Power Play and Consumption

If I had to describe myself as either an over- or under-consumer, there is no question that I would best fit into the over-consumer category. Even with recent changes in my consumption patterns where I attempt to only buy and use what I need, I still purchase the occasional splurge item and have an intimidating number of choices when I do shop. This week’s blog rightfully follows last week’s blog about paradigms; consumers in the West might think they have a clear understanding of what under-consumption is, but that is only relative to Western consumption patterns. Difficulty arose this week when I realized I did not actually understand the extent of poverty in developing nations.

While reading for the “Yes” team in our Taking Sides debate, I learned that in developing countries, many of the poor rely on the natural environment to survive. I tried to relate it back to the picture of American poverty, but the two images did not seem to match up. As a design student dedicated to sustainability, I was disappointed at how little I understood under-consumption – although I was not surprised. It is my belief that the powers that be, whether social, governmental, economic, or other, do what they can to enhance this division between over- and under-consumers. Perhaps that sounds bitter or like some kind of conspiracy theory, but greed and fear have motivated many a heinous practice throughout history.

I liked how the author of this week’s “Yes” article described poverty as a social condition. While it can be difficult to accurately measure or describe poverty, those who might attempt such a task need to include the social aspects of it, and not just monetary. In developed countries, identities tend to be very income-centric. Often people pursue a career because it promises a high salary. The concept of a gender wage gap continues to infuriate those seeking a power balance between genders. Two people could have identical jobs performing identical tasks but if one person makes more, that person inherently considers himself or herself to be more successful. Because of over-consumer’s preoccupations with income, it can be easy to assume that income is the measure by which the whole world would judge success and well-being. Those in developed nations are more likely to take for granted things like healthcare, education, and environmental quality. In short, over-consumers are chronically out of touch with under-consumers. This needs to change. Over-consumers coming from developed nations have access to information and resources that can educate them on the issues surrounding not only local and national poverty, but global as well. I would say that under-consumers are out of touch with over-consumers as well, but developed nations so aggressively champion over-consumption that those in developing nations have no choice but to be exposed to those values.

The lack of influence from under-consumers comes about by the perhaps gratuitous influence of over-consumers. The existence of this link demonstrates to me that even if poverty was the cause of environmental degradation, it would come at the demand of over-consumers in developed nations. One proposed solution is to give the poor property rights and let them make decisions and take control of how resources would be handled. However, the poor cannot have sole control over their land while an outside entity, such as an organization, also has sole control. In order for the poor to have control over the resources, organizations who seek to use it will have to give up some of their control as well. Knowing human nature both collectively and individually, control is a hot commodity and when a person or group perceives a lack of control, all kinds of problems can arise.

The largest takeaways from this week’s readings and discussions are these:

  1. In order to gain meaningful insight on sustainability and have any impact on its progression, an understanding of economics is vital. Economics is about exchange and competition, and the nature of that exchange and competition influences the lives of both under- and over-consumers.
  2. As it stands, over-consumers have the economic and therefore social power in the world. Therefore it is up to them (myself included) to become educated and take action on the matters surrounding under-consumption at all societal levels. In particular, poverty in developing countries needs to be treated with special concern since designers like myself will rely heavily on textile production which derives from agriculture.
  3. In addition to over-consumers using their power and voices to further sustainability, they need to a) create opportunities for under-consumers to be heard themselves and b) learn that in order for (a) to take place, they will lose some of their own influence over situations directly related to under-consumers. As little children we are taught to share with others and not take more for ourselves than we need, and that lesson includes sharing power and time to be heard. Although the “sharing” notion is idealistic, I believe we as consumers of all kinds will gain a host of benefits from it. A well-rounded, aware, and educated global population has the potential to foster a more balanced power system throughout the world.

In the course of my higher education and beyond, I strive to become more educated and spread that knowledge, or at least the desire to learn, to those I might come into contact with. I am aware of the privilege that comes with living in a developed nation, and I want to use it in a way that furthers sustainability.

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