I tried to buy butter and I had a crisis inside the grocery store.
I am having a really hard time with consumerism. Buying things is one of the things that makes me miss the road most sharply, I miss being a rucksack wanderer and leafing through Kerouac while hitchhiking from one small town to the next: “See the whole thing is a world full of rucksack wanderers, Dharma Bums refusing to subscribe to the general demand that they consume production and therefore have to work for the privilege of consuming, all that crap they didn’t really want anyway such as refrigerators, TV sets, cars, and general junk you finally always see a week later in the garbage anyway, all of them imprisoned in a system of work, produce, consume, work, produce, consume…”
Living and traveling without money was in many ways an intensely political act. Living out my own principles and learning how to survive for two years without a job, turning my life into as total a rejection of consumer culture as possible, was a powerful experience. And in moving to Boulder, I resolved to continue that rejection, even while making certain compromises (I would be paying for a place to live and thus working). But then I started to realize what things I would need in order to be comfortable and clean in a house, so I compromised about not buying anything, and I started going to thrift stores and yard sales. Then I compromised about household products like toilet paper and soap and I started spending money at Target.
And now I’m trying to figure out how to stock a kitchen. I’m standing there in the grocery store with a basket dangling from my fingers that contains a bag of rice and two apples and a pear and I don’t know what to do. There’s an endless array of items in front of me. If I buy a box of cereal I’m paying for the release of toxic chemicals into the atmosphere to manufacture cardboard and plastic wrapping. If I buy the wrong apples I’m funding the pointless burning of fossil fuels to ship these things halfway around the world from New Zealand. If I buy meat I’m paying for the slaughter of animals, etc. If I get unhealthy food, since I’m no longer just eating what I find, I am now fully responsible for my poor diet because I’m the one choosing what I eat.
It’s really important to me to be conscious about this! But the last time I stocked a kitchen was in college, when I bought microwave dinners, hot dogs, and frozen pizzas. I simply don’t know how to buy food the right way. Never mind the fact that I don’t really know how to cook healthy, nutritious, conscious meals (unless I’m cooking over a campfire). I don’t know how to find an apple that wasn’t shipped ten thousand miles to the store. I don’t know if I’m supposed to buy bagged flour, generic flour, bulk flower, or go to a natural market for flour, or go to the bulk food store for flour, or if I even need to have flour in my kitchen. It was so much easier to just outright reject the whole system. But this process is important, because now that I have to make these compromises and decide what ways I am going to engage the system, I have to actually learn to make smart decisions, which is going to take me being much more knowledgeable and informed.
The butter was difficult (Salted? Unsalted? Sweet Cream? Organic? Whipped? European style? Lite style? Spreadable butter? Butter-like spread? Oh my God), but the dish soap makes me freak out even harder. I would love to know what I must have looked like to someone else. Restlessly pacing back and forth in front of the shelves, grabbing at mostly identical bottles and staring feverishly at labels, setting them all down and arranging them in a line and staring at them as if I expect all but one of them to explode from the intensity of my gaze. Somebody probably walks by and notices me, does a loop of the whole store, comes back to grab something they forgot, and is startled to see me in exactly the same place as I was last time, still pacing frantically. Do I get Dawn, because of the comfort that comes from its unconscious association with my childhood? Or do I succumb to the influence of propaganda and go with Palmolive, since I just saw a nice commercial? Do I buy the generic store brand, or should I pick Seventh Generation because the words “natural” and “organic” are printed on the bottle? Does it even make any difference at all? I’m tempted to just automatically grab organic everything, but that’s really no better than just buying what advertisements or my unconscious tell me to buy—I am still totally uninformed and simply being influenced by labels and packaging. I can’t buy my way out of the need to be aware of how I’m affecting the world. What it comes down to is that I simply don’t know what the effects of my purchasing decisions are, and right now what bothers me most is not the fact that if I buy a non-organic, not fair trade bag of coffee, I might by paying for genocide, what bothers me most is the fact that I just don’t know either way.