Out with the Old: Thinking about Newness
Understanding human behaviors that lead to overconsumption, and what we might do to transform them.
“To change someone’s behavior, there must be rewards,” says Lizzy Plotkin. Her voice is earthy, grounded, easy and full of conviction. Horns honk, people talk, buses drive and a city thrives in the background, but she doesn’t sound like part of the chaos; she is instead superimposed into the scene. We’ve never met in person, but I have my own clear picture of the brunette singer-songwriter mountain girl standing in Brooklyn from photos and her music.
The lyrical power of her music borrows authority from space and time. Wherever her listeners may be, she transports them to a soft-petaled spring and the old copper tones of the Arnica that shine like the sun in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. Plotkin, a musician living in the Gunnison Valley near Crested Butte, picked up the violin at age 4, played classically as a child, and now makes a living as a fiddler, singer-songwriter and music educator. She also studied environmental psychology, worked as an environmental educator at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory and hears her place-based songwriting and music as admiration pieces for nature. The Butte, and the creative loot found there, is a natural pull.
I called Plotkin while she was on tour in Brooklyn; I was looking for help with understanding human behaviors that are killing the planet, and what we might do to transform them. She begins by describing an obsession with thrift store shopping in high school, the influence of Annie Leonard’s “The Story of Stuff,” how the tree she’s standing under doesn’t have the same sway over her as one would in the mountains and how she’s changed her relationship with newness.
If we instinctively lean toward what makes us feel good, there’s art and sport and nature (among other known reliables)—and in all cases, finding the novelty within each is kind of a guaranteed way to catch the feel goods.
Human brains love newness, which has been fine, even helpful, in the distant past of brain evolution. Without an obsession with new—situations, objects and environments—we wouldn’t have been motivated to seek other surroundings or think up solutions to constantly changing circumstances. What’s around the bend? What can fire do? What tool could make hunting easier? Newness has helped humans survive.
Our obsession with novelty has also helped establish modern consumerism, and every day we buy more and more and more things, to try to buy the way we want to feel (which is kind of excited, even thrilled, by newness). The fleeting mental reward evaporates not long after a purchase, and then we’re seeking that feeling again. But, there’s a limited amount of new for us to explore, consume and enjoy. The planet is running out of resources. On July 29, 2019, the Global Footprint Network announced the earliest Earth Overshoot Day since 1961—the day in a calendar year when humanity’s demand for ecological resources exceeded what the planet can regenerate. Even more disturbing than the timing is the magnitude at which we’ve continued to overshoot, and the overall trend upwards in the world’s ecological footprint. We are using too much new stuff (some of us much more than others), and our brains haven’t adapted to that reality.
But newness is all in the eye of the beholder. When you get creative, just about everything that’s old has potential for fresh life. “In college, I restored what new meant for me when I started working with an environmental action group and realized that it’s necessary for the problem solving to be fun,” says Plotkin. “We started making recycled notebooks out of cereal boxes and one-sided printer paper and selling them to other students, for example. I saw that newness and novelty are embedded into creativity.”
Enter upcycling and recycling, and the imagination required to recognize old, used materials as perfect for something else. But buying and making recycled is a solution, not the solution for our consumptive behavior. Sure, recycled is better than a completely new something made with virgin extracted resources, but buying things rarely has a net positive environmental impact, recycled or not.
And there’s unfortunate associated phenomena, like the rebound effect—the idea that a product is recycled or recyclable may make people buy more and thus cancel out the alleged positive impact, resulting in more overall environmental damage. Pro-environment attitudes do increase the likelihood of ecologically better behavior, but even the fairest of us all still contends with a brain programmed in peculiar ways through tens of thousands of years of evolutionary behavior.
“SoMama is the name of my Prius. When I first got her, I happily drove across the country with two friends from Michigan to Colorado to go snowboarding for spring break. We were very excited that it cost so little to get there,” says Plotkin. “That same year, after settling in Colorado in the fall, I drove it across the country with three friends to California and back to enjoy the forests of Northern California.”
Giving ourselves a pass for unnecessary consumption often comes after making an assumed environmentally moral choice. Buying a Prius can unfortunately lead to justifying contradictory behavior, like driving more. Wah-wah.
“In my mind, I spent less on gas for more mileage, and therefore I polluted less,” says Plotkin. Her car’s name stems from the novel Brave New World and the “soma” happy pill in its dystopian reality, and she now sees her Prius as a kind of Band-Aid for our planet’s problems. Plotkin’s Prius saga includes finding out that the car’s lithium batteries aren’t impact-free. Mining for the car’s batteries is depleting rare earth minerals and water resources, sometimes taking from indigenous people.
There’s a somber reality to our human existence: Everything has an impact.
Shifting our consumer choices doesn’t solve our problems, it mostly just convolutes them. Recycled, greener, leaner—these choices usually don’t have the impact we want them to (like saving the home planet). One of Plotkin’s former professors at the University of Michigan, Raymond De Young, says that “a more extensive range of behavioral responses is needed. Something beyond merely redirecting individuals’ consumer choices.” What’s really needed is a “downshift” in how much we consume. For that he looks away from “green consumerism” and toward “green citizenship,” or living in a way that considers how your private behaviors (consumption) shape public impact (the health of our home planet). This kind of “common sense” implies that every human should occupy an equitable amount of ecological space, or footprint. If we can’t wait for world governments to rebuild our systems, how can we start the process on our own? Especially since the most affected by the symptoms of mass consumerism aren’t those who are taking up the most ecological space.
We must examine our decision-making processes and internalize the impact of consumption personally, for our near and distant neighbors, and for the planet. “Our ability to make decisions is highly dependent on how much attention we have,” says Plotkin. “When we restore our attention, we make better decisions overall, and for the earth. And it’s been shown that nature is our best medicine when we look at restoration for the brain.”
Plotkin recognizes that living in Crested Butte gives folks a considerable advantage because they see more land than billboards, buildings and people, but it’s exactly the realization of that privilege that has helped shift her buying and using patterns. The internet has brought consumer society everywhere though, even the mountains of Colorado, so she must supervise her attention away from her cell phone and Wi-Fi in the mountains, too.
“Modern life is filled with distraction that exhausts the mind,” says Plotkin, mentioning innate fascination, like watching water flow, leaves blowing in the trees, the sound of water rushing by and the vistas on the tops of mountains as opportunities to regenerate and create newness without taking from the planet. It is in those moments that our minds get a chance to rest and experience the novelty that we crave.
“When my mind is restored properly from having access and time in nature, I am more likely to make better decisions. I also find that the more time I spend outside, the more I want my life and my consumptive patterns to reflect that feeling and those experiences.”
Plotkin believes that her place-based music writing brings that tranquility into the earbuds of people walking on the streets of cities. The research hasn’t been done yet, but she hopes that listeners can feel some of the peace she experiences in wild places by listening to her music (I proudly claim a successful experiment), so you don’t have to live in Crested Butte to benefit from the Arnica bloom.
“If buying recycled becomes the new normal, then we’ve done something,” says Plotkin. “But living with the earth, instead of just on it, can be medicine, the kind that reminds us that we really don’t need to buy newness at all.”