06 February 2006

Consumption & Utility

I am back on the plane and it is exactly one month from my last monster-long-haul trip. This time I don’t have my sweetie with me – so it isn’t quite as much fun. I do enjoy airplanes, though. These long flights are quite enjoyable as well because I get to drink coffee all day – staying awake is part of my time zone management strategy. I also enjoy a few glasses of red wine and the food up here. I wonder why I enjoy airplane food? High sodium levels?

As I wrote about a couple of weeks ago, I have been reading a lot more books. I enjoy having the freedom to read when traveling. I only have about four hours of power on my laptop and I haven’t upgraded my power supply to be airplane-friendly. That forces me to be a bit creative on the plane.

Consumption – it won’t come as a surprise to anyone that knows a wide range of people that personal wealth has a weak link to personal satisfaction. There is a well-known (in certain circles) research analyst that’s put out some interesting articles on just what leads to personal satisfaction. Experiences, rather than physical things.

To me, a life with meaning isn’t really about happiness – in fact, to be satisfied with myself, I most often choose the path with the least short-term happiness. Perhaps, I am too wary of the easy way, the temptations of false gods and the trap of chasing fleeting pleasures – I might write about those points but they are well documented through the ages (see prophets as diverse as Buddha to Covey).

Taking a tangent for a moment (if I might before dinner is served)…

Something that I probably need to watch in myself – because I see it in all of my close friends and hear about it from M – is the tendency to take the “hard” way from fear of being slack or a crazed desire for immediate decisions/results/performance. Zealous, moderate, dedication… I wrote about commitment versus attachment somewhere in the archives.

OK, back to this consumption point. As part of my annual self-review, I question myself on whether I am spending my energy towards personal satisfaction, or merely keeping myself busy. I think that it is a very worth while activity and that it probably why I mention it so much in my writing.

A chapter at the end of The World is Flat talked about the need for global leadership on the Western World’s energy policy. It is something that really hit home to me. Here’s how I interpreted it…


Consider for a moment the sources of personal satisfaction in your life – family, friends, love, cycling, nature, travel, reading, writing, cooking, finding old books, football… whatever they may be.

Consider how you spend/consume your “energy” – money, time, fossil fuels.

Consider the countries that most benefit from a high level of fossil consumption.

Cross reference that list with the governments that are most repressive to their people and most supportive of those that seek to deprive you of your ability to enjoy your sources of personal satisfaction.


Now I haven’t fully tracked through the money chain but it is a compelling argument on the surface for a couple of points that keep popping up in my head.

First, due to oil, there is a massive wealth transfer happening from America (and elsewhere) to some of the least attractive governments in the world.

Second, if one accepts that point then shouldn’t we really divert a good chunk of public expenditure towards cleaner energy?

Third, it certainly puts an F-350 and a Hummer in a different light when you track the gas money back to the governments that most those drivers oppose.

Think it through. If that vehicle isn’t a source of lasting utility and it just might be providing an indirect, constant dividend for exactly the people that your tax dollars are paying to kill. This is an interesting situation where I find unity in the views of left & right – for completely different reasons.

Friedman does a great job of laying this out. I’ll merely add the observation that the bulk of our energy consumption fails to derive much utility.

As I get older, the dilemma of consumption comes up more and more. Watching us fill bags of garbage (hourly) at Epic Camp really hit me for some reason. Those feelings started back in 2004 when I was riding across the US and thought about leaving a trail of trash bags through every community we visited.

A final thought, somewhat unrelated but it has also been on my mind. Recently, I saw an advert for a ‘fitness’ calendar. The advert left me with a similar internal uneasiness. I haven’t quite been able to pin down the source but, perhaps, it is because I was seeing beyond the black and white image to the eating disorders, bone loss and lack of self-esteem that lives in a society that puts an unnaturally thin model on a pedestal.

Connecting the dots until they lead back to the source is not always comfortable. But what can we do?

So far I’ve come up with drive a Subaru, ride my bike more and love my wife.

I’m still working on the garbage.

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