Tag Archives: consumerism

throw it out

I’m not sure if this was the first time I remembered witnessing it, or if it is just the one that has stuck in my memory. I was in the Dominican Republic for the summer, working for an organization that hosted US high school and college students to work in the local communities for two-week increments.  Having had experience with similar work in Guatemala, I was there for the summer to help them get started in the work.

I worked on the staff with a Puerto Rican woman, men and women from the Dominican Republic, and a man from Guatemala. One night we decided it would be fun to watch a video (we had a TV and vcr) but the only videotape we had (this was back in the dark ages of video tapes, before the instant gratification of immediately downloadable movie possibilities) jammed when we put it into the VCR.

I assumed we were through. So much for the ‘watching a movie’ idea. I also assumed that it was time to throw out the video tape in question—it was broken, why keep it?

I was wrong.

Edie, the man from Guatemala, took the tape out of the VCR and opened it up.

I didn’t realize you could do that.

He then proceeded to splice the jammed part, and to re-roll the entire spool of tape. It wasn’t a quick process, but a few hours later, we were happily watching the only tape we had, ‘A Bug’s Life.’


Fast-forward almost ten years, to yesterday.  The location is Mexico, Baja California, to be exact. The context was a conversation with my friend Edgar who is Mexican and lives in the community here.

We were talking about cars, specifically mine, a 12 year old SUV with 155,000 miles on it that is beginning to have ‘issues.’ Friends from Southern California have been suggesting that it is more than time for the trusty Isuzu Rodeo (which I had never intended to be such a long-term investment) to be replaced with something new—something that will be reliable, won’t break down, with not so many miles on it.

It’s true—I have begun to have various issues with the Rodeo, and am wondering if it might be time to retire it. Those thoughts, combined with the government’s recent ‘cash for clunkers’ program that promises to offer me $4500 for a car that would be lucky to fetch half that price, have caused me to ponder if it is time for something new.

Edgar knew that I’ve had some problems with the Rodeo, and even had recommended a mechanic who came to my house and fixed some sort of loud noise in the engine (my understanding of car engines ends is limited to the knowledge that they are found under the hood) for a lot cheaper than the same work could be done in the US (and did I mention that the mechanic made a house call?!)

“Men don’t mind their cars to have problems, but women like to just turn the key and be able to go,” teased Edgar. I thought about it. I definitely don’t want to be stranded on the side of the road, and since I haven’t a clue how to fix something that might go wrong, I reluctantly admitted that, at least in my case, he was right.

“How many miles do you have on it?” he asked me, as we discussed whether or not it was time for me to think of replacing it. “155,000,” I answered (listing each number separately, as my Spanish is good but not when it comes to big numbers).

“That’s a lot!” he laughed. “But in Mexico, that’s like new!”

With that one comment I was taken instantly back to Edie and the videotape, and brought to the heart of what had been nagging at me.

My 12-year old car is paid for. I don’t have a car payment. As someone who does freelance work and who lives without a steady paycheck, I’d rather not incur a new monthly expense if I don’t have to.  Aside from the less than stellar gas mileage, I really like my car. It works for me. If it weren’t for the pushing 200,000 miles, and the few ‘issues’ I’ve begun to have, I probably wouldn’t even be thinking about getting rid of it.

But, as an American, and more so as a Southern Californian from “the OC,” I live in the midst of a culture that seems to say “if it is old, throw it out.”

This is not entirely unreasonable. I need a car I can depend on, right? I need one that will be reliable. I do a lot of driving—I don’t want to be stranded along the side of the road, do I? I want to be able to drive up to Northern California to visit friends, or to continue driving back and forth to Mexico, without having to wonder, “Am I going to make it this time?” Plus, if I were to buy a new car I could get one with better gas mileage (which wasn’t even on my radar 12 years ago when purchasing the Rodeo), which would save me money and save the planet at the same time, right?

The truth is, the power window on the passenger side doesn’t work from the driver’s seat, so I have to lean over if I want to open it. My at the time very high-tech 10 cd-changer in the trunk, with a tape deck in the dash, has a tape stuck in it so that I cannot use it for an mp3 player. A few years back my wheels were chipping so I decided to spray paint them and though it worked at the time, it is beginning to chip. Plus, there is this ongoing noise that seems to be something transmission-related and all signs are pointing toward repair work that will not be cheap, even if it is done in Mexico by my house-calling mechanic.

So it’s not like I’m throwing out something that is perfect. There are, I think, sufficient reasons to justify replacing it.

But the problem is, do I want to be one of those Americans who throws something out, when I know that much of the world, including my friends Edie and Edgar, live in a world where they don’t have that option? Edgar would love to replace his 1994 Pathfinder with a cracked windshield. But he doesn’t have a government willing to give him $4500 for it or a life that would allow him to pay it off over a 6-year loan—but more importantly, he doesn’t live in a world that would make that decision seem reasonable.

