FOREWORD: The below began as an introduction to my “Top Ten Non-Essentials” post, but quickly took on a life of its own, as if my hands were pigeons in a plaza, scattering and circling back to one main idea. I blame this lack of focus on the Jornal do Brasil’s Business Section, David Byrne’s “Bicycle Diaries,” and Lupe Fiasco’s song “American Terrorist“—positive influences for truth, negative for blog posts about material things.
Due to this post’s highly opinionated and stream-of-conscious nature I almost tucked it away into my poetry blog where only the most dedicated MB&S fans dare to venture. After a quick re-read though, I stand by my words: the accumulation of material things is, I believe, the root of most modern problems. Bob and Surly agree. This is our manifesto.
TRAVEL FORCES YOU TO RECONSIDER WHAT IS TRULY ESSENTIAL. It’s a step outside of a thick and complicated box that for much of recent history has walled us into a room with many names but one underlying belief: that accumulating things is desirable. No matter what you call it—materialism, consumerism, capitalism, or any number of economic theories validated with proofs—the pursuit of this accumulation, at times subconscious, at times blunt like a billboard, has structured the way we live. For example, the majority of cities constructed since the Industrial Revolution have been built to serve big industry, with laborers’ access to and from the factories an after-thought. In other words, business came before people.
This continues today. I think it about it often when observing unhappy faces in rush hour traffic. The advent of the car, the boom in supposed easy mobility, expressways and interstates clogged faster than they can be built, increasing work hours and decreasing free time in the name of efficiency. The bumper sticker “I work to live, not live to work” has sold (ironic verb for an ironic message on an ironic messenger) so well precisely because everyone wants to believe this statement applies to them, they want to show the world they’re different than the rest, when in fact as long as the desire to accumulate is present they will always be grouped into a mold made to serve that goal.
There is middle ground, of course. People do lead normal lives (normal?) within this money-based reality. The money system, at least at its most basic level, is not the issue. The problem is owners and workers alike have been trained to expect ever higher financial rewards. Anyone with an economics background knows this is impossible. We worker harder, not smarter; longer, not more efficiently in an attempt to achieve the unrealistic vision that has been imprinted upon us. At risk of making this mock essay cliché, a Fight Club quote: “We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t.” We climb toward the highest extreme, no matter what.
This aspiration comes at a price. Those who seek extremes rise in the short-term, like chickens riding an updraft, but tend to fall in the most unexpected ways. Extremes, by nature, focus on one part of the spectrum while ignoring the other. This is as unnatural as standing on one foot or a snake ignoring its tail. When an imbalance occurs in an organism parts of the whole are affected. This is an animal, mineral, vegetable, and mechanical principle—the God key to contextualizing and understanding ill. A workaholic’s divorce, alcoholism, or hair loss are micro-level effects. Steve Jobs can buy a new liver—you will not be so fortunate, no matter how much money is squeezed from your 9-to-9. Imbalances should be avoided; imbalances equal death. The macro-level imbalance of so many micro ones is planetary, the result of our combined venom seeping through unnoticed over time. Washing your hair in the river won’t kill the fish, but the world tribe shampooing at the estuary could sterilize an ocean.
Accumulation is a silent death too, because it consumes you without your permission, without your knowing. We’re born and raised in a world where free-choice is as propagandized a belief as The Invisible Hand. Enter The Nielson Report:
“According to the Nielsen Report the average American home had the TV set on for about seven hours a day. The actual viewing was estimated at 4.5 daily hours per adult. To this had to be added radio, which offered 100 words per minute and was listened to an average of two hours a day, mainly in the car. An average daily newspaper offered 150,000 words and it was estimated to take between 18 and 49 minutes of daily reading time. While magazines were browsed over for about 6 to 30 minutes… Media exposure is cumulative… All in all, the average adult American uses 6.43 hours a day in media attention… Although in the US the average person is exposed to 1,600 advertising messages per day.“
This must have some affect on the American psyche. Why else would US $620 billion be spent annually on marketing in the United States alone? The influences that feed our desire to accumulate are everywhere, even when they are nowhere. Even if you manage to keep them in check, it’s impossible to police the neighbors—your church bells are silenced by the collective Sunday morning mower.
