Searching for meaning during the crisis of consumerism

By KELVIN QIAN | November 21, 2019

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COURTESY OF KELVIN QIAN Qian’s time with his dance group, the Eclectics, reminded him of a life beyond consumerism.

We live in an age of crisis. The ice caps are melting and the forests are burning. Above all else, if headlines are to be believed, we face the possibility of an uninhabitable Earth, societal collapse and human extinction.

I’ve thought a lot about this over the past year or so. Unsurprisingly, this made me sad. More than sad, actually. Depressed. Nihilistic. Why do anything if doom is soon?

On some days, I end up spending more time reading news articles on climate and politics than doing “productive” work. Because when your future will be defined by collapse and destruction, does your next midterm really matter?

And not only do you see the edge of the cliff, but every action you take brings you a step closer. Your last car ride put a bit more carbon dioxide in the air, your last bite of sushi helped pillage the ocean. In exchange for a piece of gratification today, collapse will come a bit sooner tomorrow.

So how should you make yourself happy? How should you have fun and practice “self-care” next to the end of the world? Certainly, consumerism isn’t the answer. But we pretend it is.

Every week I see my friends have fun (usually, but not always, via Instagram) by taking their friends out to fancy meals, buying tickets to hyped-up concerts, or travelling to distant lands. But when it all comes crashing down, we must ask ourselves: Was that hot pot dinner, that BTS concert, or that “life changing” trip to Japan worth it?

This question “Does consumption equals happiness?” is a vexing one for our times. It’s one that I’ve pondered since middle school, when we watched “The Story of Stuff” videos during our Environmental Club meetings on the dangers of consumerism.

Continuing that personal tradition, two weeks back I bought a book called The Great Disruption: Why the Climate Crisis Will Bring on the End of Shopping and the Birth of a New World by Paul Gilding.

In the book, published in 2011, Gilding sounded the alarm on the climate crisis — years before the current crop of apocalyptic headlines did. Furthermore, Gilding states that our current model of economic growth is about to end, and we will reach the end of shopping.

Hmm.

That would indeed be the birth of a new world, given how consumerism is so ingrained in our economy and our culture. There’s a reason why it’s easier to envision the end of the world than the end of capitalism.

But that Friday night when I began the book, I might have seen a glimpse of that new world.

That night I read the book from cover to cover, even though I had plenty of homework I probably should have done instead. The only interruption I had was from Eclectics, the dance group I’m a part of. Specifically, I went to our last practice before the SLAM Showcase the next day, which was the culmination of all the work we put in over the last two months.

As per Eclectics tradition, this was a very special practice. We were doing “Boys vs. Girls,” where we divided ourselves up by gender and took turns performing our entire set. The group that elicits the most screams from the audience is the winner, per our rules.

It didn’t stop there. After the boys and girls, it was time for the newbies (our term for people who joined Eclectics this year) to get on stage to dance the night away. Then it was time for the sophomores, juniors, seniors and the grad students, before it was finally the board members’ turn to perform for the rest of us.

That night, I felt something. On one hand, that “something” felt nice. Warm and fuzzy even. But on the other hand, it felt — no, it was — extremely powerful.

I felt happy.

And I asked myself: is this life beyond shopping?

This wasn’t something that we could buy at a shop or a ticketing web site. And this wasn’t your standard club party or hot pot get-together.

This was formed from two months of our own sweat and tears, two months of learning choreography, setting formations, making mistakes and fixing them. This was two months of growing as a dancer, two months making new friendships and strengthening old ones, two months of working toward a common cause.

And so, we cheered each other on that night, as our hearts swelled with pride for how much we’ve accomplished in those two months together.

We humans are social creatures. We evolved to crave the love of our fellow human beings. And that night, there was nothing but that love as we cheered each other on.

Alas, that fun could not last. Practice ended at 11, and we all returned to the consumerism-driven, ever-collapsing world we know and pretend to love. But maybe, just maybe, what I saw and felt that practice could be the basis of a new world, a world that elevates the things that truly make us happy.

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