Tag Archives: Scarcity

Consumerism: Disease or Religion?

The book (which was originally a series on PBS) Affluenza uses the metaphor of disease to try and understand the modern world, in particular the consumerism of North American culture. Following this metaphor the book is divided into three sections: symptoms, causes and treatments. Among other things the book is a pretty amazing compilation of interesting facts and statistics about our consumer lifestyles.

I have used the metaphor of religion to describe consumerism. Even though disease is the prevailing metaphor throughout this book, the authors also see the spiritual aspects of the consumer religion. I would like to share some of the statistics, quotes and insights I found most interesting and try to connect them to the idea of consumerism as a religion.

Shopping Fever Shopping is certainly the primary activity of the consumer religion, and the first symptom of the affluenza disease. Numbers and statistics about how much we buy and spend are staggering, but this one in particular really stood out.

In 1986 America still had more high schools than shopping centers. In less than twenty years later, we have more than twice as many shopping centers (46,438) as high schools (22,180). (13)

This book was published in 2005. So, I’m not sure how the financial crisis has affected these numbers if at all, but I would guess that it hasn’t improved much. The authors then make this astute observation, “In the Age of Affluenza…shopping centers have supplanted churches as a symbol of cultural values” (13). Perhaps some more detailed cultural anthropology would need to be done to prove this assertion, but it certainly rings true. Nevertheless, we tend to view shopping malls as economic rather than cultural symbols. Are these our modern temples, synagogues, mosques or churches? We certainly spend more time there than at centers of worship.

Chronic Congestion It is clear that we buy more stuff than we need. Whenever we move into a bigger house, because we’re running out of space, instead of enjoying the extra space we buy more stuff until we have to either move to an even larger house or perhaps turn to the burgeoning self-storage industry.

There are now more than 30,000 self-storage facilities in the country, offering over 1.3 billion square feet of relief…The industry has expanded fortyfold since the 1960s, from virtually nothing to $12 billion annually, making it larger than the U.S. music industry. (32)

This fact blew my mind. When you think about the biggest corporations, industries and big money, do you think of self-storage? Certainly not. The music industry would certainly be higher on most people’s list. Yet the numbers don’t lie. If consumerism is a religion, perhaps self-storage is the place where we put our holy objects. We have “set apart” these spaces for our stuff and made it so important that this industry can thrive.

The Stress of Excess The amount of extra stuff we have also comes with a certain burden.

We thought the opposite was supposed to be true: that advances in technology, automation, cybernation, were supposed to give us more leisure time and less working time…In 1965, a U.S. Senate subcomittee heard testimony that estimated a workweek of from fourteen to twenty-two hours by the year 2000. We got the technology, but we didn’t get the time. [quoting Staffan Linder, Swedish economist, warning about the "harried leisure class"] “Economic growth entails a general increase in the scarcity of time. As the volume of consumption goods increases in the scarcity of time, requirements for the care and maintenance of these goods also tends to increase, we get bigger houses to clean, a car to wash, a boat to put up for the winter, a television set to repair, and have to make more decisions on spending.” (41)

It seems that our economic indicators and measurements don’t account very well for this scarcity. Certainly we like to say that time is valuable and people should be compensated for their time, but it doesn’t seem that the effects of this lack of time are accounted for. In religion time is set aside for particular holy days, where other activities, like economics, are set aside. More and more, however, the consumer religion encroaches on these sacred times. Sundays are no longer set aside for Christians, and when other religions request space for Sabbath or prayer practices, it is mighty inconvenient for the consumer culture which does not recognize these as viable activities.

Family Convulsions The effects on the family of this lack of time and emphasis on stuff seems obvious to me, but we have come to live with these contradictions. The authors point in particular how conservatives embody such cintradictions.

“The contradiction between wanting rapid economic growth and dynamic economic change and at the same time wanting family values, community values, and stability is a contradiction so huge that it can only last because of an aggressive refusal to think about it.” (52 quoting former Reagan administration official with the Center for International and Strategic Studies, Edward Luttwak)

Social Scars The disease of affluenza has social and global implications. David Korten, author of When Corporations Rule the World and former business professor at Stanford and Harvard, worked for Harvard Business School, Ford Foundation and USAID in Africa, Asia and Central America says,

“My career was focused on training business executives to create the equivalent of our high consumption economy in countries throughout the world. The whole corporate system in the course of globalization is increasingly geared up to bring every country into the consumer society. And there is a very strong emphasis on trying to reach children, to reshape their values from the very beginning to convince them that progress is defined by what they consume.” (87)

This is what the church calls spiritual formation and involves catechism, bible study, confirmation classes or other forms of discipleship. This man is what the church calls “missionaries”. His mission is the mirror image of evangelism efforts by missionaries in foreign contexts. He is seeking to make converts in the developing world, saving their souls by selling them the American Dream.

It seems crucial to me to understand that this kind of “education” takes place in order to spread the gospel of consumerism and it functions in the same way religious instruction does (or any other form of ideological education or indoctrination). I confess that religious education is propaganda, in much the same way that David Korten describes his work spreading consumerism. The difference is between destructive and healthy or constructive ideologies.

Resource Exhaustion I have spent a lot of time on this blog discussing this topic. So, I will just share two of the statistics that struck me.

Dividing the planet’s biologically productive land and sea by the number of humans…[we] come up with 5.5 acres per person. That’s if we put nothing aside for all other species. “In contrast,” says [Swiss engineer Mathis] Wackernagel. “the average world citizen used 7 acres in 1996…That’s over 30 percent more than we can regenerate. Or in other words, it would take 1.3 years to regenerate what humanity uses in one year.” (96)

More than 20,000 species go extinct every year causing many scientists to proclaim that we are in the midst of the sixth great extinction and the largest extinction in the planet’s history. (98)

Industrial Diarrhea I just really liked this phrase. The chapter is about the waste that industry produces.

