June 5, World Environment Day
Some people plant trees in their neighbourhoods. Some people go on nature walks. Some people clean up the local rivers and lakes. Some people start a campaign to make their cities greener. All noble efforts, all important initiatives.
World Environment Day is also a day when….
…we must question our consumption habits,
…we must reflect upon our purchasing patterns,
…we must ponder upon the impact of our consumerist lifestyle on the environment.
Let us be honest. Do we worry about how our consumption patterns and spending habits impact the environment? What happens to all the stuff we discard when we buy new stuff? What happens to all the plastic packaging that we end up adding to the garbage dumps every time we purchase a new product? From where are all the natural and energy resources coming to manufacture all the goods we keep on purchasing? What about the fuel costs to ship the products all the way from China, Philippines, Malaysia or wherever else these products are being manufactured? What about…..what about….so many questions to ponder upon when we start on this path of reflection.
But the key question remains — Why do we keep buying? Do we really need all the things we buy? Or are we just buying to satisfy some desires, some wants in the hope that acquiring more things will bring us happiness? Do we know how to carefully discern between what is really a need and what is a desire when we enter a store or step into a shopping mall?
Like everyone else living in this age dictated by the two mighty trends of consumerism and commercialism, I also struggle with this dilemma of how to buy exactly what I need, and how to control the urge to possess and acquire more and more?
A personal seeking to become more self-aware and a quest to understand the larger societal trends gradually led me to explore in greater depth the topic of growing commercialism and consumerism in India. I became interested to look into different dimensions and aspects of this issue, all of which eventually took the form of an essay titled, “Commercialism and Consumerism in Today’s India,” included in my recently released ebook – The Thinking Indian: Essays on Indian Socio-Cultural Matters in the Light of Sri Aurobindo.
On this World Environment Day, I take the opportunity to share below two brief excerpts from the essay. One of these also includes some powerful words from the Mother to help us develop a sense of discernment, an ability to distinguish between what we really need and what we can do without.
[But before going to the excerpts, I wish to add a disclaimer here. I am not advocating an ascetic lifestyle or a giving up of all the creature comforts that we have all become so used to. All I am suggesting is that we slowly become more mindful of what and how much we consume, and why. This is the least we can do for our Mother Earth — to remind ourselves of becoming more mindful, on this World Environment Day and all the days to come. Is it easy enough to do? Each one has to find the answer within. But perhaps it is one of the most effective ways to begin to express our love for our planet, our mother earth.]
What can you or I do individually to grow beyond our identities as consumers and commercial beings? I am reminded of a statement I read a few years ago—“Capitalism can only utilize certain feelings for its own purposes; it cannot create them” (Varma, V. P., The Political Philosophy of Sri Aurobindo, 1960/1990, p. 192).
When I first read it, I said to myself—how simply he presents a really deep and complex idea! We generally like to blame American or Western style capitalism—I have done it so many times myself—for many of the economic woes of developing countries like India. But then the very human feelings (frailties is a much better word, perhaps) of possession, acquisition, greed for wealth, power to exploit and extract from those that are weaker than us, etc. are so easily ignored in our incomplete analysis of how to make the world better.
We don’t want to objectively examine and accept these frailties and work towards a deeper transformation of our individual nature. Why? Because that is such a hard work, it almost seems impossible. But then a part of us always knows that nothing else would ever work, it hasn’t. This is true for everyone, everywhere.
Let each one of us look deep into ourselves and determine how much are we responsible for this rampant commercialism and consumerist culture, how much do we want to move beyond this age, and what, if anything, are we doing in that direction. This is the only way out.
This brings us to an important, perhaps the most important, issue—how should we deal with our desires to possess and acquire material things. This, in turn, also compels us to examine the difference between material needs and desires. The Mother has explained this point beautifully in one of her talks in 1951.
“If one is in a state of total indifference or detachment about what one has and doesn’t have, and if one is quite sincere, that which is a need will be automatically fulfilled. At a second level we see situations when “one is preoccupied with one’s needs, if one thinks of them, tells oneself, “Truly I must have this”, it is not often that it comes to you; so you are obliged to do something to satisfy yourself and, if you have the means, to go and buy the thing.” But the problem begins to get serious because there are people, forming the great majority, “who always take their desires for their needs….They are convinced that without this or that one cannot live…” “(CWM, Vol. 4, p. 383).
The Mother has given us a very simple experiment as an exercise to help us understand the hold of such desires on our minds. She tells us:
“The first step for these people is to try a small experiment (if they are sincere): “Well, I won’t have this thing and we are going to see what happens.” This is a very interesting experiment. And I can guarantee that 999 times out of a thousand, after a few days one asks oneself, “But why the devil did I think I had such a great need of this thing, I can do without it very well!” There you are. And like this, little by little, one makes progress.” (p. 384).
She further adds:
“It is a question of training—educating oneself. The sooner one begins, the easier it is. When one begins very young, it becomes very easy, for one gets accustomed to one’s inner reactions and so can act with wisdom and discernment—whereas for those who are accustomed from their childhood to take all their desires for needs or necessities, and have rushed into them with passionate zeal, the road is much more difficult, because first they must acquire discernment and distinguish a desire from what it is not; and sometimes this is very difficult, it is so mixed up that it can hardly be perceived.” (ibid)