Disabled by Consumer Culture & Dignified Paths to our Fullest Potential

Disabled by Consumer Culture & Dignified Paths to our Fullest Potential
Image by Brian Jay Snyder

By Brian Jay Snyder

I sit with great sadness upon a tree stump beside my home in the mountains of Central California. I see hundreds of tree stumps and multiple log-decks with hundreds of dead trees that were once infested with the bark beetle… This mournfulness derives from knowing that billions of trees and creatures all over the world are dying from the effects of climate change due to fossil fueled human activities–rooted in consumer culture. This heartache is deepened because very few people within the community where I live believe that this unprecedented loss of forests in Fresno County and globally is caused by climate change.

The common responses to the cause of tree mortality that I often hear are: “Well, it’s the mysterious ways of ol’ Mother Nature,” or “If these radical environmentalists would’ve let the loggers manage the damn forests, we wouldn’t be losing so many trees,” or “God is punishing me by taking my trees away from me,” or “I don’t think climate change is real and even if climate change were real, there’s nothin’ we can do about it!” I was recently called an “eco-terrorist” for attempting to start a nonviolent 350.org action group within my community! Trump has not only emboldened hate, but he has also strengthened blindness and deafness to truth, hasn’t he?

For the past two years, I have watched vibrant green forests slowly die as each ponderosa pine tree oozed dark sap pockets, signaling that they have been infested with the bark beetle. Those trees pine needles’ soon after turned an amber-brown color, from which there was no chance of survival. The reason the pine trees are infested with the bark beetle is due to the drought and lack of extended freezes during winters–both exacerbated by climate change. The trees are weakened and have not received enough water to produce enough sap to naturally push the beetles out of their phloem and cambium layers. Last spring, I thought the worst of the tree mortality was over, because California had received a slightly above average rainfall over the winter of 2016, but many more trees died. Incense cedar trees and black oak trees died from lack of water or infection from pathogens as well.

From birth to the age of ten, I lived in the mountains of Nevada City, California, where I explored and played amongst pine, oak, and incense cedar trees. Throughout my life, I have always felt an unfathomable sense of sacredness standing before these magnificent trees. For the past two years, as I have watched what I held sacred slowly die, my own eyes and ears have been dying as well–losing my ability to behold their fading beauty. I have a rare genetic degenerative eye and ear disease called: usher syndrome.

Being born with full sight and hearing enabled me to see and hear the world that I was born into exactly as the ruling class and corporations wanted me to. As a child, I generally saw Americans as the “good guys” whom always saved the world with the latest military hardware, scientific technology, or international development projects. Industrialized food fed me when I was hungry. If I was sick, I felt peace knowing that a medical professional would give me pills to make me feel better.

If I needed knowledge, there were plenty of American educational institutions that would be willing to “teach” me. If I needed something that advertising or commercials told me that I desired, there was always a shopping mall or a Walmart nearby. If I wanted to see the latest so-called news or be entertained, a television or radio was always within reach. If I wanted success, I was indoctrinated to believe that if I dreamed hard and worked hard, there is nothing that could not be achieved with the proper college education.

As my sight and hearing deteriorated over the years, I slowly began to see that Americans were causing profound suffering wherever our military, scientific technology, or international development projects were exported. The food that I had been eating was poisoning me. The medical treatment I had been receiving was making me ill (both mentally and physically). The education, news, and entertainment that I had been ingesting were not enlightening me. In fact, I allowed them to turn me into a docile consumer and apathetic citizen. Lastly, my American dreams that I purchased with credit cards and student loans were disabling me, causing me become more disabled and debilitated than my loss of sight and hearing would ever do.

This American consumer culture and its cults of professionals are disabling all of us, no matter how able-bodied one may be. How many people do you know have experiential knowledge of how to: grow their own food, make their own clothing, build their own homes, create their own tools, heal their own bodies, and live harmoniously with the land–while simultaneously possessing profound knowledge of that land and all the living things within it? There was a time in the not too distant past that human beings knew how to do all of these things and they did those essential acts with a sense of dignity.  In Ivan Illich’s book entitled, Disabling Professions, he wrote:

People become prisoners to time-consuming acceleration, stupefying education and sick-making medicine because beyond a certain threshold of intensity dependence on a bill of industrial and professional goods destroys human potential, and does so in a specific way. Only up to a point can commodities replace what people make or do on their own. Only within limits can exchange- values satisfactorily replace use-values. Beyond this point, further production serves the interests of the professional-producer–who has imputed the need to the consumer–and leaves the consumer befuddled and giddy, albeit more affluent. Needs satisfied rather than merely fed must be determined to a significant degree by the pleasure that is derived from personal autonomous action. There are boundaries beyond which commodities cannot be multiplied without disabling their consumer for this self-affirmation in action.  

From communities like the Zapatistas in the South of Mexico to pop-culture icons like Eustace Conway on the History Channel’s Mountain Men, there are people all across the Earth that are compassionately uniting and breaking the debilitating bonds of consumer culture by letting go of all forms of authoritarian relationships, which are upheld by a “dependence on a bill of industrial and professional goods.” Social majorities globally are convivially re-indigenizing themselves by autonomously creating their own: food, homes, healthcare, tools, means of learning, arts, and have regained knowledge of how to live as awakened beings within the land that they reside. We don’t have to be disabled by this culture of lies, where a ruling class ravenously desires for us to consume ourselves into our graves before we can resist our own exploitation. We don’t have to let our consumer-generated disabilities drive most life upon this planet to extinction.

My impending total blindness and deafness are teaching me how to experience all forms of loss with dignity and hope. Most importantly, this loss is allowing me to begin to let go of this consumer culture in order to see a hopeful horizon where indigenous friends who have learned long ago to resist blindness and deafness to truth and are waiting there to guide us back home. I can hear the soft music of re-indigenization now. Communities will joyfully dance within the green forests to celebrate a world that the Zapatista’s call: “A world where many worlds are embraced.”  We don’t have to be afraid of the loss of capitalism, because through this loss we will regain our fullest potential as human beings.


Brian Jay Snyder is a de-professionalized humorist, poet, and organic gardener that resides within the Sierra Nevada of Central California.



  • Community Alliance

    The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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