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6 JULY 2020

In an affluent society, it’s often hard to draw the line between what we want and what we need. Popular culture celebrates materialism and excessive consumption as essential signs of success and power. Whole industries exist to persuade us that things we want are actually things we need — or, at least, things we deserve — to make our lives more convenient, or more efficient, or more fulfilling. The message all around seems clear: wants are needs, and the more the better.

In our daily lives — or in mine, anyway — the relationship to materialism seems more complicated. I suppose some may openly embrace being materialistic. But most seem to deny it. I know I do because I struggle with the uncomfortable ethical implications and negative environmental impacts of overconsumption. For instance, I know that the Arctic is on fire, that scientists estimate that in fifty years much of the earth will become uninhabitable, and that each purchase I make only increases my carbon footprint. For these and other reasons, I am quick to say, “I am NOT materialistic!”

But I also know that I, and virtually everyone I know, consume far more than I need. Indeed, if there’s one good thing that’s come from this pandemic, it’s that it has forced us to consume less now and, hopefully, much less in the future.

Whenever I need to clarify the difference between luxury and necessity, I think about the 734 million people still living in extreme poverty. I think about the simple, vital necessities that our recommended nonprofits provide to reduce suffering, empower livelihood, and even save lives. I acknowledge that every dollar I spend beyond what I need to live is a dollar I could have donated to one or more of those nonprofits. I try to measure the importance of what I am buying against the value of donating the money instead. 

Sometimes I actually succeed in avoiding another excessive purchase. Other times I end up spending the money anyway instead of donating it. But, when I do choose luxury over necessity, I make sure to write it down as clear proof of my materialistic tendencies, and I vow to do better next time.

Avoiding guilt isn’t necessarily the healthiest or most effective reason to do the right thing. So I suggest focusing on the positive outcomes of donating to high-impact, cost-effective organizations and, at the same time, creating a liveable Earth for our children, grandchildren, and beyond. Let’s all work to achieve our "personal best."

As a first step, consider pledging to donate a percentage of your annual income to our recommended charities here. Or consider donating to The Life You Can Save itself so we can continue to support and multiply the impact of these vital organizations.

Calculate my suggested annual pledge amount

Do Good. Feel Good.

Charlie Bresler

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