Even as I write this, I’m fairly certain that if my Rodeo can, in fact, qualify for the $4500 cash for clunkers, and if I can find something I like that is within a price I can afford, it will be “Hasta luego Rodeo” and  “Bienvenidos new car.”

But my fear in so doing, in embracing an option that my world makes not only possible but even commendable, is that I will continue to distance myself from the world in which most of our planet, and many of my friends actually live.

A bite of the apple*

Not only did I ‘take the plunge’ into the world of iPhone, I have proceeded to ‘evangelize’ others to its wonders…

I’ve been contemplating getting an iPhone for a few months now. I didn’t get one the last time around because…well, because of the price, which seemed a bit excessive, but I guess more than that was probably my general resistance to the madness.

But having taken advantage of my friends with iPhones long enough– for directions (“hey, I’m on the road—can you find me the closest Starbucks?”) or for traffic reports (“hey, can you tell me what’s up with the 405?”)– I realized that I was ready to take the plunge. I’m tired of saying things like, “I’ll email you when I get home to my computer” or “No, I didn’t get the email about _____ because I’ve been away from my computer all day.”

But these practical issues have had to work hard to overcome the subtle but pervasive sense of resistance. As the proud owner of a MacBookPro, I’m a big fan of things Apple. So it’s not an anti-Apple resistance. Plus, I’m usually a huge fan of group bonding moments such as waiting in line for UCLA basketball games or the launch of Windows 95 (I was paid to be a PC geek back then). So the idea of lining up at the Apple store to both purchase the new iPhone but also show my allegiance to the cause should have been compelling.

The thing is, it wasn’t.

I did finally decide at about 6PM on July 11—release date—to walk (it’s a two mile walk) over to the Apple store and see if there were any iPhones left.

Was the walking some manifestation of the resistance? I think so. Somehow walking thwarted whatever inevitable force had been put in motion, so that at least I was drawn toward it more slowly.

A gradual and slightly sweaty thirty minutes later I arrived. There, in the center of the mall, it stood. The tree whose fruit was ripe and ready for the tasting. I saw that the line was still wrapped around the building. I slithered up to the front of the line and asked, “How long have you been waiting?” “About two hours.” The reply was enthusiastic. I stood for a moment and did the math, realizing two hours in line would put me past closing time. Was that relief that seemed to flood through my body as the temptation was, at least temporarily, averted?

“It can’t hurt just to go inside and look around,” I rationalized, clearly not interested in turning away from that which beckoned.

But as I walked in the door the resistance surged. “What is up with that?” I wondered. “I’m planning on buying one. So what’s with the hesitancy?” I thought to myself while surveying chaos.

I looked around at all of the people—there were a lot, the store was packed—happily plucking boxes off the shelves like fruit from the tree, signing away their lives in exchange for this coveted taste of a paradise which will grant to its owner knowledge beyond the old-fashioned limitations of good and evil.

The emotion, I realized with surprise, was sadness. A strange companion at such a feast, no? But as I looked at row after row of headphones, car chargers, cases, and docking stations it was depression, not elation, which washed over me.

Before I go any further I have to digress to share a story. Don’t worry, it relates. My entire life I have gone on ‘mission trips’—trips to visit places that are less well off in the world (not a hard standard to meet, coming from Newport Beach, California) in order to spend time with people there and hopefully help them. These trips have easily been some of the best experiences of my life. However, each time, when I returned, I felt the need to either not buy new things, or give away my current things, in order to somehow purge the privilege from my life. So, one year, before taking one of these trips to Guatemala, I bought a set of golf clubs. I figured that I would be too guilty to buy them after the trip, so I took care of it before I left.

Back to the Apple Store. Standing there I realized that the wave of sadness was caused by the excessiveness of the consumption surrounding me. The excessiveness of the consumption combined with the undeniable knowledge that much of the world—some of them my friends—lives in such poverty that a situation like this would be unfathomable.

I’m not trying to be holier than thou here. Keep in mind, I’m the one who premeditated the golf club purchase (clubs which I also have to admit that I’ve only used a handful of times in as many years). I have other devices (a camera and a computer to name two) that are quite a bit spendier than the iPhone.

It’s also not that this divide doesn’t already exist in the world every day. My buying or not buying an iPhone is not going to transform the world’s inequality, feed the hungry, or set the captives free.

In addition to that, the dilemma has nothing to do, particularly, with the iPhone. But the iPhone did provide a glaring and difficult to ignore illustration of the dilemma.

I walked out of the store empty handed.

The thing is, I’m still planning on buying an iPhone. My hesitations and misgivings have not changed that fact–I just didn’t want to wait in that long of a line. I’m actually looking forward to the line dying down so that I can partake of the tempter’s offering.

But I do wonder about having the knowledge of good and evil within my grasp…

*this was first written/posted in 2008, prior to my first iPhone (3) purchase. Now, as an owner of an iPhone4 contemplating a new iPhone5, it seemed relevant to re-visit…

initially published by www.culture-voice.com