In our last issue a kind reader responded to Suhail’s article with a simple question. What’s wrong with consumerism? Carrying, as I do, no small amount of cynicism and pessimism towards the main-stream, I personally rarely see anything right about consumerism. I suppose, however, the standard prerogative does not see things this way and that my own prejudice deserves expounding on. Also, there’s the not-so-small matter of Suhail claiming he would kill, his words, to hear my response, and as we all know, what Big Brother wants, Big Brother gets.
Firstly, we should probably lay down some ground rules. What is consumerism? Among the couple definitions you will find in the dictionary, the one I assume we are working with is: The concept that an ever-expanding consumption of goods is advantageous to the economy.
Right away we should separate the concepts of consumerism and capitalism – the latter of which is, in its simplest definition, the acknowledgment of private ownership. While we can debate the philosophical and ethical grounds of private ownership, we can agree to say that a majority of the human race has acted on some sort of belief in the possession of property. This is my kill. This is my farm. This is my bed. This is my country. This is my ice cream sandwich.
While we are defining terms, what is an economy? Management of concerns and resources of State or business or household. So, consumerism is the belief in that consuming more and more goods we are benefiting the interests and resources of a government, business or household. Phew. With all that preliminary definitional jargon out of the way, we can get down to real meat and bones of the discussion.
So, what’s right about consumerism? Well, I’m typing this article on a MacBook, listening to music I (should have) bought on iTunes, sitting warm and snug in a Columbia fleece and a Oakland Raiders beanie, gleefully ignoring any and all calls and texts coming through on my Blackberry. Surely consumerism must have got something right since just about everything we interact with is a byproduct of it.
As we purchase and use more goods, companies respond and develop future products based on direct and indirect consumer feedback. Vinyl records led to eight tracks, tapes to compact discs; after the brief failure of the mini-disc we now have digital music files with no physical form at all. Companies respond to our reaction in the market and new products render our lives more and more convenient. We have the microwave, debit cards, e-books, etc. This list goes on and on. How could anyone take a road trip these days without a GPS?
Consumerism also offers us a plethora of choices in the goods we buy. Previously people wore whatever clothes were worn in their community. In Holland you wore funny looking wooden shoes. In China men shaved the front of their head and wore their hair long in the back. Nowadays I can wear the football kit from a city I’ve never been to, sport any number of colored shoes to match the rest of my outfit (note: all my shoes are brown, if that reveals anything) and can get my hair cut any which way in just about any color (or I could just as well never cut it at all and wear Birkenstocks). The freedom of choices.
As for the negative consequences of consumerism, I categorize them predominately under two headings – physical and psychological. Physically there is just way too much shit on our planet today. There exists more mobile phones on earth than human beings. These mobile phones are not going to biodegrade. Children, only a few decades ago, would play a handful of card and board games until their adulthood. Nowadays, as adults, we can purchase a video game or two every month! We are physically consuming more than we can sensibly dispose of.
Not only are we running out of space to dump all our used junk, there remains the problem of all the energy used, and the subsequent detriment to the environment, from producing and transporting these goods all over the world. To get that bottle of Fiji Water into your 7-11 requires more oil than the water contained in the bottle. You are consuming, to put it in the most confusing way, more than you are actually consuming.
The psychological consequences of consumerism look just as damning as the physical ones. First World humans now manage their finances based on how much they can afford to spend, as opposed to how much they can afford to save. What if Joseph had invested Egypt’s seven years of plenty in credit derivates? Or bought a two hundred foot yacht? Or a football club? Our first motive is to spend, not to save. Why do over 30% of lottery winners go bankrupt? Because the problem lies in not how much money we have in our accounts, but how we manage and spend that money.
What about the ethics of consumerism? We already know we consume more than just the product itself – all the plastic packaging, the energy to transport the item, etc – and that our financial habits have changed significantly, but what other forces linger behind the scenes of consumerism?
Obviously the more that people consume, the more we will demand a cheaper price for the products we buy. That means the Third World ends up slaving for pennies to make the products we’ll grow tired of by the time the season changes. The problem lies in that the entire world population cannot be consumers; someone has to make the stuff. Of course we don’t want our products to be expensive, so the companies ship all the manufacturing overseas; so the First World is left with fewer jobs and a consumer mindset that is stronger than ever. My generation has no idea what a manufacturing job even looks like (other than the jobs the US Government gives to Detroit to make cars we don’t want).
