The Untold Story of: a Consumer Nation
Stuff. It fills our closets, our garages, and our lives. We gauge success in life by the stuff we own, and spend incredible amounts of time shopping for it. A new documentary, The Story of Stuff, shows how our entire lives have been taken over by “stuff.” And the wisdom of Kabbalah shows what we can do about it
Annie Leonard, an expert in international sustainability and environmental health issues, spent ten years tracking “stuff” from its beginning as raw materials until it ends up in the trash. Her documentary, The Story of Stuff (www.storyofstuff.com), is as entertaining as it is educational, and has been viewed by over two million people.
Annie states the problem quite simply: “We have become a nation of consumers. Our primary identity has become that of being consumers. Not mothers, teachers, farmers—but consumers.” But her deeper concern is that U.S. consumption-mania destroys our balance with nature and ruins people’s lives. And all this happens away from the public eye. Here are just a few of the facts she uncovered:
- In the past three decades alone, one third of the planet’s natural resources have been consumed.
- 75% of global fisheries are now fished at or beyond capacity. 85% of the planet’s original forests are gone.
- The U.S. has only 5% of the world’s population, but uses 30% of the world’s resources and creates 30% of the world’s waste. If everyone consumed at U.S. rates, we would need 3-5 planets.
- U.S. industry releases over four billion pounds of toxic chemicals a year. Over 100,000 synthetic chemicals are in use in commerce today.
- Toxic chemicals found in the products we use concentrate in our bodies. In fact, human breast milk tops the food chain as having the highest level of toxic contaminants.
- Each person in the U.S. makes 4.5 pounds of garbage a day, twice what we made 30 years ago.
- Even if we could recycle 100% of the waste, it wouldn’t make a dent in the problem; for every can of garbage we put out on the curb, the equivalent of 70 cans were manufactured to make that one can of garbage.
But there’s more to the story. Annie reveals that “It didn’t just happen—it was designed.”
Why Shopping Has Become the National Pastime
Perhaps the most shocking fact revealed by Annie’s extensive research is that our “throwaway society” was carefully orchestrated by the government of the United States in order to revitalize the economy after World War II. At the time, retailing analyst Victor Lebow proposed an ambitious plan: “Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life; that we convert the buying and the use of goods into rituals; that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption. We need things consumed, burned up, replaced and discarded at an ever-accelerating rate.”
And that’s how the consumerism ball started rolling. Everyone in the U.S. is inundated with over 3,000 ads a day, telling them to buy more “stuff.” Companies design products to become obsolete as quickly as possible. Shelves are constantly loaded with disposable products for our convenience. The result?
“We shop and shop and shop, keep the materials flowing! And flow they do,” in Annie’s simple words. Our entire lives are being narrowed down to working, shopping, and then working again to pay off for the stuff we just bought. And with such an endless treadmill, it’s no surprise that polls show that our national happiness is actually declining.
Is this really how we want to run our lives and our economy? Do we really have to keep subjugating our lives to a system that ruins people’s lives, destroys the environment, takes us completely out of balance with nature and—at the end of the day—doesn’t really make us happy?
Kabbalah Explains "the Will to Consume"
The Story of Stuff concludes by talking about a variety of “green” strategies to improve the situation. However, Annie also realizes that “Things are really going to start moving when we see the connections, when we see the big picture.”
As it happens, the wisdom of Kabbalah is all about seeing these “connections.” It explains that we have to delve behind the scenes and reveal that the driving force that motivates our "will to consume" and the systems that nourish it, is no other than our very nature—human egoism.
That’s why we so quickly adopted Lebow’s consumer strategy—it played right into our egoistic nature! However, what he didn't take into account was that one day we would start to realize our true, spiritual purpose. And expecting consumerism to provide “spiritual satisfaction” shows just how clueless he was about the real meaning of this term.
From Kabbalah’s perspective (or any other perspective), it’s crystal clear that no consumer goods will ever bring us spiritual satisfaction—or in simpler words—true, lasting happiness. Spiritual satisfaction can only be attained by harmonizing with nature’s underlying quality of complete love and bestowal.
But since this quality is hidden to us, what we feel is just our lack of balance with it—reflected by all the troubles we see around us, whether between ourselves or between us and nature. Kabbalists say that being balanced with nature’s quality of bestowal is the one and only way for us to be truly happy. Moreover, acquiring this quality will grant us a whole new perception, and we will experience life on a completely different level.
But in order to do that, there is one thing that we must change first—our egoistic nature.
Change Starts Only From Within
Kabbalah explains that the way we run our personal lives, and the way we run the whole planet, is a direct outcome of our inherent nature. So if we want anything to change on the outside, we have to break free of the ego’s grip on our choices and values. And Kabbalah provides us with the way to do just that.
Our purpose is far more exalted than being slaves to our own consumption system. Neither does it amount to just a “green way of life” or a better use of resources. Kabbalist Yehuda Ashlag (Baal HaSulam) writes that “The purpose of the whole Creation is to adhere to the Creator by the equivalence of form.” (“The Freedom”)
In plain English, this means that man’s purpose is to balance himself with nature internally, to balance his inherent egoism with nature’s inherent altruism, and thus sense the perfect, eternal level of reality.
Once we make our inner transformation, Annie’s vision of a “greener, unified economy” will also come true. By attaining nature’s quality of bestowal, people will transform themselves, and hence we will naturally transform our earthly systems as well. But the change, says Kabbalah, can only start from within.
“As long as we do not raise our goal above the corporeal life, we will have no corporeal revival, because the spiritual and the corporeal in us cannot live in one basket.”
Kabbalist Yehuda Ashlag (Baal HaSulam),
“Exile and Redemption”