Friday, March 9, 2012
The Roots of Our Consumerism
"Homo Consumens is the man whose main goal is not primarily to own things, but to consume more and more, and thus to compensate for his inner vacuity, passivity, loneliness and anxiety….He mistakes thrill and excitement for joy and happiness and material comfort for aliveness; satisfied greed becomes the meaning of life, striving for it a new religion. The freedom to consume becomes the essence of human freedom."
Erich Fromm. “The Application of Humanist Psychoanalysis to Marx's Theory" in Socialist Humanism: An International Symposium. New York: Doubleday, 1965.
I like to think that I’m totally immune to the lure of consumerism. After all, I’ve spent the past 15 years lecturing students on the importance of voluntary simplicity both as a means to prevent further environmental degradation to our planet, but also as a way to find greater happiness in life.
That latter benefit of reducing consumption is often lost on 20-something-year-olds who have grown up fervently believing that meaning and happiness in life are connected to the ability to buy whatever one wants, whenever one wants, whether one has the funds to do so or not. I’ve found that, even when I show these students hard data from the field of human psychology clearly demonstrating that the “need to always have more” is linked to personal unhappiness and that the happiest people on the planet are actually those who are the most immune to the lure of consumption, they simply don’t buy it (no pun intended).
But at least I have the satisfaction of knowing that I am setting a positive example for my students, right? After all, I’m living in a house that is much smaller than I could afford, I drive a 17 year old car (by choice), rarely eat out in restaurants, and generally wear clothes till they fall apart (literally!). On the surface of things, I am the poster boy for the voluntary simplicity movement.
And yet, deep in the marrow of my being, I am as easily seduced by the lure of American consumerism as the most fashion-conscious student in my environmental ethics class. Just recently, for example, I found myself wanting to replace the perfectly adequate cell-phone that I had been using for about four years with a smart new Iphone. The new phone cost hundreds of dollars more than the old phone did and that new plan that I had to take out to get it was also more expensive, but at least I could now say that I had the smartest, most sophisticated, most stylish cell phone on the market. And I was ever so happy—that is, until I saw a colleague of mine with the new Iphone 4s with even cooler features than the model I had. And then I found myself becoming envious and thinking that my own Iphone just didn’t seem quite as special any more.
Then there’s the issue of my car. I am adamant about the fact that I will not buy a new car until the one I have—a 1995 Toyota Corolla—starts to become unreliable or cost more to maintain than it is worth. 17 years later, I still have the same car, and it is still chugging along perfectly fine. There are absolutely no mechanical issues with the car, but it certainly doesn’t provide as smooth and quiet a ride as a new car would, and lately, the paint on the roof of the car has begun to wear off, making the car look rather shabby. In fact, I’ve been told that I have the ugliest car on campus, and that’s probably true: I doubt that even the most cash-strapped freshman would ever be caught dead driving a car as aesthetically challenged as mine.
Now, when someone asks me about my car, I tell them proudly that I’ll be damned if I ever get suckered into buying a new car before I absolutely need one. But, in fact, I’m starting to feel just a little self-conscious about being seen driving a car like mine or parking it at the Mall amidst all the shiny new SUVs that people on Long Island tend to own. And this year, I’ve even begun fantasizing about getting a new car—not anything excessive mind you, but something small, cute, and fun like a Honda Fit. Every time I see someone driving one of these cars, I almost automatically think to myself: “Why should they get to drive a nice new car, while I am forced to drive this piece of crap! “After all,” I reason to myself, “I am a college professor and do have a reputation to maintain.”
So you see, although I would like to believe that I am impervious to the insatiable desire for more than I need, this really isn’t the case. I am as much a part of the species homo consumens as anyone. The only difference is that I’ve read enough to know what the root causes of our consumerist desires are. I think that these causes are threefold:
1) Contemporary Americans have come to identify who they are as human beings with what they own. The more trendy things I own, then, the more worthy I am as a human being. Conversely, if I live in a modest house, don’t wear the latest clothes, and don’t drive a nice car, then something is wrong with ME as a human being. In 21st century America we are judged, not by the “content of our characters,” but by the stuff we possess.
2) We have been convinced by modern advertising that we should have as much as our neighbors do. In the past, however, our neighbors could only afford to buy things if they saved for them. But the advent of the credit industry means that ordinary people can buy things they don’t have the actually money for. We don’t know, for example, that our neighbors really can’t afford to live in the McMansion that they recently built or drive their new Lexus, but we think they can, and that makes us feel inferior. So we too are compelled to take out loans and live well beyond our means, just to “keep up with the Jonses.”
3) In the absence of authentic religious belief, Americans have made a religion out of consumption. If we really believed in God and were convinced that this life is not all that there is, having so much stuff wouldn’t mean quite as much to us. After all, how could owning even the most sophisticated things in the world—fancy jewelry, designer clothes, etc.—ever compare with what we have to look forward to in the next life? Objectively, then, if Americans really believe in anything, it is that salvation comes from buying power—the ability to satisfy our insatiable desires with more and more stuff. God is dead, but at least we have Walmart—or Neiman Marcus, if you prefer—to provide us with ultimate meaning in life.
These are just a few thoughts that came to me as I reflected on the roots of our consumerism in the United States. I’d love to hear what you think about this. Is the problem of consumerism really as bad as I think it is (do you personally fall victim to it?)? And what do you think that the ultimate root of this need to always acquire more and more is?
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