Green Monster and Materialism

Sandeep Krishnamurthy

When it was time for me to ride a bicycle, my Dad bought me a green monster -- a giant bicycle. This bike seemed 5 feet tall, dark green and heavy to me. When my friends were exulting in their light and trendy BSAs, my Dad chose to get me a large and clunky bike. He wanted me to have a bike that I would never outgrow. I also suspect that he felt that the BSAs were not built from a heavy enough gauge of steel -- as bikes ought to be. That is the only bike I owned in my childhood and teen years.

The bike was taller than me and I could barely get it to rest on its stand. I started out learning to a ride with the scissors (or kancha, as they called it in Hyderabad) technique. My left hand grasped the left handle and my right hand held the seat. My legs then slid under the triangle formed by the seat and the front handle and proceeded to propel the bike forward with a zany scissors pattern of leg movement. Awkward? Yes. But, some other kids did it too and the bike moved forward -- a great thrill to me at that time!

As I grew taller, I graduated to what is called the danda (or bar) technique. I could still not reach both pedals when I was perched on my seat. But, I could reach them if I decided to remain suspended in mid-air over the bar. When I wanted to rest, I sat on the seat -- of course, this meant that my legs did not reach the pedals!

It was only after several years of the kancha and the danda that I graduated to the intended functionality of the bicycle. I was able to ride when comfortably sitting on the bicycle seat. However, my Dad's objective had been met. I used that bike for years and years. Barring a punctured tire here and there, the bike held up admirably over time.

I think of this experience today when I see the impact of technology on our lives. It would be unthinkable for my son's generation to use a bike that would last for ten years. The typical path these days is to get a bike with training wheels (we did not have access to this when I was learning to ride, by the way) and then graduate to a bigger bike soon after. Riders can go with mountain or road bikes. There are good features, accessories and brands everybody respects. It is not unthinkable for a consumer to spend in excess of $500 on a bike these days.

The point made by today's marketplace is that extreme targeting of products to one's need-of-the-moment is the path to happiness and satisfaction. Why go through the pain of the kancha and danda when you can get something that will be absolutely comfortable for today and the next six months? Of course, you can throw it away after six months and buy the next product that suits who you are at that point.

This is the tension then -- frugality (owning a bike for ten years) vs. materialism (replacing a bike every year).

Frugality as a chosen way of life is essentially non-existent today. The poor have clearly not chosen to be so and would prefer to not continue to be so. Thrift to many is saving 15% on the next trip to their favorite store. Interestingly, a new movement, 'voluntary simplicity', promotes a return to simpler times when consumers focused on necessity rather than fashion.

Proponents for materialism have argued that consumers are better off today due to greater choice, better quality products and new product features. Consumers have greater creature comforts and can do many things much more conveniently as a result of technological advancements. Others have argued that materialism is a sign of societal advancement because it is a sign of increased wealth.

The search for pragmatism as a middle ground between frugality and materialism will be an important struggle for all of us in the coming years. Each of us will resolve this differently and arrive at our own solution. Some of us will indulge on one product, rather on many. Others will donate to charity to offset the spending on consumer products. Some of us will have a year of indulgence, offset by a return to old ways. Some of us may even hold on to a bike for a few years!

One thing is for sure -- there will be fewer green monsters around!