awareness, and once we have developed a more enlightening view of consumption, it is easy to see why consumption needs to be regulated, rather than promoted at all costs.

The case for regulation

In ancient China, some business people were not allowed to wear expensive clothing even if they could afford to do so. That was probably one way of countering the corrosive influence of money on the moral fibre of the society.

In most schools today, students are required to follow a uniform dress code. While there are occasional complaints from teenage girls who are suppressed from showing off their blooming age with the colors and curves they richly deserve, their parents should congratulate themselves on the considerable savings on their wardrobe.

Still, regulation has its limitations. My son revealed that since they have to follow the uniform dress code, there is a constant one-upmanship among the class in the choice of shoes or footwear, with some brands easily priced at thousands of yuan.

We used to have clearcut rules when it comes to the matter of spending. We have put that behind us, and feel very smug about our elevation in viewing consumption as an unmixed blessing.

A lot of our misconceptions stem from the misguided belief in anthropocentrism that presumes that nature exists solely for the sake of administering to human comfort. The resources from nature is to be measured on cash terms, and those that refuse to be so measured do not matter.

As Irish singer-songwriter Bob Geldof remarks in a recent commentary (“We need more than just another band aid,” July 16, Shanghai Daily), “The Earth is 45 million centuries old, but our century is unique, because it is the first in which a species could destroy the entire basis of its own existence.”

We are proving not only lethal to the rest of the species, but we are turning against the nest that nurtures us.

As Loren Eiseley observes in his “All the strange hours: The excavation of a life” (quoted in “The universes and the meaning of life in the words of a scientist-poet,” July 13, Shanghai Daily), ours is a species poised between heaven and earth, living all too brief lives and often pursuing the most ridiculous of things.

To refuse to have anything to do with unnecessary things would only empower us, by enabling us to come to grips with real problems, and endearing us to the nature that nurtures us.

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