A consuming problem

Courtesy Wikipedia Commons

We have a lot of really cool things. We like our things. What’s the problem?

By Carol Fryday

The average American consumes approximately 20 tons of natural resources per year. Although we make up less than 5% of the world’s population, we consume 30% of the earth’s resources and emit 25% of its greenhouse gases. We also produce a third of the waste, annually discarding seven million cars, 30 million computers, enough aluminum cans to make 6000 DC-10 airplanes, and more than 96 billion pounds of food. It is largely because Americans have been enjoying a virtual orgy of shopping and waste that every natural system on the planet is now in peril.

Nor is the problem only felt in the remote rain forests and the third-world countries to which we outsource our manufacturing jobs. It’s right on our doorstep. In our relentless quest for creature comforts we have eradicated 98% of our old growth forests, rendered 40% of our waterways undrinkable, and so heavily polluted our air that the National Resources Defense Council estimates that 64,000 Americans die annually because of particulate air pollution.

So how did we get ourselves into this fix?

Consumerism 101

Humans have been consuming goods and materials in excess of their basic needs since ancient times, but until recently only a very small number of people were rich and powerful enough to conspicuously consume. Ironically, the world’s most voracious consumer culture was founded in 1776, the same year that Scottish economist Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations. Smith argued that the individual pursuit of luxury would drive the economy and make everyone richer. Written at the beginning of the industrial revolution, Smith’s book anticipated the shift toward the mass production of goods and the emergence of the middle class.

By the middle of the 19th century, mountains of factory-made goods filled department stores, catering to the ever-growing numbers of the nouveau riche and the rapidly expanding middle class. Then, in the early years of the twentieth century, Henry Ford’s innovative assembly line made the automobile and other luxury goods accessible even to the working class. By the late 1920s, Americans had the highest personal wealth of any country in the world—and conspicuous consumption became an integral part of the American dream.

The rise of commercialism

Just ten short months before the 1929 stock market crash and the onset of the Great Depression, Charles Kettering, director of research at General Motors, wrote an article entitled Keep the Consumer Dissatisfied. In it he explained that “If everyone were satisfied, no one would buy the new thing because no one would want it. The ore wouldn't be mined; timber wouldn't be cut. Almost immediately hard times would be upon us. You must accept this reasonable dissatisfaction with what you have and buy the new thing, or accept hard times.” Kettering’s argument strikes a note similar to the one we hear from politicians and economists today—that we must consume, or the economy will collapse. Although the next two decades would require frugality and, eventually, rationing on the part of Americans, Kettering’s notion that people could be kept in a perpetual state of material dissatisfaction was put to the test after World War II.

Since then, huge sums of money and vast amounts of talent have been spent convincing us that however much we have, it isn’t enough. According to the United Nations’ 1998 Human Development Report, “Global spending on advertising, which stimulates consumption, multiplied nearly sevenfold from 1950 to 1990.” Since 1990, advertising budgets have nearly doubled and, according to the report, “are now increasing faster than incomes or population, especially in developing nations.” Given that ads exist to make us dissatisfied with what we have—and who we are—it’s not surprising that Americans have been on one long, environmentally-devastating shopping spree for the past five decades.

In addition to the persuasive power of advertisements, consumers are also kept on the retail treadmill by planned obsolescence. The term was used as early as 1932 when Bernard London wrote Ending the Depression through Planned Obsolescence, in which he proposed stimulating the economy with a government-enforced replacement program of products, to save manufacturers and their employees from ruin. The phrase was popularized in 1954 by industrial designer Brook Stevens, who defined it as "instilling in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary." Later the term came to have a more sinister meaning: designing products to break or function poorly after a specified amount of time.

Stevens idea might more accurately be called perceived obsolescence, which occurs when marketers change products in minor ways, so that customers feel impelled, in the phrase of an earlier era, to “keep up with the Joneses” by purchasing the latest and greatest model, with all the bells and whistles. To stoke consumer lust, marketers have become adept on preying on people’s insecurities to hawk goods, linking products to sex appeal and status. The result, as we know from the current subprime mortgage crisis, is that many Americans feel a simultaneous sense of insecurity and entitlement, and as a result live beyond their means.

The H factor

Despite our material wealth, polls have consistently shown that our national happiness peaked in the 1950s, ironically at the same historical moment that our consumption of goods began increasing dramatically. We may have a lot more stuff, but we’re working ourselves into a frenzy to pay for it. In 2005 married couples with children worked almost five hundred hours more than they did in 1979, and despite the long hours, more than 40 percent of families are still spending more than they earn.

The triumph of consumerism has had a particularly damaging effect on the most vulnerable among us, our children. To cite just one of the more egregious examples, because children are bombarded with unrealistic images of what they should look like, there has been a marked increase in anorexia, bulimia, and eating disorders. According to a recent study by the British National Union of Teachers, nearly three quarters of seven-year-old girls interviewed want to be slimmer. The same study also found that boys as young as 14 are using anabolic steroids to grow faster and bigger—and that more than half of those surveyed know someone who has been bullied because they did not have the latest gadgets or fashionable clothes.

Attempting to  meet non-material, emotional needs through material means is both frustrating and futile. We have impoverished ourselves with a form of materialism that does little to satisfy basic human needs, such as time with family and friends and a sense of connection with our community. As Renée Loth, editorial page editor of The Boston Globe recently put it, “A culture dependent on stuff for its happiness suffers from a poverty no amount of spending can assuage.”

The upside of the downturn

With Americans feeling the pinch at the pump and in the checkbook, consumption is slowing dramatically, and some think the era of conspicuous consumption may now be grinding to a halt. Rising oil prices, the depressed housing market, and the likelihood of a long-term recession has had immediate short-term effects. Americans are driving less, buying more fuel-efficient cars, and cutting back on gratuitous consumer goods.

According to CNN, Americans drove 11 billion fewer miles in March 2008 than they did in March 2007. In April, with gas topping $4 a gallon, sales of small cars shot up to 37%, while sales of SUVs, pickups, and big cars plunged 17% in the same period. And Money magazine reports that home energy costs appear to be bringing an end to the McMansion. For both reasons, the commuter lifestyle makes less economic sense, and the flight to the suburbs and exurbs may soon be reversing itself, as home and workplace draw closer together.

Not since the oil shortages in the 1970s has this sort of frugality been in vogue. That trend proved to be short-lived, but this time environmentalists are hoping that consumers will start to connect the dots between our profligate ways and recent world economic, political and natural catastrophes. Only then will Adam Smith’s prophetic vision of the wealth of nations give way to a more humane concern for the health of nations.

Carol Fryday served as editor of The Sylvanian from February 2005 - February 2009 and developed this website for the Pennsylvania Chapter.

Published August 2008