The Personal Level
June 1, 1999
With Responses From
Jun 1, 1999
6 Min read time
Americans are consuming like there may be no tomorrow.
Americans are consuming like there may be no tomorrow. The dominance of consumerism is arguably more pervasive now than at any time in human history. Our most popular national pastime is watching television, followed closely by recreational shopping. The United States has the highest per capita consumption rate in the industrial world. While our material gains have improved the quality of life in some notable ways, there are many hidden costs to our "more is better" definition of the American dream. Juliet Schor is one of the few intellectuals to rigorously examine these costs. Her call for a new politics of consumption warrants serious debate.
Schor does an excellent job of exposing the underbelly of our consumerist culture. Her analytic work, including her recent book, The Overspent American,focuses primarily on how our work-and-spend lifestyles undermine the quality of our lives. In the chase for more, Americans are working longer hours, racking up more debt, while finding fewer hours to enjoy their material acquisitions. Schor's research also reveals a troubling new trend: our collective tendency to always want much more than we have. In a culture that reveres Bill Gates, the rising stock market, and status goods, people are no longer comparing themselves to the textbook Joneses, but rather to the wealthy celebrities they see on television. For many, this never-ending expansion of wants leads to conspicuous consumption, psychological stress, and a preoccupation with meeting non-material needs materially.
In her essay, Schor points to the other hidden costs of excessive consumerism. Perhaps most troubling, though-and something Schor might have addressed in greater detail-is the environmental damage wreaked by American consumption. With less than 5 percent of the world's population, the United States consumes nearly 30 percent of global resources. Since 1940, Americans alone have used up as large a share of the Earth's mineral resources as all previous humans put together. We use twice as much energy and generate more than twice as much garbage as the average European. The typical American discards nearly a ton of trash per year. We consume 40 percent of the world's gasoline and own 32 percent of the world's cars. The average new house built in the United States has doubled in size since 1970. Two-thirds of those homes have two-car garages. To offer some perspective, scientists recently issued a study for the Earth Council indicating that if everyone on Earth consumed as the average North American does, we would need four extra planets to supply the resources and absorb the waste.
What does this mean for the environment? Every product comes from the earth and returns to it. To produce our cars, houses, hamburgers, televisions, sneakers, newspapers, and thousands upon thousands of other consumer items, we rely on chains of production that stretch around the globe. The unintended consequencess of these chains include global warming, rapid deforestation, the depletion of over 25 percent of the world's fish stocks, and the permanent loss of hundreds of plant and animal species- including the very real possibility of losing all large mammals in the wild within the next 50 years.
Along with taking a heavy toll on our quality of life and the planet, consumerism is also placing tremendous pressure on low-income families. The American preoccupation with acquisition afflicts the rich and poor alike. But our collective fixation on keeping up with commercial consumerist norms often wreaks havoc for those in low- income communities and exacerbates the growing gap between the rich and poor. Few would dispute that those living on the economic margins need more material goods. But the culture of consumerism weighs heavily on the 35 million Americans living below the poverty line. The relentless marketing of status footwear, high-cost fashion, tobacco, and alcohol to low-income neighborhoods is one of the most pernicious aspects of consumer culture. The politics that Schor describes would challenge a culture that encourages people to define themselves through their stuff and would especially support and empower young Americans who feel enormous pressure to acquire things as the only avenue for gaining love, respect, and a sense of belonging.
Schor describes seven basic elements to a new "politics of consumption." Her elements-or guiding principles for an emerging movement-invite a fusion of those working for justice with those working for environmental sustainability. Her first principle, the right to a decent standard of living, requires affluent environmentalists and progressives to look anew at what structures must be put in place to ensure a level of safety and security for all Americans. If people don't feel safer-about the future and about their kids-they can't entertain the deeper moral and environmental question, "how much is enough?" Schor does not specify the components necessary to give people greater security, but the litany of real needs is well known: affordable housing, quality healthcare, living wage jobs, medical care in old age, funds for retirement, and affordable college education for children. People feel alone. It's hard to stop the chase for money, if not stuff, when you feel no support structures. Unless progressives re-embrace these concerns, those in poor and middle class families will have difficulty connecting with Schor's politics. Too many progressives have become seduced by the culture of desire: we, too, look up instead of down. We spend too much time in isolation from those living in poverty. With some exceptions, we have lost our edge. Perhaps we are just too comfortable. Perhaps this is unavoidable in a noisy culture that bombards us with 3,000 commercial messages a day.
Schor's other principles ring true. Millions of Americans obviously share her call for more fun, less stuff. Millions are opting to downshift, choosing to make less money in search of more time. A growing number of people also affirm her call for responsible consumption-a call for a much higher consciousness about the environmental and human costs of each consumer decision we make. Her call to democratize consumer markets seems a bit naïve, since humans have probably always sought to define themselves in part through their stuff. But in an age of excessive materialism, the times may be ripe to challenge the dominant ethos. Perhaps we can make it cool to shun fashion and footgear with corporate logos and redefine hip as simple, real, and non-commercial.
Her fifth principle taps into growing opposition to globalization and a dismaying recognition that Bangkok and New York look the same. After two decades of mega-mergers and five years of intense globalization, the homogenization of retail environments is destroying local businesses and cultures. A recommitment to local economies, independent small businesses, and consumer products that are locally designed and produced could be good for jobs, the environment, and cultural diversity.
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The only principle that seems missing to me is one that goes to the heart of our values. Progressives tend to squirm when encouraged to examine values at a personal level. We want to change the system yet we remain uncomfortable with "soft" discussions of individual transformation. But there is a huge churning underway about values, purpose, and spirit. Progressives can dogmatically dismiss these forces as elements of religious dogmatism or New Age narcissism, or they can connect with this churning. I would argue that a politics of consumption-and we need a better name for this-should include guiding principles of humility and compassion. Humility and awe in surrendering to the "not knowing" about the cosmology of things, coupled with an affirmation of all those who hunger to experience the Light, however one defines that. We need a politics that embraces compassion for the Earth, for each other as individuals of equal human value, and especially for children who will inherit the future. Can we not come together with new energy, passion, and vision-combining forces for justice and sustainability with the hunger for rekindled spirits? Does a critique of consumer culture open up this discussion in new and encouraging ways? Schor argues that it does. I am persuaded that she is on to something.
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