I discovered that I have a super power this month, and I think you have it too.
While making my way around Costa Rica with the Haslam Scholars Program, I unearthed this superpower by simply bearing witness to a developing country and its similarly developing economy. There was no superhuman spider bite or Captain America-style experiment, though I do have my fair share of mosquito bumps begging to be scratched. And I won't be needing any capes or bat-masks, just some trips to a store or two.
So what's the superpower? No, it's not flight or super-strength – it is my power as a consumer. Kapow.
Before I left for Costa Rica, I knew that spending money was an important decision but had never considered its ramifications beyond the accompanying lightening of my personal wallet. I bought based on what I needed and how much I had and where I wanted. They say "an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind," but it seems living I for I actually left me blind, as well as wearing a ridiculous pair of $8 American flag swim trunks from Wal-Mart.
My eyes were opened by the bare hands of a Nicaraguan field laborer who had forgotten his gloves. He said the ammonium nitrate he was throwing among the rice paddies burned, but not too bad. He would make maybe $36 that day, much more than he could have in his native country.
And the coffee farmer who used pig manure fumes to provide methane gas for his stove, he opened my eyes too. I bought 30 cups worth of coffee beans from him, organically and sustainably grown and roasted, for a measly $6. What is that, two cups of Starbucks' famous "fair trade" products?
Everywhere I turned in Costa Rica, I saw the front end of the pineapples I buy or the bananas I eat. This peek behind the scenes of our grocery stores and corner cafes showed me the far-reaching impact of my next purchase. It took a country half the size of Tennessee to teach me the enormity of this world.
An epiphany that the money I spend affects so much more than my own well-being may seem pretty rudimentary. Of course economy affects many different people, and the free market ensures that supply and demand protect everyone's mutual interest: Economics 201, and a big thank you to Ken Baker. But understanding a multiple-choice test question in a crowded auditorium leaves a lot to be desired in terms of understanding the swift globalization going on outside the Big Orange Country. For me at least, I needed to see it.
Now that I've caught a glimpse behind the curtain, I feel the weight of my wallet. If I buy from the markets that support producers – Trader Joe's, Earthfare, locally owned clothing – it may cost me more money than the classic Wal-Mart run, but the tradeoff is worth it when one considers the breakdown of each purchase. Massive chains have to pay thousands of mid-management workers who deserve the pay they're promised; in order to offer us the goods we want at the most competitive price, somebody has to come up short. If not us or the stores, then who? Those burning hands in the rice field come to mind.
Spending more money more carefully will limit my purchases. It's a fact supported by the struggling college student budget with which so many of us Vols operate. But do I really need a hundred different t-shirts or more easy mac? I think the farmer's market in Market Square on Saturday morning will taste much better.
Maybe my theory won't ever make the comic books, but consider mulling over your own superpower.
I'll see you at the farmer's market. We won't even have to wear capes.