We Should Believe in Tyler Durden: A Reflection on Consumerism

Jeremy Dutra

For my environmental ethics class this past winter quarter, I was asked to take an online quiz that questioned my consumption practices, from how much I eat to how much I drive and the cost of my electrical bill, all were factored in to determine how many “earths” my lifestyle consumed. After taking it, I scored two earths. Being an environmental studies major and one that prides myself living a green lifestyle, I felt very guilty. Why? Because it’s not possible to continue living this way since we do not have two earths to consume, and it’s not fair consuming more than I need which negatively impairs other people getting an equal share. This leads into the next part of the assignment, which had us explore the concepts of what is fair and just in relation to consumerism in North America. This quiz also reminded me of the movie Fight Club (1999) and its theme of people becoming obsessed with material goods and reckless consumerism. I will discuss this in detail further in the paper.

For an action to be considered fair or just, you must take into consideration the welfare of those involved in your action, indirectly and directly. For example, it is not fair or just for someone who to drive a gas guzzling hummer, go to the mall every week to buy unneeded clothing, eat lots of meat, and drink water from plastic bottles because his wasteful behavior probably consumes six to seven earths, which ultimately affects everyone else on the planet that has to deal with the negative environmental impact. Essentially when an action negatively impedes on the quality of life of another living organism and creates an imbalance accompanied by serious problems, it can be considered unfair and unjust. As my example showed, not only is this person’s action unfair because it creates negative consequences who those who don’t live profligate lifestyles, but it creates an imbalance in the world that results in environmental problems like air pollution and waste. In addition what makes it unfair is that people who live lavish lifestyles don’t understand that it is not just their world they are negatively impacting, but everyone else’s.

man on phone

  • Image retrieved from Digital Bus Stop on December 16, 2011

Now, I cringe and nervously laugh every time I see the film Fight Club at the scene with the narrator is sitting on the toilet reading his Ikeamagazine and talking about how people used to read porn magazines but now have become obsessed with nesting and creating this ideal home and lifestyles based off of useless crap because it is so true and pedestrian. People go to stores like Ikea, Target, and Pottery Barn to spend money on furniture and other household decorations to create a “nest” and thereby create a life for themselves with utterly meaningless items. They become so obsessed with this image of creating a “nest” that in the instance that it all goes up in fire, they feel they have nothing left (as happens to Edward Norton’s character in the film) and that their life is over. It becomes so hard to fight this way of thinking, especially in America where consumerism is a disease. The media has done such an excellent job of insidiously planting seeds in our heads that we need things that we innately don’t need and that there is some sort of importance to those things. It simply becomes an obsession. We have commercials playing the same ad over and over again telling us to buy crap that they claim will fundamentally change our lives, but that we do not need and really don’t want. But when you see the ad on a billboard a million times or a commercial played over and over again, your attitude about this product or service changes, and before you know it, you are at Target buying that useless piece of crap. Consumerism is the malignant cancer of the world.

Additionally, Fight Club explores a modern society obsessed with consumer goods because people feel that a part of their self can be attributed to the object. For example, in the film Tyler Durden says, “You're not your job. You're not how much money you have in the bank. You're not the car you drive. You're not the contents of your wallet. You're not your fucking khakis. You're the all-singing, all-dancing crap of the world,” which is trying to get the point across that people spend too much letting these worthless objects and symbols of status become the center of our universe. We attribute intrinsic importance to them, when in actuality, we do not need them to survive and live a more fulfilling life. And when we start to let these consumer goods define who we are, like a big gas guzzling Land Rover, it really means that I make a lot of money and I have a lot of power, we continue to consume and consume to show off who we are to the world.

I have a very cynical view, so I don’t know if people will actually change their consumptive behaviors; people, especially Americans, are so complacent in their lifestyles of going to the movies, going to the mall, and going out to eat, that if you were to tell them to they need to abruptly change this ritual of practice, a lot of resistance will be met; no one likes to change especially if this means making their life less fun or more challenging. From experience, telling my mom who really values the interior design of our house that she should turn off lights in rooms where no one is in and buy fewer decorative items, ended in arguments. After explaining to my mom why I think we should all change and the ecological impact of reckless consumptive practices, she sees where I am coming from and has completely changed her behavior. But not every household has someone like me living with them and there are people out there that are even more stubborn and more wasteful than average. In addition, simply educating people is too large of a job to apply to an entire people of a continent. It just is not feasible.

Now, if I had problems convincing my own mom to change her behavior, telling North Americans we live on a planet with finite resources that we need to sustain long enough to meet the needs of a growing population and the future of our species that is also shared with other living organisms besides humans so they need to change their wasteful consumptive practices, is going to be met with serious resistance. The consumer role is so ingrained in our lives, from watching television as young children to being pressured by peers, that changing our consumptive behavior not easy. And so I just have no faith in everyone going out of their way to become more responsible environmental stewards and consuming less. The concern with this is that a handful of determined hippies and environmentalists are not going to be the change the world needs to see (sorry, Ghandi) because the detrimental consequences of wasteful consumption are too large for only a few to handle. From waste piling up in landfills as a result of all of the obsolete “technological innovations” we have used up and tossed, to the thousands of pieces of useless consumer plastic that will take millions of years to biodegrade, and to the air pollution and loss of biodiversity resulting from the extraction of scare natural resources to the production and burning of them to create junk that will ultimately be thrown out, are all serious problems we have to consider.

But why? And why do we need North Americans to change their behavior? Because wasteful consumption affects everyone and everything on this planet; not just the people taking part in the consumption. This egocentric way of thinking is the core ethical concern causing most environmental problems, especially waste. People become so wrapped up in their own lives, they do not realize that the decisions they make also affect others. And this becomes incredibly unfair and unjust to people and other living organisms on this planet who have to deal with consequences of another person’s selfish behavior because it negatively impedes on the quality of life of people and other species. Everyone needs to understand how finite this planet is with its finite resources and finite space, and that collectively this wasteful behavior has serious environmental consequences which will ultimately affect everything in this world.

So what’s the solution? To be perfectly honest, I don’t have a solution to the fad of selfish consumerism that can be applied over a vast space like North America; at the present time, I don’t think any changes can be made collectively as Americans. I feel that the Achilles Heel or the malignant tumor of the human race is ourselves because we continue to act in destructive ways that eventually will be our downfall. If it is a struggle to get individuals to change their lifestyle to be less wasteful and more green, how can we even expect an entire country’s worth of people to band together and do the same? The future is going to be grim and dark because I don’t think Americans can consume less or have a desire to anytime soon. Eventually other up and coming developing countries like India and China, with huge potential consumer bases, will follow in the footsteps of the consumers in the West. It’s not going to be until the eleventh hour that the rest of the world will finally realize that the detrimental damage they have wrought on this planet can’t be mitigated or undone. I get depressed thinking about this, but until people get scared into realizing how devastating their actions can be, changing selfish consumptive practices on a large scale is just not even going to be a thought. As I have advocated in this paper, I unequivocally think we need collective change, but my doubts that it will ever happen are high. In the meantime, we should all grab an Ikea catalogue with a telephone in our hand and wait patiently on the toilet.

Work Cited

  • Fight Club. Dir. David Fincher. Perf. Edward Norton, Brad Pitt, Helena Bonham Carter. 20th Century Fox, 1999. DVD.