I was surprised to discover a fourth “R” lurking in the phrase: reduce, reuse, recycle.
I don’t know if it was there all along, or if it was recently added. Perhaps someone can find out and tell me. Either way, it got me thinking about our culture’s obsession with refusal. Of the four R’s, it seems to be the most popular. Or the one we spend the most time thinking about. For those who refuse, it can take up a lot of their thinking, eventually becoming part of their very identity.
We see refusal most clearly in our relationship with the environment of food. This may be the most intimate of environments – our very bodies. Not the outward appearances of skin and hair, even, but the dark space inside us. Into it we drop things: baby carrots and graham crackers and slices of other animals.
(Wait – hold that graham cracker. I don’t eat gluten. And I don’t eat non-organic baby carrots, either.)
We see refusal in our relations to objects other than food, too. We see people refusing to buy products containing particular chemicals, furniture that threatens to “off gas,” coffee that isn’t certified “fair grown,” etc. It’s a long list. It’s been called green consumerism and it’s been criticized before. The Huffington Post published an article, stating:
Green consumption reduces all of the problems of the world into making the right shopping decisions.
If only this were true. The author is too generous in his analysis.
The problem isn’t that green consumerism reduces all of the world’s problems into shopping decisions. Green consumerism isn’t addressing the world’s problems in the first place. It’s addressing consumerism – namely, our boredom with the conventional style of consumption, a style that is starting to grow old. After consuming x number of televisions, pumpkin-spiced lattes and I-phone apps, the kick begins to fade. More consumption – “over” consumption – is no solution. Yet we remain consumerists; we cannot think of other ways to relate to the world. So we spice up our consumerism with a quirky twist: negative consumption. Consumption through refusal.
That’s one theory.
Refusal is an impoverished form of engaging with the world.
Humans are creative beings. We need to engage with our environment. This is why we often choose to do things that we could just as easily hire someone else to do, or simply buy. You can see it in the amateur hobbyist, you can see it in the person who cooks their own meals. You can see it in backyard vegetable gardens, in the person who repairs their own bicycle, in the spread of beekeeping and blogging and brewing beer.
Consumerism doesn’t allow for engagement. That’s the real price we pay when we buy something: the labor in bringing it to life, the skill in knowing how to do so, and the community on which that labor and skill depends.
The price is often a fair one. I don’t want to wash my clothes by hand. I don’t want to make my own ketchup. I want a lot of things to be commodified and I’m OK paying the price of engagement. But we need domains in our life where we refuse to consume, where we instead choose to engage. Yet it’s getting harder to engage with our environment.
As our environment grows increasingly technological, we find it harder to know how to engage. Technology is mysterious at best. At worst, it’s alienating and impenetrable. I’ve heard cyclists complain that manufacturers are making bicycles more difficult to repair. The manufacturers aren’t doing this intentionally; it’s an unintended byproduct of creating better bicycles. The same thing happened with cars.
So how do we satisfy our need to engage with our environment?
Some of us head to the woods. There we find a simpler place, a place that we can engage in simple, straightforward ways: building a fire and catching a fish.
Meanwhile, the less hardy among us choose to refuse.
Refusal is an attempt to engage with an environment of commodities and high technology. It’s a testament to our species’ enduring need to create. Since we cannot actually engage, we do the next best thing: we refuse. We exercise some last strand of autonomy. It’s a tragic and pathetic act of defiance.
The longterm solution is that we need to build environments with which humans can meaningfully engage. But who is the “we” who can build this? It is our collective self. It is our politics, and the first step in building an environment of engagement would be engaging with the political environment.
Yet this seems increasingly unlikely.
While we try (and try we must), I suggest a short-term solution. We should celebrate our refusal. We should make it visible and conspicuous, and turn this tragic and pathetic act of defiance into something greater. Let’s make refusal more engaging.
I therefore propose The Refusal Bin.
The Refusal Bin is a receptacle for the objects that we refuse to consume. It should be placed alongside the refuse bin (i.e. the trash bin), the recycling bin, and the compost bin. It should be placed in homes, offices, train stations, and airports. It should be painted white – the absence/refusal of color.
It should be stenciled with a web address or a QR code. Follow the link on your smartphone and download The Refusal Bin app. Take photos of the objects you refuse, and “drop” them into the bin.
Advertisers would love it. If I drop a pair of Adidas shoes into The Refuse Bin, an ad for TOMS pops up with a 30% off coupon.
Social networks would expand, based on shared tastes in refusal. Today you might not know that your neighbor also refuses to eat animal products on Mondays. The Refusal Bin would bring you together.
I’m being ironic. What I’m describing is something along the lines of a public art project. But I’d keep a straight face. Because the real test of The Refusal Bin would be whether people take it seriously – i.e., whether they refuse it at all.