Annika Holliday, a student of Carter Latendresse at Catlin Gabel School in Portland, Oregon, read and responded to the YES! Magazine article, “Growing Up in a Kenyan Slum Taught Me the Real Value of Stuff,” by Simon Okelo, a story about learning to live with less in the midst of abundance. She is our middle school winner for the Fall 2013 writing competition.
Writing prompt: Simon Okelo, who grew up in Kenya, had to relearn what “enough” means. He came to appreciate the volume of options at Costco, but practiced restraint to purchase just what he needed. Imagine that you simplified your life. What things would you choose to pare down or get rid of? What might change for you? What might change for society if other people did this?
Trophies and Goodie Bags
Why is the reward for doing something always more stuff? After reading the article, “Growing Up in a Kenyan Slum Taught Me the Real Value of Stuff,” by Simon Okelo, and watching “The Story of Stuff,” produced by Annie Leonard, I started looking at all of the stuff collecting dust on my shelf. Why did I get a trophy for participating in a sports league? Why did I get a goodie bag full of little toys and candy for going to a party? I do not need all those bouncy balls, cartoon characters, stickers, and plastic things that end up in a pile on my shelf and that I eventually throw away. Does our society understand the negative consequences to the environment when we produce trophies and cheap toys for party bags?
There are only a few of my soccer, tennis, and skiing trophies that I am truly proud of because I had to fight hard to win them. Trophies are given out to improve self-esteem and make us feel good about ourselves, but they do not mean anything to me if I did not earn them. The United States has five percent of the world’s population, but uses 30 percent of the world’s resources and produces 30 percent of the world’s waste. Nearly all of the plastic toys that go into a party bag are made in poorer countries and end up in a landfill. I could easily get rid of half the objects on my bookshelf. Why do I have all this stuff, and what do I really need?
We need to change our behavior and begin to pay more attention to what we buy and receive. Compared to 50 years ago, the average United States citizen consumes twice as much and is exposed to double the amount of toxic chemicals. We should think about all the energy and waste that goes into making memorabilia and disposable household products. What is the environmental and social impact of making cheap products that we end up throwing away? According to Annie Leonard, only one percent of all materials are still in use six months after their date of sale. Ninety-nine percent of materials is too much waste. Four billion pounds of toxic chemicals per year are released into the air. Thirty percent of children in the Congo are dropping out of school to mine metal so we can have cell phones and computers. We need to start thinking about our choices. Do we need to buy the newest iPhone? Do we need to hand out goodie bags at birthday parties? Do kids need trophies to reward participation? If we stop buying these things, companies will stop producing them, and then we will have cleaner water, air and soil. Next time I go shopping, I will not buy something just because it is cheap; I will think about if it is going to be useful to me.
It is not just individual behavior, but our culture that we have to change. According to the childstats.gov website, there were 48.7 million children in the United States in 2012. Assuming that all 48.7 million children have a birthday party, invite eight other kids and give each child a goodie bag with five toys, then a factory somewhere would have to produce 1.9 billion toys a year just to fill all those goodie bags. Most of these little toys cost less than a dollar, so parents fill up party bags easily without much thought. I think if someone did a research study on how long children play with these toys, the result would show that the toy breaks or children move on within a few minutes. As a society, we need to change the tradition of handing out useless plastic toys at birthday parties because it is harming the environment and children do not need more toys that just get thrown away. For me, the little bit of happiness I might get after receiving a toy is now replaced by guilt when I open up the trash can.
Our parents might think that they are saving our self-esteem by giving us all this plastic, but we have a voice. We need to tell our parents that the toys and trophies they give us do not create long-lasting happiness. We do not want them to buy us more stuff that puts toxic chemicals into the air, water, and soil. My generation needs to consume less – a lot less. I do not need useless toys just for going to a birthday party. I do not need a trophy because I participated in a sports league. Like Simon Okelo, every time my family buys something, I will ask myself two questions: Is it going to be useful to me? Do I really need it? Even though I am only eleven years old, change can start with me.