To Live a Decommodified Life
The desire to consume is a kind of lust. We long to have the world flow through us like air or food. We are thirsty and hungry for something that can only be carried in our bodies. Consumer goods merely bait that lust, they do not satisfy it.
— Lewis Hyde, from The Gift: The Erotic Life of Property
In 2002 the underground art community in New York City blossomed and grew. In a given week one could learn to sew and make a furry bear suit, learn about Central Park’s edible plants, find out how to read a schematic, learn the Hawaiian fire art called poi, solder, or go on an unsanctioned historical tour of underground subway stations no longer in use.
Consumerism and money were themes that popped up regularly in creative projects. Performance artist Reverend Billy founded the Church of Stop Shopping. With a real choir preaching the pitfalls of materialism, Reverend Billy and his followers performed in churches around the city, then the country, and then the world. The Billionaires for Bush were regularly seen around town dressed in tuxedos and fancy gowns. In character, they argued for the rights of the wealthy: to tax, to maximize profit, to increase power. I added my own contribution to the theme by creating a project called The Vomitorium: Make Room For More!, a theatrical production modeled after the opulent parties of the Roman Empire, where guests infamously engaged in consuming astounding amounts of food, vomiting, and gorging themselves again and again. The play invited reflection on the fate that eventually befell the Roman Empire.
It was a time of self-expression and self-reflection. Burning Man’s gift economy and its DIY ethos were shaping a culture back at home. This culture helped Mikey and me recognize how commodified our lives were.
We realized that instead of making the goods we needed to live, we bought them. We chose what to buy by copying others or by listening to advertisements. Wearing branded clothing, we were ourselves walking advertisements. Since we didn’t make things, we also didn’t understand how things worked. If something broke, we threw it in the trash. We were not privy to information that might lead to responsibility. We didn’t know which fibers and materials decomposed back into the earth or what toll the production of goods took on the planet. This information did not come on care labels along with the washing instructions or in owner manuals paired with gadgets. We had never considered that most of civilization was made out of petroleum and corn. Both can be abstracted and turned into a plethora of forms. Petroleum is turned into plastics and synthetic fibers that are then used to make consumer goods. It is also turned into fertilizers used to grow industrialized food. Living in the city, a place defined by its reliance on goods produced elsewhere, we consumed things with a cost that could be measured in petroleum, in both the delivery and production of goods. And we learned that the processed food we ate, which took varied forms from sweeteners to fiber, was actually modified corn. Animal products like meat and dairy we learned to view as corn products because animals not meant to consume corn were being raised on it at industrialized farms.
Our life cycle was a patterned loop of working to earn money to buy what we could have made ourselves — better and more responsibly. Our creativity, our most precious gift, we traded for money. The results of our labor hardly contributed to making the life of the earth any better. Deep down, we felt this.
Illustration © Julia Rothman, from The Good Life Lab
With newly opened eyes we watched the same food supply trucks pull up behind all sorts of restaurants. “It’s all the same,” we said to each other while watching the same truck deliver to a run-down deli and then a fancy health food café across the street.
Documentaries about genetically modified organisms (GMOs), pesticides, and factory farming practices encouraged us to become food aware. We memorized the categories of goods that contained GMOs and avoided them. At the time the list consisted of cotton, corn, canola, and soy. Today the list is longer and harder to memorize.
We dumped our televisions and turned to online news sources. We started making more of our goods ourselves. Instead of buying new things, we favored what could be trash-picked. We modified junk to fulfill our needs. Changes in habit helped us see the relationship between our choices and the world. We avoided participating in sweatshop and child labor, pollution, and the abuse of resources worldwide by not consuming and by living out of the waste stream.
We started taking note of the things people did to reward themselves for the hard work they gave to their careers. They were things that Mikey and I had rewarded ourselves with all the time. Once out of our office cubicles, we had run off to fancy dinners and bought consumer goods and designer clothing.
I held on to the pledge that I had made a year earlier after months on the road. With Mikey, I added a promise.
We will search for an uncommodified life.