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My wife asked me to complete the entry form for the Publishers Clearing House (PCH) periodic sweepstakes that just came in the mail. This one is all about useless things, not the old standard list of publications at reduced rates. I look on the process as a game, “How can I find all the hidden sticky things I have to put on the form without noticing any of the objects for sale?” The contest designers already know about this game that I and others play, and have designed the package so that it is virtually impossible not to scan the items.
I don’t know how many separate items are included, but every one I did look at was pretty much useless: “Genuine Tiger’s Eye Handcrafted Turtle, A DVD with the title, “32 Ways to Please your Lover,” Erasable Address Book, Cat Rain Gauge, and hundreds more. Many were in the $15-20 price range, payable in three or four easy payments. I can think of no better metaphor for our consumptive ways. Enjoy the pleasure of buying something you did’t need and get a (very tiny) chance of winning something big at the same time.
I found this video of an old PCH television ad from 1987, shown below.

I have just finished my course on “Exploring Sustainability” at Marlboro College Graduate School, and am reading the students’ essays and comments on keeping their journals. Many reflect on being stuck in the middle of their own desires to shift into a more basic and sustainability-driven consumption pattern and the incessant pressure to buy stuff coming from every direction. I am also in the midst of a very interesting on-line conversation with my colleagues in a sustainable consumption project about the same dilemma. The gist of the thread is that both individual and institutional change are necessary for the shift to occur, but neither the micro or the macro is willing to take the lead.
Consumers and citizens alike are in deep denial. One of my students compared our collective condition to that of Gautama Siddhartha, the Buddha, who woke up to the state of the world and his own alienation only after being thrust, metaphorically naked, into that world from his sheltered place in the palace. Heidegger writes that we must face and accept the reality of our death before we can live authentically. We are all living through the death throes of our cultural world and the support system on which it absolutely depends, but have yet to recognize or accept what is happening before our very eyes.
The PCH program is designed to lull us away from facing that reality. So is just about everything we see, hear, and live through every day. But it is, in fact, happening. I ask my students to keep a journal, partly in hopes that it will help them break out of denial. It works sometimes. It took a dramatic encounter for the Buddha to wake up. Heidegger and others offer hopes that we can find our authentic self, one which transforms need to care, without the necessity of such a stark awakening. I am not sure which is right, but I do know that without breaking out of the denial we are in, we will still eagerly await the arrival of the latest PCH sweepstakes package in the mail or hurry to scratch off the surface of the instant lottery cards that our local supermarket starting handing out this summer.

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