Plastic is poison in so many ways. Take credit cards; it's not that they'd suddenly be eco-friendly if they were made of kenaf. Instead, credit cards seduce us to live unsustainably. One day you're signing up on campus to get a free teddy bear (ugh--mine wears a bomber jacket and goggles), the next thing you know you're swimming with dolphins in Cancun on a trip that you'll be paying off as a grandparent--if you can afford to have a family in the first place.
Your fault for spending as if MTV cared to film your life. Yet creditors sneer, gladly handing you a fatter line of borrowed money than you can possibly snort. They like you cracked out on consumer debt better than when you soberly pay them back. That's just their business, sort of like the paparazzi and Whitney Houston.
On top of that, your personally unsustainable lifestyle has global ramifications. The road to easy credit is littered with landfills. When you instantly gratify a whim by charging the latest, most incredibly shrinking iPod or whatever, you feed the myth that newness is better than something borrowed or mended. The annoying cycle of mass consumption that we all bitch about but participate in keeps spinning like some fractal screensaver in a stoner's dorm room.
You spend more because you can, you save less because you can't imagine the future, and soon there's less cash in your kitty. You may no longer use credit cards just to keep up with the Joneses; falling incomes and rising debt mean that you're charging basics like gas, health care, and groceries. Creditors often gouge the neediest consumers with outlandish interest rates, trapping them in this cycle.
The more debt you hold onto, the more that Visa, Mastercard, and friends profit. The stronger creditors are, the more power they have to push people around. After decades of handshaking in D.C., creditors uncorked the Veuve last October when a bankruptcy law started making it harder for you to get a clean slate if your finances fall apart (that law might be backfiring on them). And credit card companies generally support politicians with an atrocious disregard for ecological and social woes.
What's my point? What can you do to escape consumer madness, beyond joining the Compact, observing Buy Nothing Day, or following tips from blogs such Frugal for Life? To start, ignore the zero-percent bait and just say no if you're about to get a new credit card--even one that donates to a needy cause. If you're already hooked, take out a more sustainable loan and pay it off. I don't mean a credit card, line of credit, mortgage, or family handout. Instead, consider Prosper or Zopa--peer-to-peer credit services that take banks out of the picture. You already use the web to trade music and movies, so it naturally follows that someone would turn the net into a P2P lending system.
The concept is sort of like Modest Needs, which lets you donate to or receive life-saving cash from willing strangers. Prosper and Zopa are even more like Kiva--which lets you lend to microbusinesses in the developing world--except that they serve the "first world." Zopa is U.K.-only but plans to come to the U.S. too.
Lots of Prosper borrowers are looking for help in paying off high interest rate credit cards. Others want to finance big expenses such as yanking 21 bad teeth, weight loss surgery, or a small business upgrade. These aren't shameless beggars like Save Karyn; Prosper borrowers join for free but must pay back lenders with interest. Feeling generous? You can loan to people in $50 increments; the more small loans you make, the more likely you are to get the money back.
Prosper encourages borrowers to join one of its groups, which can add street cred to a credit score. You can start your own group or join one of the nearly 600 clusters already created by veterans, doctors, college alumni, green-minded people, etc. Prosper and Zopa provide a democratic, off-the-grid alternative to the consumer credit matrix, and have the potential to change the way people borrow and dole out dollars. I'm curious to see how these services will develop, and if imitators will crop up. Maybe social networking sites will build a microlending feature into their community networks.