At the risk of extremely over-simplifying ethics, I think the whole point of life is life. It really is all that simple. Sustain our own lives and ensure the strength of the lives for further generations. The economy should sustain and benefit life. Not just the State. Not just a few shareholders. Not just our instant gratification. Consumerism, however, does not adhere to the rules of sustainability; it exists in itself and for itself, for consumption and profit. An ever-expanding consumption of goods does not empower or strengthen life, it does not consider “the worst-case scenario”, it does not consider the seven lean years coming around the corner.
Entangled in the ethics of consumerism is a dialectic of consumption, not unlike Hegel’s master-slave dialectics. Yes, as consumers, we have some degree of control in what we desire and what we purchase. But just as Hegel’s master relies on his slave to complete the tasks he cannot, so too the consumer relinquishes power to the consumed. How many times do we buy things we don’t need? How many books are lying in my to-read-stack? And how many will I still purchase on my next day off? On the subject of new books, Haruki Murakami, in his latest novel 1Q84, poses the conundrum eloquently,
Seeing the nicer clothes and shoes in her closet would giver her a pain in the chest and constrict her breathing. Such sights suggestive of freedom and opulence would, paradoxically, remind Aomame of her restrictive childhood.
What does it mean for a person to be free? she would often ask herself. Even if you managed to escape from one cage, weren’t you just in another, larger one?
While consumerism has given us a world of gadgets, fashionables and collectibles, it has taken us down a dangerous path, both to the environment we live in and to our own human psychology. But what exactly can we do about it? We, you and I personally, didn’t exactly choose consumerism, so how can we unchoose it? There is, of course, no simple answer. The best starting place, however, is to ask questions and understand the situation. Pay attention to how consumerism works – on a personal day-to-day basis and on a grand marketing PR scale. Know what you are consuming. What is in the pack of gum I impulsively snapped up at the checkout counter? What is Coke made from? How many cigarettes do I need a day? Where do these clothes come from; who owns the company? Do I need that super rare Issue #1 comic? Does the consumption of this or that make me stronger? Does it enhance life?
Of course, in one way or another all humans are consumers. We consume air, water, plants and other animals. But we do not merely consume, we create. The problem arises in the imbalance between consuming and creating. So spend some time creating. Write a cheezy poem, paint something with water colours, play tennis, grow bonsais. Time spent away from shopping, eating and drinking unnecessarily, or watching television can only help to add some perspective and balance to our tattered psychologies.
As the holiday season moves into full tilt we could do worse than to contemplate where consumerism has landed us, as a society and as individuals. Personally I detest holidays. Yet recently I have come to find what I detest are not the holidays themselves, but the ridiculous circus of consumption that has invaded every holiday. Drink yourself into a stupor on New Years. Buy chocolate strawberries on Valentine’s. Hell, buy chocolate bunnies for Easter! Buy beer and tacos on Cinco de Mayo. Buy flags on the Fourth of July! Support your troops (and, cough, flag-makers)! Pay a day’s wages for a costume you will only wear on one Halloween! Buy anything you can think of on Black Friday! Buy something really expensive and totally unnecessary for Christmas in the hope that someone gives you something equally, if not more, expensive and unnecessary.
Don’t get me wrong. We need traditions. Something in the human existence demands ritual and repetition between generations. I recently finished reading On Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham, in which, at the end of the novel, the protagonist joins his friend’s family in their annual trip to the Kent countryside. Every year the family returned to this maternal homeland and joined together with the local community for the hop harvest. Everyone worked the fields during the day – but in a celebratory and cheerful atmosphere – after which the men took in a beer at the public house and the women prepared dinner. Of course at night anything can happen, as the protagonist finds out (his nocturnal escapades result in wedlock).
That picture of the late Kentish summer light, the half harvested hop fields, morning baths in the seaside and unplanned romps in the bushes, all reminded me of the importance and comfort in tradition. For myself, however, I choose traditions which strengthen life, not those which consume it.
“We think, sometimes, of football being important, but it’s not really.” It’s difficult to think of a more apt response to Gary Speed’s death than Gary Neville’s words. Speed set records in both international football for Wales and domestic club football in a career spanning over twenty years. He was in the midst of steering the Welsh national side, now as their manager, towards contention for qualification at a major tournament after years of wandering in mediocrity. On Saturday he appeared as a guest pundit on Football Focus. On Sunday, at the Liberty Stadium, about half an hour prior to kick off news filtered through that Speed had taken his own life. During the minute’s silence the crowd emotionally burst into applause. One Gary Speed, there’s only one Gary Speed. Swansea City and Aston Villa played out a draw.
But really, the football wasn’t important. The records, the medals, the accolades. Not important.
Something was obviously terribly wrong beneath the surface. The greatest shame is that it hid and festered there until Speed thought he had no more choice. Rest in peace, and strength to the family he left behind.