What We Lose as Consumers

Lately, an insightful essay by the magnificent Wendell Berry has come to mind. The work in question is called “In Distrust of Movements.” And within its meandering arguments, Berry exclaims:

Educated minds, in the modern era, are unlikely to know anything about food and drink or clothing and shelter. In merely taking these things for granted, the modern educated mind reveals itself also to be as superstitious a mind as ever has existed in the world. What could be more superstitious than the idea that money brings forth food?

Wendell Berry is sweater and goulash boots in the middle of field in TN. Definitely among modern consumers
Photo: http://edibleradio.com/podcast/podcasts/episode-130-underground-airwaves-wendell-berry-on-the-value-of-intangibles/

Over a decade’s time, this passage has remained with me. Berry is not simply highlighting the absurdity of modern capitalism and agriculture. He also suggests that somewhere on the road to modernity, we’ve lost our connection to the land, to each other, and to ourselves. Our culture’s food-related superstitions have eroded our relationship to reality itself – to the type of reality that we can touch, taste, smell, see, and hear.

More and more of us are “awakening” to the realities of big agriculture, yet most often we do so abstractly. We “know” and trust that our favored farmer at our local farmers’ market grew the collards, but did we ourselves harvest them? Not likely.

As modern consumers, we’ve lost touch with sensuous reality. People who do economics as an occupation might call these lost experiences, “opportunity costs.” They’re the sort of costs we incur when we fail to do something, rather than the costs of doing something. They’re the career path you didn’t take. The parking lot that should have been a public park.

So, we’ve lost touch with sensuous reality. What else have we lost?

Following Wendell Berry’s lead, I wonder what we consumers miss when we never- or rarely – gather or grow food. What sort of detachment to place have many of us experienced? What kind of ignorance to the cycling of growth and decay do we maintain by concerning ourselves with food’s consumption over its production?

And when our relationships with each other come down to consuming together, what happens to our capacity to learn from each other? In a consumption-privileging culture, what does it mean to depend on each other?

What about developing skills? When all we’re expected to do is buy and have, what sort of skills are we losing? When we simply consume – besides our expanding waistbands – in what ways do we grow as self-determined people?

Part of growing involves branching out into the wider world. Growth involves appreciating the myriad cycles of life. My friend Dave enjoys carving wooden spoons for the gratification of noticing incremental change. Bit by bit, shaving by shaving, Dave steadily and skillfully transforms a log into a useful and stunning kitchen utensil.

So much of being alive in this wild world relates to noticing change. Shifts in wind, sunlight, precipitation, season, human development, animal migrations and foraging patterns. Today, we’re more likely to take stock of consumer trends, fashion fads, and technologies. But what of the changes that involve the whole of the biosphere? What cycles do we fail to appreciate when we’re consumers?

Perhaps it’s time we touch base with reality. Come to our animal senses. We’re human after all.  And a human being is a human doing.

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