Consumer culture no accident
Most people I talk to today understand that humanity is inflicting harsh damage on the planet’s life support systems of clean air, water, soil and biodiversity. But they feel so insignificant among 6.2 billion people that whatever they do to lighten our impact on nature seems trivial. I am often asked “What can I do?” Well, how about examining our consumption habits. Not long ago, frugality was a virtue but today two thirds of our economy is built on consumption. This didn’t happen by accident.
The stock market collapse in 1929 triggered the Great Depression that engulfed the world in terrible suffering. World War II was the catalyst for economic recovery. America’s enormous resource base, productivity, energy and technology were thrown into the war effort and soon its economy blazed white hot. With victory imminent, the President’s Council of Economic Advisors was challenged to find a way to convert a war economy to peace.
Shortly after the end of the war, retailing analyst Victor Lebow expressed the solution: “Our enormously productive economy . . . demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption . . . we need things consumed, burned up, replaced and discarded at an ever-accelerating rate.”
President Eisenhower’s Council of Economic Advisors Chairman stated: “The American economy’s ultimate purpose is to produce more consumer goods.” Not better health care, education, housing, transportation or recreation or less poverty and hunger, but providing more stuff to consumers.
When goods are well-made and durable, eventually markets are saturated. An endless market is created by introducing rapid obsolescence (think clothing, cars, laptop computers). And with disposability, where an article is used once and thrown away, the market will never be saturated.
Consumer goods aren’t created by the economy out of nothing, they come from the earth and when they are used up, they will be returned to the earth as garbage and toxic waste. It takes energy to extract, process, manufacture and transport products, while air, water and soil are often polluted at many points in the life cycle of the product. In other words, what we consume has direct effects on nature.
And then there are social and spiritual costs. Allen Kanner and Mary Gomes state in The All-Consuming Self: “The purchase of a new product, especially a ‘big ticket’ item such as a car or computer, typically produces an immediate surge of pleasure and achievement, and often confers status and recognition upon the owner. Yet as the novelty wears off, the emptiness threatens to return. The standard consumer solution is to focus on the next promising purchase.”
Ultimately, it goes beyond pleasure or status; acquiring stuff becomes an unquenchable demand. Paul Wachtel says in The Poverty of Affluence: “Having more and newer things each year has become not just something we want but something we need. The idea of more, ever-increasing wealth, has become the center of our identity and our security, and we are caught up by it as the addict is by his drugs.”
Much of what we purchase is not essential for our survival or even basic human comfort, but is based on impulse, novelty, a momentary desire. And there is a hidden price that we, nature and future generations will pay for it too.
When consumption becomes the very reason economies exist, we never ask “how much is enough,” “why do we need all this stuff,” and “are we any happier?” Our personal consumer choices have ecological, social and spiritual consequences. It is time to re-examine some of our deeply held notions that underlie our lifestyles.