In one of my earliest classes for Environmental Policy and Socioeconomic Values, we discussed the evolution of sustainability science. To apply the concepts of this class, we visited households of Ngobe indigenous people on our island of Solarte, where the SFS program is based. We did household surveys to understand the livelihood limitations of subsistence-based peoples, so that students could see that reaching sustainable use of natural resources was not a simple issue. I also wanted to break down the myth that direct users of natural resources were to blame for our environmental problems. Instead, there is a complex combination of socio-economic drivers and policies that lead to environmental degradation – in which each person, as an individual within the greater human society, is a contributor. So, I asked the students to reflect on their own role in environmental degradation by addressing their personal consumption habits.

Here is one response by Lucas Tatarsky, a junior at Clark University:

“Growing up in New York City and playing a lot of basketball on outdoor courts throughout the city led me to develop some pretty heavy consumption habits. With the people that would become some of my closest friends, it was always about who had the newest Air Jordan sneakers or the “freshest” jeans. In a huge urban environment like New York City, it was hard for any of us to see the negative global chain of events that this culture of consumption causes. Personally, I was just worried about catching the right subway train every morning to make it to school, so I could coast around in a pair of my nicest sneakers. Although I was not yet able to fully articulate them to myself, there were some thoughts growing in the back of my mind. What was the point of staying at the front or ahead of the fashion trends of the day?

Over the past few years, I have become even more aware of my somewhat unfortunate consumption habits. I noticed that I often buy things to try to cheer myself up, or combat nervous or anxious feelings. Before a big event, such as returning to college at the end of a long break, I sometimes make a purchase to excite myself about going back to school to show off my new gear. I have become very interested in urban street fashion. At the same time, I know I do not need new things, but I have been concerned for so long with constantly adjusting and trying to improve my wardrobe that it is hard to change the pattern. Nevertheless, it is not a healthy habit for anyone if I continue to allow myself to go on frequent shopping sprees for new sneakers, shirts or jeans, and then feel a growing sense of guilt.

Coming down to Bocas has caused me to confront my consumption habits in a new and serious way. Spending a week long vacation in a place like this is one thing, but actually living and beginning to become immersed in a whole new culture is an intense experience and one that has begun to really cause me to think about things in a new way. I know that I need to change my behavior of buying new clothes or shoes in order to feel “cool” or happy about myself. But it is not so easy to reverse or change my habits, especially when I will be returning to New York City in May to be thrown back into a heavily consumption-driven culture. At least, what I hope to do is take a step back every time I feel the urge to purchase something. I’d like to ask myself why I am really doing it, and then try to satisfy the feeling with something healthier. I would also love to open up a conversation with my friends back home to try to challenge our obsession with buying new stuff – though I fear a lot of them may not be ready.”