The last lap in Mario Kart when the music speeds up. That critical stretch of a football game after the two-minute warning. The last 0.2 miles of a 26.2-mile marathon. All three make an apt comparison to the hectic pace of the final few weeks of the semester between Thanksgiving and Winter Break. With finals, projects, shopping and holiday social gatherings all crammed into a few short weeks, the sentiments of joy and gratitude which are supposed to define this season get pushed to the wayside.
The end of the year fuels our desire for more. More A’s. More gifts. More money. More Christmas cookies. This ethos of more has extended into the realm of the politics with the rise of the Abundance Agenda. Its logic is pretty straightforward. If America could just produce more of everything, it would be a better place to live, right?
While abundance may be an inevitable result of prosperity, it creates the risk of seeing objects merely as disposable. With the prevalence of mobile ordering and ubiquity of to-go boxes, it is apparent that Duke has a significant waste management problem. However, the real issue of promoting disposability is that it creates a consumer culture where things only retain value as long as they are useful to us. In the name of "efficiency" — the pinnacle of all modern values — old products can be replaced almost instantaneously and quickly vanish out of sight and therefore out of mind.
Let’s be wary of the simplistic logic that more is always better. Why? Because more is the quick-fix solution that solves the symptoms of a problem without addressing the root cause lurking beneath the surface. Often, more is meant to remedy one discrete issue without considering the unintended consequences — a painless excuse to kick the can down the road for just a little longer. In the words of environmentalist John Muir, “When we try to pick anything out individually, we find that it is bound fast by a thousand invisible cords that cannot be broken, to everything in the universe." When we reach for quick fixes, such as ChatGPT for homework and social media for relationships, we get that instant gratification of saving a few minutes and being more efficient. But what we don’t see is what is declining in the background: our friendships, our health, our intellect, our individuality, our environment, our future. Commitment takes dedication, and dedication isn’t efficient.
This lack of commitment makes it difficult for us to protect things that exist on different timescales than our rapidly paced lives, such as the environment. Our markets have keenly adapted to these tastes and preferences, implementing innovations like free returns that fuel our commitment-phobia. Again, the promise of the quick fix to generational problems causes us to tout technological innovation as the only path to progress. As Pope Francis points out in his letter Laudato Si’, “To seek only a technical remedy to each environmental problem which comes up is to separate what is in reality interconnected and to mask the true and deepest problems of the global system." Trusting in technology alone is like playing a never-ending game of whack-a-mole. We are so focused on hitting the moles that we never take a moment to step back and understand why the moles are appearing in the first place.
This technocratic paradigm prioritizes technology as a means to gain control over something else, usually nature. This puts humans in an adversarial relationship with nature, seeking to extract as much as is possible. While we may think we have control over our own technology, technology diminishes our decision-making capacity and forces us to conform to its logic if we want to live in modern society. The glorification of STEM at Duke and across American academia blinds us to our utter dependence on technology and its impact on the environment. While technology can be truly transformative, it must be coupled with responsible use and a clear direction to have a real impact.
We can’t hope for a breakthrough in nuclear fusion or electric vehicles to magically solve all of our environmental problems. Since the turn of the century, the US economy has grown while carbon emissions have fallen, providing hope that economic growth and sustainability can be compatible. Ironically, this progress has been undercut by technological innovation. Time and time again, advances in technological efficiency have induced more consumption, termed the rebound effect. As cars become more fuel efficient, for example, it spurs people to drive more. This phenomenon puts human behavior at the center of addressing the climate crisis. So, while improvements in technological efficiency and sustainability are paramount to building a climate resilient economy, they must be paired with cultural change (rejecting the convenience of more), to realize lasting gains.
The solution to the climate crisis starts with us, not with some fancy infrastructure project or five-year plan. We must dissociate growth with expansion and understand that growing as individuals and as a society will require a decrease in our reliance on things. This starts with small, seemingly insignificant things like taking the bus instead of driving between East and West Campus and asking our loved ones to give us experiences instead of the junk of the future this holiday season. Creating a culture that values meaningful experiences (e.g. playing sports with friends) over conspicuous consumption (e.g. shopping sprees) is an overlooked yet indispensable step to avert an ecological catastrophe.
Already, I find hope in the simple actions students are taking across campus to fight throwaway culture. Devil’s Thrifthouse combats the pervasive problem of clothing waste. Zero Waste K-Ville is an important first step to encourage circular economics on campus. Duke Campus Farm allows students to experience agriculture firsthand, an experience that grounds us in the intrinsic value of food. Each one of these initiatives promotes a culture of commitment, finding joy in doing things merely for their inherent meaning.
So, in case you asked: No, more is not always better.
Aaron Siegle is a Trinity sophomore. His column typically runs on alternate Fridays.
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