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Rethinking unnecessary consumption

Observer Viewpoint | Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Restrain yourself: wipe your hands on your jeans

“Confirm thy soul in self-control” – America the Beautiful, 2nd verse.

Does anyone ever sing the second verse of that song, anyways? Maybe we should start. How is it that, in our morals that derived so heavily from Puritanism, we overlook the virtue of self-restraint when it comes to the economy, to our material lives?

As Americans, we have had a long history of ideologically fighting for values. If we are going to insist upon upholding our rights, however, we need to reconcile the excess of our culture with the self-restraint that we simultaneously preach.

I wanted to start out this column by defining luxury. Going to dictionary.com was, of course, my first and most reliable means to find such a definition (a true product of my generation, I am). The first definition given was as follows: “a material object, service, etc., conducive to sumptuous living, usually a delicacy, elegance, or refinement of living rather than a necessity.”

The next five definitions rang a bit more negatively. Definition No. 6 read: “Archaic. lust; lasciviousness; lechery.” Three of the four definitions preceding No. 6 included the word indulgence, which takes a negative connotation in our American society that emphasizes prudence and self-restraint.

Hmm, America. Negative view on self-indulgence, yet positive view of luxury. How to mitigate this conflict of values? I decided to turn to my too-often forgotten arsenal of SAT vocab words. Synonym for luxury … luxury … Lexus? No, those are car ads speaking through me. Ah, amenity, that’s close. Definition of amenity from my reliable source?

1. An agreeable way or manner; courtesy; civility: the graceful amenities of society. No, that’s not what I was looking for. Second?

2. Any feature that provides comfort, convenience, or pleasure: The house has a swimming pool, two fireplaces, and other amenities. More like it. The definition of amenity does not explicitly use the word “material,” but as the example sentence implies, “comfort, convenience or pleasure” certainly comes from material goods.

But after assigning a word to generally classify the comforts and pleasures of life, I wanted to explore what comes before them. So, opposite of amenity … necessity (didn’t even need SAT vocab for that one).


1. The condition or quality of being necessary. Well thanks, American Heritage Dictionary. Back to dictionary.com:

1. Something necessary or indispensable: food, shelter, and other necessities of life. Necessities, just like amenities and luxuries, are material. Well, considering we are made of materials, just like everything on this earth, this makes sense. But the catch, “the rub,” as Bill Shakespeare would say, lies in the word indispensable.

Try to think of what in your life is indispensable. The word “indispensable” in itself makes this question tricky: with what in our lives do we not dispense? (“dispense with”: to do without, forgo). What did you throw into the trash yesterday? How many food wrappers? Styrofoam cups? Napkins, paper towels, toilet paper, tissues? Granted, some of those last few can be necessary. But take a step back: why are they necessary? Because we define them as so in our lives. We certainly cannot classify them as indispensable; we dispense of them daily! Plus, life would assuredly continue were we to “go without, forgo” use of them.

I’m not advocating that you stop using toilet paper. That you use less, well, maybe. Think about your personal use of paper towels and napkins. How is drying your hands with four paper towels necessary? It’s not, that’s inarguable; your hands will still dry if you do not use any paper towels at all.

So if it’s not a necessity, it must be a luxury, right? An amenity. Something that provides comfort and pleasure in your life. A form of self-indulgence.

Here is the point where we need to reflect upon our lifestyles. We are choosing to indulge, to use more than is necessary, in order to uphold our values of drying our hands with paper towels? A few dorms on campus have considered getting rid of paper towels in their bathrooms all together. This proposition has been met with criticism, sarcasm and flippancy by many decent and upstanding individuals on our campus.

If paper towels are really that important in the pleasure we find in life, then so be it. We can continue to order them in droves so that everyone on campus can be comfortable and indulge themselves. But maybe self-restraint really should not be that hard for us as a culture when it comes to something as simple as drying your hands. Confirm thy soul in self-control. Be an American.

Wipe your hands on your jeans.

Jackie Mirandola Mullen is a sophomore German and History major. She would like to thank Dr. Peter Burns for his ENVG 10101 lecture that included the line, “You’d be flat as a pancake. Flatter! You’d be Nebraska!” She can be reached at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.