Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Gospel of Consumption

In the New York Times (3/11/08) Bob Herbert reports that, out of a total population of 300 million, 37 million Americans live in poverty. An additional 60 million are just above the poverty line, living with household incomes that range from $20,000-$40,000 annually for a family of four. In the current economic crisis in which we find ourselves, these are the people who are going to suffer most from the rising prices of oil and food, the plummeting housing market, and the decline in jobs that pay a minimum wage.

Of course, the middle class in the United States—those making less than $200,000 a year—are not much less vulnerable during an economic downturn like this one. Many of these Americans, buying into the consumptive mentality that drives our society, have taken on an enormous amount of debt since the 1970s, have virtually no savings, and have seen the equity in their homes plummet like a middle-aged man’s saggy midsection.

Since 70 % of the American economy is consumption driven, the prophets of mass consumerism—led by its head cheerleader, George Bush—have told us time and again to do our patriotic duty and spend, spend, spend. In the past, Americans have duly submitted to this philosophy using easily attainable credit to buy tons of stuff they really didn’t need.

But now the hens have come home to roost. Personal and national debt is the highest it has been since World War II and banks are tightening up on the loans they make. Furthermore, unemployment levels have been increasing and middle class wages have been fairly stagnant at the same time that inflation seems to be on rise. And yet, despite all this Americans continue to drive themselves further into debt through their endless consumption.

The solution to our economic crisis is not to consume more, but to consume less. To live simpler, more ecologically sustainable lives. Americans would certainly benefit if they adopted some of the basic principles of the voluntary simplicity movement...most notably the recognition that human happiness can not be attained through ever-increasing levels of consumption

Of course, if we suddenly stop our mindless consumption, this will make Wall Street and the White House extremely unhappy. But that’s their problem. The job of each individual during an economic meltdown, such as the one that is inevitably coming, is to get his or her own house in order by reducing consumption and increasing savings.

Fortunately, the Voluntary Simplicity movement has a number of web sites available to help overspent and overworked Americans live simpler and more fiscally responsible lives. Here are two of the most popular of these sites:

The Simple Living Network
The Simplicity Resource Guide


  1. A great example of how it seems impossible for some people to leave George Bush out of any argument they make.

    Many of us would be happy to agree about the problem, but it is an AMERICAN problem. Democrats preach the same basic creed, albeit with higher taxes.

    The partisan flavor to eco-posts makes it a self-destroying movement.

    Which confirms the suspicion that it is more of an irritable mental disposition than an acutally coherent philosophy.

  2. LOL.

    Well, Publius, could it not be both? Could not ecological concern go hand in hand with crankiness?

    One of the reasons that "green people" are so "mentally irritable" might just be because those on the right ignore the problems of mass consumption with so much impunity (and I am including both Democrats and Republicans in that).

    As for the coherence of the philosophy, I think that ecological thinking is far more coherent (and ethically and morally righteous) than rampant consumption, growing indebtedness, and profligate wastefulness.

    But then, I'm just being irritable, right?


  3. Re: Dr Fallon

    The "irritable mental disposition" was supposed to be ironic. It was a famous description of conservatism in the 1950's before the conservative revival. In terms of "crankiness", I do see a parallel between conservatism and environmentalism in that regard.

    Like the video artist, I think you set up a false choice between environmental responsibility and rapacious consumerism.

    Not only does that make it an elite and self-limiting movement, but it ignores that different people have different capacities, committments, and responsibilities.

    Asking people to do what they can, rather than imposing a certain extreme standard is a much better way to make it a truly grassroots movement that will last and lead to systemic change.

    The only reason I can't honestly call myself an environmentalist is because of the extreme means they propose, not because of the ends they desire. I desire them too and try to live accordingly.

    But I try to avoid irritability!


  4. George Bush can not be left out of the discussion because he has the worst environmental track record of any president this century. Bush makes me pine for the days of Richard Nixon, when a Republican could be a conservative and still give a damn about protecting the environment.

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  6. Publius--

    I'm Irish, and I'm Catholic. So from my point of view, if you're not irritable, you're just not trying hard enough.


  7. Dr. Fallon,


    Happy St. Patrick's Day!


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