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No such thing as a free lunch

I spend much of my time at Princeton going to events. Lectures, performances, panels—you name it, I’m there. I think: Free cultural and educational events, better take advantage! Maybe they’ll make me a better person somehow!

But I’ve begun to worry that free events, intended to inspire thought, can actually do the opposite, inculcating a culture of thoughtlessness about how we spend and consume.

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Consider this. At every event, it is me, the random old people who also go to all the events, and something else that is always there: food and drink. Plastic platters of cookies, plastic goblets of wine, plastic bottles of water. There are plastic bowls filled with salad, plastic trays of meats and cheeses, plastic packets of dressing within plastic containers with plastic lids, plastic forks and spoons and knives. The event is a plastic affair.

These things are free, too. There for the taking.

Or at least they seem to be.

In fact, depending on the size and fanciness of the event, the sponsoring department has probably paid at least $500 for the spread—and often much more. This is just for the food. Usually, the presenters are also compensated, fed, accommodated. This can easily run into the thousands of dollars. The presenters likely came on a plane or a train. That cost even more, surpassing the mere monetary. If they flew to Princeton from, say, California, where I’m from, they emitted about 1.5 tons of carbon—in a single round-trip nearly reaching the annual carbon limit of 2 tons each of us can afford to emit in order to mitigate the effects of climate change.

That is not free.

It is in our (superficial) interest to believe that the things we take are free. Studies prove it: we get psychological pleasure out of receiving things if we don’t have to immediately exchange money for them. Princeton wants us to believe that things are free, which is why they bill activities fees up-front: the more things that seem free, the more we feel indebted to the place, in awe of its bounty, and the more likely we are to donate money to the University, to feel compelled to perpetuate the stupefying penumbra of plenty, to continue the cycle of faux free-dom.

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But free-dom is not free; there really is no such thing as a free lunch. To pretend otherwise is to delude ourselves, to give into the fantasy that some places and people and actions—some events—are free from responsibility. It is to take without thinking, to consume without consideration. Cost is measured in more than money.

Consider—truly consider—the things that you get for “free” here. Consider the scope of them, how they make you feel, where they come from, where their constituent parts come from, how they were delivered and served, how they were produced, with what, by whom, how much those people were paid, what they looked like, how they were treated, what the environmental impact was, what injustices were perpetrated, what that money could have done.

You will realize that this is a near impossible task, to consider this all at once, even for something as apparently benign as a free T-shirt.

But near impossibility cannot be a barrier to trying. If it were, we’d never have made any progress over the course of history.

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True consideration of what we do on this campus, as an institution—what we call free—leaves us facing unseemly ironies: The several thousand dollars spent organizing a fancy charity dinner that raised several hundred dollars could have been more effective donating the money outright. An environmental conference flying in scholars from across the globe probably would have been better for the environment if it had never happened. A panel on sustainable food practices wastes a bunch of food.

I know it’s unlikely that these things will change anytime soon, and I’m not proposing a campus where every event and item has a price tag. But I do want to advocate for reflection about these and other ironies, excesses, and hypocrisies.

I hope that reflection can inspire a radical rethinking—an aspirational imagination—of new ways to be, in harmony with our values, ourselves, and our world.

Perhaps what concerns me most about Princeton’s “free” things is the culture of thoughtlessness that is created by being surrounded by constant, careless consumption. It is a hollow culture that threatens to stick for life. Waste becomes normalized. Excess becomes everyday practice. We become numb.

I love free stuff (particularly the cookies) as much as the next person. But I wonder what all that’s “free” is costing us.

Kyle Berlin is a junior and can be reached at kmberlin@princeton.edu

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