Thought Trap: ‘Consumer Society’ is the Problem
This article is the third in a series by Frances Moore Lappé. Others include Our Challenge: Developing an 'Eco-Mind' and Thought Trap: Growth vs. No Growth?
By Frances Moore Lappé
On top of all the stuff we buy and use every year, on average each American now disposes of almost three hundred pounds of packaging, and that’s without even counting a lot of soda and beer cans. Visualize it: almost a pound a day for every man, woman, and child in the country! No wonder Americans generate about a third of the world’s trash, roughly a ton per person each year.
So it sure is easy to join the chorus that “consumerism” is out of control, and it is killing us.
But the message is a nonstarter for a couple of reasons.
For one, it doesn’t fit most people’s everyday lives, even in an ostensibly wealthy country like the US. True, the stereotypic “American consumer” is the guy lugging a flat-screen TV through the doors of Wal-Mart on Black Friday. But what does this image hide?
Most of the percentage increase in “consumer spending” over the last thirty years went to pay not for new TVs and the like but to escalating health-care costs. In fact, the share of the US gross domestic product devoted to spending on goods fell almost 5 percentage points between 1978 and 2008.
And that was before many of the staggering losses Americans have more recently felt: Between spring of 2007 and late 2009, the net worth of American households fell more than a quarter.
A second reason that blaming consumerism falls flat is that most of us conflate buying things with luxury and ease; so the opposite of consumerism must be deprivation and, well, boredom.
Luxury is Beauty, but Beauty is Not a Luxury
Moving beyond the false dichotomy — either material fixation or dull lives—starts with rethinking luxury itself. It happened to me unexpectedly.
A few years ago I journeyed with my extended family — ages six to seventy three — to the Amazonian region of Peru, eventually moving in a small boat along the Tambopata River.
After several hours, we hopped off the boat for a short hike on a narrow jungle path until we reached a large clearing. There, we got our first glimpse of our resting place, an airy structure built largely of bamboo and on stilts. I was enchanted.
And that was before our first meal in a dining room with colorful macaws swooping in to alight on high wood beams above us. And before I strolled in the early evening stillness along an open “bridge,” lit on both sides by lanterns, to my bedroom, where my mosquito netting appeared more like an elegant canopy than an insect barrier. And before I lay listening to the soft jungle sounds, so clear and present because the room’s outer wall reached only to my waist.
We stayed just a few days. But as we packed into the same small boat to leave, I realized my perception had been forever altered. I had learned that, for me, luxury is beauty but beauty is not a luxury.
Sure, I knew that relatively few of us have the good fortune to experience what I just had. But I also realized that seeing “luxury as beauty” has nothing to do with a particular place or an object’s price tag. It is seeing with eyes for beauty.
Shifting “Needs” Toward The Greener Part Of The Spectrum
Plus, our sense of what we “need” turns out to be a lot less fixed than many assume: The share of Americans who feel air-conditioning is a necessity, for example, dropped from 70 percent in 2006 to 54 percent just three years later.
And our perception of enjoyment can make quick adjustments, too, I realized recently in this small example:
Staying overnight at a friend’s, I was handed a towel by my host. How great, I found myself thinking, as I felt a coarseness that I recognized immediately as the mark of line drying. I love that roughness against my skin when I’m drying off. And my next thought was, Wait. When did I stop thinking downy-soft was best?
Even long-held sensibilities about hygiene can transform rapidly. For Japanese, riding in a stranger’s car has long been unappealing: “We like things clean and tend not to want to use things when we don’t know who used them before us. So a car-sharing service will never be popular in Japan.”
The Sharing Economy
That’s what environmental activist Junko Edahiro got in response to his eco-appeal for car sharing a few years ago. But values are changing in Japan, and as a few tried car sharing, others got on board, and car sharing took off quickly. Now it’s available at every station in Tokyo’s main railway loop.
And here in the U.S., more and more people are discovering there’s a fun way to have what we need when need it, without rushing to the mall. Using the website tool NeighborGoods.net to find each other, people across the country had, by 2011, shared goods—from a bread maker to a camping stove.
Clothing swaps are catching on, too. Recently, I loved watching my daughter’s friends arrive at her apartment on a Saturday morning — each toting a bag of clothes they’d tired of — then with a lot of laughter slip into each other’s offerings. Their affectionate name for their stuff-reducing fun? “Bitch and Grab."
In other words, recognizing that our needs and tastes are less fixed than we’d imagined and that so much is now known about how to align our desires with nature, we might choose very differently if we had choice.
Creating Choice for a Healthier Planet
So the central question for me is not just, How do we buy less, but, Why don’t we have choice, and how do we get it?
Why don’t we have the choice to create affordable communities aligned with environmental well-being in which we can experience ease, camaraderie, security, beauty, and stimulation—communities we can pass on with pride to our children.
And that question gets us digging deep, really deep, all the way to democracy itself. How do we create a true, living democracy in which public choices are being made in response to our values, not to the underwriters of elected officials?
Blaming consumers does nothing to make these personal and public breakthroughs.
Frances Moore Lappé is the author of 18 books including the three-million copy Diet for a Small Planet. She is the cofounder of three organizations, including Food First: The Institute for Food and Development Policy and, more recently, the Small Planet Institute. Her most recent work, released by Nation Books in September 2011, is EcoMind: Changing the Way We Think to Create the World We Want.
This article was first published on CSRwire and is republished with permission.
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