Dissatisfaction Guaranteed The fact that rates of depression and anxiety disorders continue to grow exponentially should be a sign to us that something is wrong, but instead we simply medicate the problems so we can function in a sick society.

Psychologist Richard Ryan points to scores of studies–his own among them–showing that material wealth does not create happiness… In the human species, happiness comes from achieving intrinsic goals like giving and receiving love. Extrinsic goals like monetary wealth, fame, and appearance are surrogate goals, often pursued as people try to fill themselves up with “outside-in” rewards. (115)

Isn’t this the goal of most people? To be happy? Isn’t this why we pursue the consumer religion (or any religion, ideology or system of belief)? To find meaning and fulfillment? So, if it obviously doesn’t work, then why do we keep doing it? While results are not everything when it comes to religion, I think it’s worth asking if what we’re doing or believing is producing the actual results we want. This is not about efficiency, but integrity. In a world so saturated by media and advertising the most difficult task may be to actually identify what it actually is that we want. Then we can begin to deconstruct the siren call of consumerism as something that fails to meet any of our most basic human needs.

Small Is Beautiful: Urban vs. Rural

I read an article from the Guardian that asked “Which is greener urban or rural living?” Treehugger also picked up the conversation, and the consensus seemed to be that urban life was clearly greener. In the city you often don’t need a car. You live in smaller housing units in tall buildings that take up less space. You have more options for consumer products that are environmentally friendly, organic or otherwise more sustainably produced. There were a few commenters that didn’t want to just throw out the benefits of rural living, but no one really seemed to think rural living could be greener.

I read the whole conversation in light of the section in E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful on development. Schumacher addressed the mentality of much development work which still continues today.

Before we can talk about giving aid, we must have something to give. We do not have thousands of poverty stricken villages in our country; so what do we know about effective methods of self-help in such circumstances? The beginning of wisdom is the admission of one’s own lack of knowledge. As long as we think we know, when in fact we do not, we shall continue to go to the poor and demonstrate to them all the marvellous things they could do if they were already rich. (199)

This could also be applied to this way of thinking about whether urban or rural living is greener. Environmentalism has its own unspoken creed containing dogmas that often remain unquestioned and uncritically swallowed and regurgitated. There are certain assumptions about what is “greener” that attempt to slip the premise by us. One of those is the divide between rural and urban.

Yet it remains an unalterable truth that, just as a sound mind depends on a sound body, so the health of the cities depends on the health of rural areas. The cities, with all their wealth, are merely secondary producers, while primary production, the precondition of all economic life, takes place in the countryside. (203)

This dualism between urban and rural is and always has been a fiction. This was one of the most stunning thoughts for me in reading this book. It is only more relevant as the world continues to urbanize and face the same problems of Schumacher’s time (the book was first published in 1975) on an ever increasing scale.

When Schumacher wrote Small is Beautiful the majority of people still lived in rural areas. Therefore, he argued, we should be putting as much, if not more, emphasis on rural development. That is not what happened. The emphasis on urban development made cities much more attractive places than the increasingly difficult life in rural areas. This drove migration to the cities and the increasing urbanization that continues today. The UN predicts that 70% of the world population will live in cities by the year 2050 and we have just recently crossed the 50% mark (I don’t have a link, but I think it was in a recent State of the World report from the UN). Urban development can’t keep up with the needs of all the rural people migrating to cities as rural economies tank. Yet, the opportunities are better in the cities. Thus we end up with the massive slums that seemed to pop up overnight around Manila, Buenos Aires, Mexico City and all the major urban centers in the “developing” world.

Yet, what is our answer for this problem of urbanization? It is to create better cities that can handle the increase in population, instead of creating rural development that makes it possible for people to stay in rural areas. What the question about whether urban or rural living is greener fails to address is the continuing, dynamic relationship between these two sectors. It’s also evident when we try defining these two terms that they are not very clear. What size community should be considered rural? At what point does a city transition from being rural to urban? 20,000? 50,000? 100,000?

Derrick Jensen defines cities as “a collection of people living in numbers large enough to require the importation of resources” (from a YouTube video on his book Endgame). This definition means that our definition of “urban” will be relatively small compared to the largest cities in the world. However, it does account for what the discussion of how green urban living is neglects. While certain metrics make urban living appear greener, because of the economies of scale, it does not account for the dependence on outside resources to sustain the “greener” urban way of life.

Unless you are living off of your urban/community garden, the majority of your food, no matter how organic or sustainably produced, must come from somewhere else. Likewise for all the other products no matter how organic or sustainably produced that you consume in a city. All of the water you use is imported from elsewhere, as well as the coal, oil and/or natural gas you use to use electricity, drive your car, cook and heat your studio apartment. Another quote from Derrick Jensen undermines the kind of thinking that makes urban living seem “green”.

Rational people will go quietly meekly to the end of the world, if only you’ll allow them to believe that recycling is going to make a difference.

We choose the metrics that make our lives seem “greener” so that we can ignore the reality that we cannot help but participate in an economy based on extraction and the importation of resources to support our preferred lifestyle in communities called cities that require this arrangement. Perhaps there is a balance between urban and rural populations that could be sustainable. I’m open to that possibility, but it would look radically different from the current order.

So, instead of asking which is greener we should be asking which way of life is self-sustaining. Rural living, if it involves industrial monocropping or extractive lifestyles, is not self-sustaining either. But, I would argue that living in smaller rural communities has the potential to be self-sustaining, while cities require an arrangement that imports resources from outside its borders.