I think it’s safe to say that the feel-good pseudo-activism of informed purchasing has gotten entirely out of hand. I’m not casting stones; I’m guilty of patting myself on the back for picking the right bananas and brand of shampoo too. I’m just saying that it’s time we stop convincing ourselves we’re doing “our part” when we buy from companies we agree with and shun the ones we don’t, because, simply, we’re not. Doing our part, that is. We’re maybe doing a teensy, tiny, modicum of a fraction of the first percent of our part, but that’s about it, and we need to recognize and accept that fact.
We should be uncomfortable about it. We should pretty much be uncomfortable all the time. I believe that. Things aren’t good, life’s not fair, people are being taken advantage of and hurt, people are starving, people are sick. More than half the people in Guatemala live on less than $1.52 a day, but I’m sitting on my 86″ mid-century modern sofa in boxers, belly full of sushi, typing on a Macbook, listening to Spotify through headphones with micro-fleece-lined memory foam earcups. That, strictly speaking, ain’t right, and I shouldn’t feel okay about it just because the fish I ate were sustainably harvested and my delicious rye lager was brewed locally.
To be clear, I’m not saying I should be crippled and crushed by guilt either. Not all the time, at least. While I have certainly benefited from the suffering of others, been given immeasurable privilege and advantage at the direct expense of others, I did not personally orchestrate their suffering or my privilege. I didn’t choose to be born lucky, but I also can’t deny that I was, and whenever I’m reminded of it, I should feel… awkward? Icky? Anything but comfortable. When those thoughts creep into my head, those nagging thoughts about a family of six in Chad surviving on a measly $1.23 of food every week, I refuse to let myself be comforted by the fact that the people who made my stupid jeans were paid a fair wage. Am I happy they were paid a fair wage? Of course I am. But I think we’re all getting a bit carried away when we start acting like informed consumption is us doing our fair share. It’s mostly just us getting cool stuff we want, with the added perk of self-congratulation, not to mention the healthy dose of respect from other similarly privileged and “enlightened” people.
Don’t stop doing it, of course. Obviously keep doing it. I plan to! It’s an important first step. But don’t confuse it. It’s not the end result. It isn’t activism. It doesn’t absolve us, doesn’t give us the right to feel okay about the way things are. We shouldn’t feel okay about the way things are until things are actually okay, and I think we can all agree that things are not currently in any danger of being misconstrued as “okay.” Not by a long shot. The only hope we have of ever doing anything about it lies in our recognizing how terribly not okay things really are, and if we’re all too busy feeling great about buying (or not buying) a particular chicken sandwich, we’ll never move on to that ever-important next step, where we actually act out of our extreme discomfort and truly help somebody.
I’m still trying to get there myself. It’s a lot easier to act like my only obligation is to modify my shopping habits, because that’s not really much of a sacrifice, and I still get to buy all that sweet stuff I like. But when it comes right down to it, I’m supposed to be sacrificing. A lot. Hence the discomfort, because… I don’t really wanna do that. Sacrifice, I mean. I don’t want to, but I’m conflicted, because I know I ought to. It’s the right thing to do. And I want to do what I ought, if that makes sense. But until I can overcome my selfishness and learn to start giving up things, I want to at least live in full awareness of the fact that I’m not doing what I could – what I should. I’m just not, so I need to admit it to myself, and feel downright crappy and uncomfortable about it until I change it. People are dying because they don’t have clean water to drink, and no matter how informed I was when I bought a pint from that brewery with the solar panels on their roof, that still sucks. I just need to deal with it.