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Consumer Culture is no accident

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“The American economy’s ultimate purpose is to produce more consumer goods”. What kind of society does this create?

By David Suzuki Posted Mar 25, 2009

ConsumerismMost 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 write 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 writes 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.

To discuss this topic with others, visit the discussion forum at www.davidsuzuki.org.

Source: David Suzuki Foundation

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  • Anthony

    I couldn't agree more with what was said about consuming being a temporary feeling of satisfaction with oneself. I agree with what is said in most of this, but the question is what can we introduce to the world that is going to limit this idea of consuming, something that can satisfy that desire or longing if you will. If consuming is a temporary thing than why are we not searching for an alternative that will satisfy us longer than that and it being all for the good of the earth. Currently, not just America, but the entire world is one the wrong road it seems as far as this aspect is concerned, so why haven't the people who believe these ideals just previously said doing something and introducing new ideas, and inspiring. We haven't taken a step in the right direction by just thinking about it, we first must take the step on a new and vulnerable road. Not just Americans but the world as one. I am in no place to condemn, therefore I am not but I will suggest just like this article has to me. I have ideas of what this alternative could be, but I know that that the idea is not so easily welcome in this country. But, what this world is looking for is out there, and it is true.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/greg_eartheasy Greg Seaman

      I think our system of putting the individual first, and of championing competition as the model for economic growth, has left us at a loss for community. The need for more and more consumer products is to some extent a way of soothing ourselves, but the satisfaction is short lived becasue it does not address the root of the problem. We need to bring new economic models into view that use cooperation instead of competition.
      I've often wondered why people in poor communities seem happy while the wealthy do not. Maybe it's the sense of shared community by people who accept each other regardless of wealth or status.

  • Rick

    Consumer culture is clearly accelerated by design Our economy is now in a state of "sluggish growth" and this is bad…or is it? Corporations and our government would like us to believe this is terrible.

    Hopefully, this culture of consumerism is slowing as more and more people realize the futility of a linear production-consumption-disposal system. People are already beginning to rebound by tightening their belts and putting off emotional and unnecessary purchases. Families are consolidating, fueled by necessity in many cases, and local economic systems seem to be flourishing.

    It's up to all of us to educate our children and break this cycle because you can all be damn sure the media is going to try to create an entirely new breed of i-pod using, "got to have the latest gadget and coolest clothes" consumer robots

  • Vince

    However without this economic growth and technological advancement we have witnessed over the past few decades nobody would be able to do what they are doing on this page. How many laptops, online websites, and computer based operating systems were created based off of this captilistic ideal? the reality of this concept is, without our consumer impulse to buy the newest coolest gadgets on the market there would be no market. Our technological advance would undoubtedly slow and our concept of life and culture would be completley different than it is today. This being said, yes i agree that there are certain products that "harm" our enviornment so to speak, but this has nothing to do with our consumption on a global level. It is locally where we have to worry about this issue, our own impulses which go unquestioned are the real problems here, not our market place, nor our economic surplus of goods. These goods, even though plentiful, are necessary for a growing economy. No matter how many people think a slower economy is a good economy, you have got to re-think your ideals, because the world isnt going to slow down just because America does, this i can promise you.

  • Greg Seaman

    Great comment Amanda. Very succinct yet says it all.

  • Glyn

    Since all money is debt, and it is impossible to have both profit and ethics, wouldn't the easiest thing to do just be to start making the progression to a resources-based economy rather than a monetary one?

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