The Consuming Society

We are often called the “consumer society.” The term has mixed meaning. All societies are in fact consumer societies. An Afghan tribal village consumes, as do people in Williston. The term has become judgmental, however, implying an excess of consumption, that, in fact, we use more than our share or certainly more than we need. Overflowing landfills, lawn sales, obesity, spiraling consumer debt and certain chronic illnesses are, to varying degrees, manifestations of an ‘over-consuming society.”

When does a normal function escalate to a pathology? When does a glass of wine with dinner, a toke, a game of poker with friends, a shopping spree charged to Visa, eating a box of Girl Scout Cookies in front of TV become true excess? Addiction specialists would say that when the intrinsic pleasure of each of the above events meets a physiological or psychological need beyond the event itself and creates a steady pattern of use, it becomes an addiction. Is extreme shopping an addiction or a boon to our consumer economy? Does one go shopping for the pleasure of spending and acquiring or to fill a specific need?

On can look at this through a number of lenses: economic, environmental, aesthetic or ethical.

Economically, our view has for decades been myopic. Business monitors “quarters,” so more now is always better. They tend to look less at long-term trends and consequences. From a personal economic standpoint, a practical object of beauty well-made and acquired locally may become a family heirloom for generations and will always be the better long term investment. The purchase price will reside in the regional economy rather than in the global one and will sustain jobs within the community.

One can look at consumerism environmentally and see the impact immediately. It is often hard to buy a vegetable or piece of fruit without the Styrofoam tray and shrink wrap packaging. Germany has reduced this packaging waste by 70% with intelligent regulation. The endless array of over-specific appliances and tools, hot dog cookers, George Forman grills, bacon cookers, pants pressers, leaf blowers, lawn aerators, egg poachers, and then dated cell phones, laptops, PDA’s, the list is endless, as are the lawn sales, attics, garages, and landfills where they all end up.

Aesthetically, there is a “less is more” option for dealing with the exigencies of life. It invites us to buy less, and to do so more carefully, buying a high quality used or hand-crafted object as opposed to the cheapest new one. This does not work in the case of many necessities, but a home with a few beautiful objects imbued with age, craftsmanship and perhaps antiquity is a powerful antidote to the stress of our cluttered and often manic lives. This may take the form of buying one fine thing a year, made by a local craftsperson or acquired as an antique instead of racing off to the big box stores to furnish a whole room as cheaply as possible with Chinese goods in one quick shopping spree. It may take the form of buying more expensive, higher quality slow food from local growers at farm markets as is the standard in most other countries and less from supermarkets where more than half the grocery bill is packaging that will be discarded.

Ethically, we have an obligation to our children and grandchildren to leave them a sustainable economy and communities not built atop our own waste, a sense of how to use credit judiciously, and a few beautiful things they will treasure throughout their lifetimes and perhaps leave to their children, rather than a houseful of short-lived junk they will empty into a dumpster when we die.

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