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Letting go of our convenience ethic

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            Convenience is an American way of life.   As a culture, we are obsessed with saving time or making our daily lives easier every possible moment.   It isn't embedded in our DNA but in the fact we live in a capitalist society that encourages us to make convenience a value in our lives.   Part of it has to do with our lives becoming time starved as we attend to our duties as parents, students, workers, citizens and consumers. But did we come to this point naturally or is there a larger phenomenon that encourages us to obsess on convenience?   I think singer/songwriter Jackson Browne, in a piece published in Britain's the Daily Mail, hit the nail on the head.   He recently joined the Plastic Pollution Coalition (plasticpollutioncoalition.org) that is centering its efforts on the plastic that is polluting our oceans and harming the marine life.

                        The pollution in the gyre of the Pacific Ocean has been talked about for some time now but did you know that all five of our planet's oceans have vast dispersions of plastic in them?   Jackson, in very few words, makes the key links between our habits as consumers, our rapacious, resource consuming economy and our convenience obsession:

            " We are poisoning ourselves, and destroying the ocean. This is done in the name of free enterprise, unregulated markets, the right to do business and the right to make a profit -- and in the name of convenience, evidently the most precious freedom we have."

I've been thinking for some time now that our unspoken "convenience ethic" is at the root of many of the problems and issues we face.   Jacques Ellul's book on propaganda spelled it out well.   What he calls "technique" can be applied to the convenience ethic.   Ellul argues "technique" consists of the totality of methods geared toward absolute efficiency in every kind of human endeavor--such that increasing efficiency becomes a means unto itself. (Ellul's concern was with propaganda--it is more efficient and easier to maintain social harmony by shaping people's minds through mass media like television than it is to repress social movements challenging corporate and government power.)

It's the same way with the convenience ethic.   Our lives have been made so time starved that we look for every nook and cranny where we can save time.   Convenience is perceived as a way to save time.   But of course the truth of this perception is limited to our immediate experience of convenience--don't have time for a sit down lunch, go through the drive up window and feed yourself while you drive.   What isn't accounted for as you try to multi-task, is the distraction the convenience causes which may mean you miss a stop sign, run a red light or slam into the car ahead of you as you crave your convenience. And of course, eating on the fly involves all kinds of packaging that comes from that fast food restaurant. And the preparation of that "meal" is so heavily rationalized that it is actually made less healthy in the interests of being prepared quickly and consumed on the run.   Texting sure is convenient--rather than make plans ahead, your life can be more spontaneous as you make plans on the fly.   But distracted driving and a diet based on regular consumption of fast food are just two consequences of our convenience obsession.

            It's the long term costs of convenience that we aren't taking into account.   Economists talk about negative externalities--things that if they were built into the price of a product would raise the price of a product probably beyond its affordability to most people.   (How affordable would driving a car be if the cost of gas included the price of cleaning the air fouled by the internal combustion engine?)   Convenience is a pervasive negative externality in our economy--it saves us time but there are social, environment and political costs hidden in these conveniences.

            How cheap would bottled water be if producers were required to insure all bottles were recycled?   It wouldn't be efficient for the stock price of bottled water companies, so its not considered.   The gyres are building up slowly in the oceans--the cost of all this efficiency remains largely hidden from view because most of us don't traverse the oceans to personally witness it.   Just like all the conveniences that contribute to global warming (like producing cheap plastic bottles), this doesn't stare us in the face.   We are all frogs in a very slowly warming kettle--will we be smart enough to stop it before it starts to boil?

            As I have been consciously observing the convenience obsession over the last 6 months, it seems to take place around three basic phenomena:

            Plastic:   Bottled water is just the beginning.   Stores conveniently deal with shoplifting by taking relatively small items and wrapping a plastic barrier around them which makes it harder to conceal and steal (and most of this plastic is NOT stamped with a recycle symbol/number).   Groceries are packaged in plastic "reusable" tubs/containers but after you've got a cupboard full of them, they go from reusable to "single use."   And besides the mess in our oceans, production of plastic from oil is highly polluting activity.

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            Packaging: Generally, the more expensive an item is, the more you have to unwrap.   As a way to look more attractive, to entice us to buy, non-plastic packaging in the form of paper/cardboard/foil and other metallic looking bags/containers are proliferating.    Sun Chips attempt to make a bag which could be composted was rejected by consumers complaining that the bags made a lot of noise.   Loud=not convenient. Now they are trying a "quieter" bag--presumably so Sun Chips consumers can maintain a meditative state as they chomp down on the chips.

            Packaging is a big deal for those of us who enjoy carry out food.   But those fold together boxes we used to get our Chinese carry out in have given way to Styrofoam or plastic covers over aluminum containers.   A BBQ carry out near my house wraps all their items in butcher paper with paper containers for loose items like side dishes, about as reasonable a compromise as you can make short of denying yourself carryout altogether.

            Slothfulness: We take our efficiency and convenience seriously.   I have worked at many college campuses over the years and have yet to see one which didn't have those "cattle paths" across lawns as students, faculty and staff short cut their way from one building to another by making diagonal paths from one sidewalk to another.   (Lawns, of course have their own pollution issues but this is a nod to efficiency and convenience winning out over aesthetics.)  

            Taking elevators to go up one floor (or even worse, to go down one floor), using electric door openers meant for the disabled, cranking up the car air conditioner in 70 degree weather and driving around parking lots looking for the closest space are further examples of how we afford our selves every little convenience possible.   And of course when we ride, rather than walk we keep a lot of excess calories on our bodies and our muscle tone atrophies (I've seen people at my gym take an elevator up one floor while they are "working out.")

Suburban life is defined by its conveniences--everyone has a car and a place to park it.   The car must be used to go just about anywhere because suburbs weren't created with walkability in mind because walking takes so much time compared to driving.   (Of course walking embodies positive externalities in our lives--walking keeps our hearts healthy, in touch with our neighbors and helps affirm the idea of community.)

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            In short, our mindless drive toward efficiency and convenience is killing us--or at the least the planet in an increasingly direct way.   At the Tedx GreatGarbagePatch gathering last November, Jackson Browne sang a new song dedicated to the pollution in the oceans' gyres:            

They say nothing lasts forever

But all the plastic ever made is still here

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James H. Wittebols is a professor of Political Science at the University of Windsor. Prior to that he taught as a professor of Communication Studies at Niagara University. He holds a Ph.D in Sociology from Washington State University and has a (more...)
 

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Letting go of our convenience ethic