What We're Concealing With Our Consumption

One third of coral reefs, a third of sharks, a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of all reptiles and a sixth of all birds are headed toward oblivion, according to New York Times contributor Elizabeth Kolbert's new book The Sixth Extinction. Unlike the natural forces behind the first five mass extinctions, we, mere humans, are causing this one. For decades, ecologists have catalogued the consequences of this staggering loss while social scientists have studied its behavioral determinants. But for all the research into the complexities of our over-consumption, here is one simple explanation:

We are suffering from the failure to appreciate.

1. recognize the full worth of.
2. understand (a situation) fully; recognize the full implications of.

Although our lifestyles have improved drastically since 1950, during that same period, our happiness has flat-lined. Among the indicators, America's lukewarm ranking in United Nations' World Happiness Report suggests a relatively impoverished internal state, despite being one of the world's most affluent countries. (For the sake of maintaining some credibility, I'll own that I, too, struggle with contentment).

Meanwhile, in manufacturing the stuff we buy, we are degrading and depleting our natural capital. Fifteen out of 24 major ecological systems are imperiled, according to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. But the disconnect between our personal consumer habits, environmental degradation, and our own well-being speaks to a larger conundrum. How many people have the privilege of escaping our consumer culture long enough to appreciate the value of our ecological life support system?

To appreciate something calls for more than just liking it. To appreciate something is to know it intimately. Take art, for example. Having completed some coursework in art history, I can enjoy a good museum. In 19th and 20th century galleries, I can pick out the Impressionists from the Post-Impressionists, and the Cubists from the Abstract Expressionists. I am generally familiar with the movements and how the artists arrived at whatever style made them famous. But next to my art historian friend, Estelle, my art IQ plummets.

With a doctorate in art history from the Sorbonne, Estelle is equipped with both theoretical and empirical knowledge of her subject. She interprets art by understanding its elements -- line, shape, color, texture, tone and so on -- as well as how those elements work together in a composition. She can regard a Picasso or a Manet and see beneath the surface into a painting's intrinsic value. And in lesser-known artists, she can recognize potential long before an artist becomes popular.

Estelle perceives meaning through personal experience as much as professional expertise. In her own words:

When I see a work of art, I look for rawness and universality. It is as if a space opens and I feel the artist's emotions becoming my own. Their art becomes a connective tissue that transcends time and space. In a picture, I can see the beauty, pain, sorrow and joy of life, all at once.

For Estelle, understanding art is not a hobby or even a discipline. For Estelle, art is a love affair. That is appreciation.

In the museum of life, we waste time and money hanging out in the gift shop or café rather than soaking in the majesty of the masterworks. Concerning the natural world, many of us similarly lack the tools or the time to appreciate the value of the land, water, sea and sky that feed, clothe, shelter and sustain us. We have not the eyes to prefer authentic over artificial. We have not honed the stamina to learn about earth science. Consequently, we do not fully realize what the natural world means to us.

Maybe appreciation is so hard because it requires work on our end. To understand something implies a relationship with it. We are no longer passive creatures, waiting to have our immediate needs satisfied. Appreciation demands our participation. At times, it forces us to wrestle with the enigma of seeing beauty within an unruly picture, or to corral our own unruly selves into a smarter way of living.

Too often, in our struggle to avoid dealing with the unanswerable and unattainable, we take the easy way out. We buy stuff we don't need, eat food that is bad for us, wallow in the wasteland of TV, or turn up the music to escape. We consume in order to cover up what we cannot face. Often, we don't think at all. With rampant advertising, consumption is practically a Pavlovian response.

Moving beyond the consumer role in our consumer-based economy feels counter-cultural, even counter-intuitive. When you first give up the shopping, the food, the stuff or whatever behavior represents your quick fix, it hurts. Not getting what you want can range from merely uncomfortable to exquisitely painful. As with any form of growth, we tend to resist it until it is thrust upon us, with no choice in turning back.

No wonder so few choose to scale back voluntarily. Conservation calls for transformation, and that's an inside job -- but fortunately one with excellent benefits. Who doesn't want to feel better, look younger, live longer, breath cleaner air and save money? In fact, there is a certain nobility to sacrifice, sensuality to appreciation, and seductiveness to moderation that is impossible to understand until you learn to transcend instant gratification.

Whether or not you are religious, consider using this Lenten season as an excuse to adjust your usual cycle of consumption. Experiment with letting go of whatever habit or indulgence best represents your nearest escape route. Try appreciating what you already own. Dream of what you can still become. Steep yourself in the wonderment of life beyond the material world.

If you're like me, in learning appreciation, you may discover meaning in things you never understood before, like poetry. Surely it was a state of appreciation that led William Blake to write these beautiful lines:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand,
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand,
And Eternity in an hour.

No wonder Blake directly influenced Transcendentalists such as Thoreau and Emerson. When you seek to appreciate nature, you can't help but appreciate life, too.

The forces that perpetuate our consumption are strong, but if we let them program us as consumers first, then we are not citizens. What we risk concealing most with our consumption is ourselves. In learning to master the art of appreciation, in whatever form that takes, we recognize the full worth of what we have, who we are, and the difference we could make if only we took the chance.