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2012 fall columnists Credit: Justin Cohen , Yessenia Gutierrez

I’m a consumer and so are you.

It’s an inevitable part of living in a modern society in an industrialized country. We are producers, yes, but more than anything we are consumers.

Our entire economy is centered on money. We earn it, then spend it so that others can earn as well. Economists talk about maximizing disposable income — the amount individuals and families have to spend after taxes. If a country can increase its disposable income, it can increase spending and grow its economy.

We choose our purchases to reveal who we are, so much so that even our personalities are commoditized. We decorate our walls with posters of artists and movies, we shop for clothes, earrings, books and phones — all of which we see as an extension of who we are.

Do you love art? Buy multiple poster prints of Picasso for your room. Perhaps you’re a cinephile? Collect your favorite movies. Are you into anime? Buy all the things: materials for cosplay and figurines of your favorite characters.

We live in a society in which our every action is based on consuming products, most of which are not sustainably produced. So what is a burgeoning environmentalist to do?

Before arriving at Penn, I participated in the PennGreen pre-orientation program. This program takes 40 pre-frosh, mixes in about 15 upperclassmen leaders and exposes them to the complexities of environmentalism — all before NSO starts.

PennGreenies get to volunteer at nearby urban farms, visit the composting plant Penn uses, canoe on the Susquehanna River and talk with Penn professors and city employees working with the environment.

Student leaders make sure participants leave the program knowing 50 or so new friends and also the environmental courses and clubs on campus that they can join. It aims to inculcate students in a culture of environmentalism from the get-go.

The program was the first time I viewed environmentalism through an academic lens. Before that, I would recycle and turn off all the lights around my house because, “Save the planet! Save the whales!”

PennGreen made me realize the sheer amount of resources I use on a daily basis. Morning coffee means a paper cup (whose waxy coating prevents recycling), lunch means plastic utensils and nighttime is usually accompanied by another cup of coffee and more waxy trash.

Sure, I do what I can to minimize my carbon footprint. I became a vegan, I use a power strip, I — you know — recycle.

But even after joining several environmental clubs on campus and learning about the effects of my actions, I’m still a consumer. The majority of my food — whether noodles, peanut butter, cereal or soymilk — comes pre-packaged. It’s no wonder that developed nations use up a disproportionate amount of resources and the United States produces more garbage per capita than any other country.

I spent part of my fall break shopping at King of Prussia, the largest mall on the East Coast. The mall — which stretches across nearly three million square feet — is an exercise in excess. But guilty conscience aside, I still bought a Forever 21 coat that I wear most days alongside the “Tofurky” button on my backpack. So, I’m as much to blame as anyone else.

I’ve found it difficult to live a less environmentally harmful life. Beyond the logistics of the matter, I have to deal with people who tell me that what I do doesn’t make a difference. Everyone else is still eating meat, leaving the lights on when they go out and running the water while they brush their teeth. If I think my little changes are going to make a difference, I’m delusional.

But I still think our biggest impact is the products we consume. Our ideas of success are tied to material holdings. We’ve “made it” when we have our own house, our own car and, as so many celebrities seem to think, our own clothing line. We treat ourselves by buying a $5 latte or a new pair of shoes. We overwhelmingly value tangible possessions and reward ourselves with them.

Environmentalism will struggle to survive within this culture. We should push for legislative change so that big companies produce less waste. But we can make just as big of an impact collectively if we put pressure on these companies and think twice about our purchases. After all, do you really need to buy an individually wrapped muffin to go with your venti non-fat caramel mocha?

Yessenia Gutierrez is a College junior from Hollywood, Fla. Her email address is “Yessi Can” usually appears every Monday. Follow her @yessiwrites.

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