Maayan is a CHANS Lab PhD student, and her song Carry Mug is a loosely rhymed, free-verse rap interrogating the neuroses of “responsible” consumption in a materialistic world. The song is a humorous critique of the cultural importance of small interactions with material goods, which also contain in them the heavy symbolism of knowledge, identity, and agency. Using the symbol of the coffee cup, it explores the conflation of detail-oriented consumer choices with a conservation ethic and with questions of personal identity in a changing world. See the link to the song below, followed by Maayan’s commentary.
The audio: check it out by clicking here!
One way that people have been encouraged to “make a difference” towards a sustainable future is in their private consumption habits. As the western economy has moved from production to consumption, goods have transitioned from meeting people's needs to creating their sense of self. Many critiques have examined the unlikelihood of buying ourselves out of sustainability problems like climate change by switching consumption to greener products. For example, many of us, like the character in the song, own a stack of reusable carry mugs, purchased (and given to us at conferences) in an attempt to reduce our use of disposables, yet these items turn into even more clutter. A more fundamental argument common in the environmental movement is the need to reduce total throughput in the consumption production cycle and move away from a growth economy. Both the “green consumption” and “buy less” ethos might be steps towards sustainability, but they also create a situation in which people feel responsible and empowered to contribute to a more sustainable world, but also insecure and overwhelmed about the choices to be made.
As the song expresses, I argue that these types of changes towards responsible consumerism or anti-consumerism elicit the same problematic projections of status and identity as the ones characteristic of a typical consumer choice. Though such consumption changes might be beneficial to the sustainability cause (or at worst benign), they are still limited within “personal choice” decisions while neglecting more systemic design issues involving the built environment, standards imposed by health and safety regulations, etc. Nonetheless, such choices shape and are shaped by the surrounding culture, and potentially effect higher scales of the social-ecological system over the long term. Carry mug situates this dilemma of limited, but weighty personal agency in an everyday situation familiar to many of us.
While the song mainly portrays a moment fraught with guilt and paralysis, which balloons into a neurotic crises of unhealthy proportions, it might end on a note of more hope and action, noting that within the materialistic space, “between the cup and the sleeve” there is still an opportunity for action as “there's a lot of shit to do”.