Janisse Ray and the extra 89 percent


First of all, dear readers, happy Earth Day! I like that the day falls so close to Easter this year. Both are about life, renewal, and hope.

It was also fitting that on Thursday evening, the memoirist Janisse Ray spoke at UVA through Brown College’s Visiting Environmental Writers and Scholars Lecture Series. She used her time to speak about technology–its limits, mostly. "Progress has brought as many problems as miracles," she said.

From kids spending an average five hours per day in front of screens, to mountaintop removal mining, she named many examples of our misdirected economy and culture. (A sort of side point–or maybe a central point: "The Internet is a black hole through which we are pouring our cultural artifacts.") Overall, she advocated living and buying locally, being ethical in our economic decisions, and practicing skepticism of technological solutions.

The most interesting part of the session came during the Q&A. Ray had mentioned this statistic: 89 percent of what we buy is unnecessary. Only 11 percent is actually related to our needs. (Wow, right?) A commenter suggested that all our superfluous consumption is an attempt–and probably a vain one–to meet deep human desires. So, she continued, how else could we respond to that itch without buying a bunch of stuff we don’t need?

The discussion that followed ranged from indictments of advertising to the Buddhist belief that humans are always getting attached to what’s unreal. But my favorite answer came from local artist Josef Beery. To paraphrase, he said we need to replace consumption with nurturing. Build, repair, improve, teach, care for, feed each other, make community. Direct all that energy toward creation instead of shopping.

A beautiful, and simple, wish for Earth Day.