There is such blind faith in accumulation as the answer to everything, including the deeper, more spiritual questions about purpose, that the systems that destroy the planet at ever-alarming rates are being subscribed to with an equally alarming acceptance in emerging countries like the B.R.I.C. (Brazil, Russia, India, China), despite their known harm to our existence and that of our children. The BRIC governments use the respect inherent in their new purchasing-power the same way a younger sibling uses his older brother’s every mistake as a scapegoat. If Big Brother has a nuclear weapon orbiting the stratosphere, so can I. Big Brother has ten thousand smoking factories, I want them too. Economically-speaking, the developed world is Big Brother, and we’ve set a terrible example. If China and India alone begin using disposable diapers—no doubt Huggies is developing a marketing campaign as I write—we can kiss the world’s forests goodbye.
There have been, are, and always will be Diaper Companies telling us their product is best at cleaning up the shit, at making life the lucid and hygienic commercial they propose it always should be. The difference now is how powerful and concentrated these companies have become. The world’s top five companies—General Electric, Royal Dutch Shell, Toyota, Exxon Mobil, and BP—-have more money than the combined governments of some continents. Should it surprise us that politicians bow to their needs?
Yesterday I saw a magazine advertisement for paper. Innocent enough, though I thought it strange paper companies advertise…on paper. (Is advertising, then, good for business?). Until this advertisement, paper was paper. Now I question what lurks behind the ink. Is this Brazilian paper company raping the rainforest, are they the death machines deforesting one football field of Amazon per second? If I, a former football player who visited the Amazon, cannot conceptualize the enormity of this destruction, then I doubt government officials and business executives a world away—those with the power to stop it—can either. It’s just as hard to imagine these fat cats not in the pocket of big business. The metamorphosis of the producer-consumer nation is complete, like Brangelina.
Globalization has normalized greed and spread it evenly across the continents. Japan is as materialistic as the United States, perhaps moreso. The Chinese desire the same products they assemble for export. Post-United States crisis, Latinos have not abandoned the American Dream, they’ve just replaced it with a European one until the economy improves. Many Africans continue to see in the White Man, with his me talk pretty Trickle Down theories and Neo-liberal promises, a solution to their cyclical poverty.
I’m less hopeful, though not hopeless.
Travel has great potential for paradigm shifting (though it has nothing to do with the much anticipated apocalyptic happiness of 2012). Sorry half-of-the-artesanos-I-meet-in-South America. I recognize that the one billion plus people who live on less than a dollar a day will never visit Vegas; I have no illusions that the world’s one in every two children living in poverty will ever climb inside an airplane to later land in a culture opposite of their own. I’m fully aware that I’m a privileged jet-setter playing vagabond.
However, travelers like me that will one day hold positions of influence—the executives and presidents, the entrepreneurs and diplomats, the teachers and working parents of the West—, basically the wealthiest 20% of the population that consumes close to 80% of the world’s resources, may make more conscientious decisions thanks to their backpacking stints in which they were the uncomfortable majority “minority.” Having walked in others’ shoes, hopefully, will reverberate compassion through their professional and personal lives. It’s a long shot, a blind investment whose results are difficult to track, but I’d bet my bike on it. Actually, I’m betting my bike on it.
Travel is a transparent blanket that can be used to look the closet monster of accumulation in the eyes, to dominate it like a dog. It’s a disconnect from the subtle global, constant, and unrelenting mantras of bigger is better, things equal success, beauty must be bought. It shows that sickness is sickness is sickness, even when its symptoms are too big to diagnose, not just small enough to ignore. For what it’s worth, travel cured me—generally I feel healthy, happy, and sane. My baggage is less, my outlook without horizons.
It has cured others too. The dramatic shift from materialism to minimalism that many travelers experience is not necessarily sparked by their geographic move, be it a vacation to an exotic country or weekend in a neighboring state. Instead pure practicality is to blame for a whole culture of rucksack warriors that didn’t drop the economy (an impossible task), but learned a lifestyle where spending less brings more enjoyment, where quality of life is the only true currency. Said paradigm shift follows. This is a radical change of thought, as if they died and were reborn into a world with reversed rules. In a way, traveling is like death—you don’t know where you’re going until you arrive, and you definitely can’t bring everything with you.