Country Connections, Pine Mountain, CA, Sept/Oct, 1997:
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Travis Charbeneau 3421 Hanover Ave., Richmond, VA 23221 firstname.lastname@example.org Phone: 804 358 0417 www.travischarbeneau.com
Beyond Feel-Good Consumerism Travis Charbeneau slug "consume" 2636 words
PULL QUOTE: "If it is true that the one thing we've really had 'enough' of is politics, we can probably say 'enough' to the human experiment by no later than 2050."
Answering the question "How much is enough?" is one of the great challenges of our time. It means changing minds that have long been stuck in the culture of "more." During this laborious process we'll need to beware the temptation to indulge in what amounts to an assortment of disconnected lifestyle improvement projects merely designed to make us feel better. Where the personal refuses to realize itself in the political, change can be derailed or even hijacked. While assessing the danger of "more" run amuck, we'll also need to assess our efforts to deal with it effectively. For the moment, though, it is sufficiently gratifying to see American consumers, that sad and so-far-irrevocable retake on "American citizens," finally embarking on a serious examination of their wholesale re-designation as greedy pigs. As recently as the 1980s, the very notion of "enough" was considered un-American. People who had "enough" automobiles, shoes, cosmetics, and, above all, credit cards, were just the sort of comsymp liberal bastards who'd sabotage the economy with their indulgence in self-restraint. "More" is the maxim that made this country what it is today: the nation that consumes an obscenely disproportionate share of the planet's resources and subsequently returns an equally obscene and disproportionate share of the world's waste and pollution. One has only to imagine China or India adopting this agenda, making good on it, and bringing the sky down on the lot of us. And one needn't overtax one's imagination. This is exactly what is happening the world over, possibly excepting Japan and Western Europe. The "newly-industrialized nations" have bought the American Dream lock, stock, and Levi's, and you can reduce your own damn carbon emissions. We want our MTV. One result of American consumer newthink is the "voluntary simplicity" movement, reported on these pages and nicely characterized in the recent PBS hour "Affluenza," books like Alan Durning's "How Much is Enough?," organizations like the Center for a New American Dream, and efforts like "Buy Nothing Day," November 29. Driven primarily by the white, middle class, baby boomer, ex-Hippie/Yuppie demographic -- in other words, those with enough money to actually make choices about consumption -- this reassessment of our overly-materialistic present and clearly-unsustainable future is a welcome sight on our otherwise bleak horizon of darker and ever-more-satanic mills. There is no question that consumerism as we know it is at last visibly running against the tide of history, however much we are immersed in its culture, and however much affluent Americans take consumerism for granted as the way of things. It is no accident, as the "Affluenza" production pointed out, that, as World War II approached, when we could first glimpse what would become the Post-Industrial Era, academics, clergy, and organized labor agitated for converting any surplus productive capacity into increased leisure time to devote to family, culture and community. And it is no accident that the rather better-organized, politically-connected, and far more self-interested corporate sector offered the more decisive reaction, and, aided immeasurably by powerful new mass media, triumphed with the great Pig-Out of what would become the "Golden 1950s." "Surplus productive capacity" turned into "discretionary income" to flow wherever advertising, marketing, and corresponding consumer fetishism directed. Television especially has been instrumental in the hijacking of human desire. TV, as Marshall McCluhan so playfully described it, has indeed made for a global village; a central nervous system for the entire species. There are numerous unqualified benefits, and one undeniable malignancy: since it is commercially-sponsored, television has become command central for the consumer culture. In this context, television mimics a human brain with no hypothalamus, the walnut-sized control center that monitors our appetites and specifically tells us when we have had enough food, water, sex. Our en masse appetites have become ungovernable because our en masse governing mechanism has been intentionally bypassed. Occasionally, perhaps on Sunday, we get a message of moderation. At every other moment of every other day, no matter how sated we in fact may be, we are injected with the Great Urge, the hunger that cannot be assuaged, the itch that cannot be scratched, the insatiable desire to desire. "Consumption," once a synonym for tuberculosis, has thus become the disease we are literally dying to get, and to display as ostentatiously as possible to the Jones's. The most up-close and personal aspect of this disaster has been the ruin of the family, so endlessly noised about today after being so casually sacrificed on the alter of "more." Consider "teenagers." People have always passed through ages 13-19, but no one thought of this group as a unique demographic cohort until they were targeted as consumers. It became evident in the Post-War period that young people had money. As more and more of them acquired "after-" (read, "instead-of") school jobs, they would have more money. It could be got. The result was Barbie, the 45rpm single, Davy Crockett coonskin caps. "Teenagers" were invented. As were "children" before them. Prior to Industrialism, there was no such thing as childhood. Once off the breast, we were strapped quite abruptly into adult harness and what became known only at the end of the 19th century as "child labor," heretofore the natural, slavish course of human existence. Madison Avenue had to tread more carefully here and it still does, but, like teenagers, children likewise were sifted out of the family and targeted as consumers who, if they didn't have their own money like their older siblings, could make life sufficiently hellish that Dad would ultimately part with his. Dad, of course, preceded teenagers and children as the first target of Industrialism. Torn from the land and installed in wage slavery early in the process, Dad was sold a myth called "The Cult of Domesticity," which he promptly sold to Mom (as though Mom had any choice in the matter). True, Dad would from now on be a Missing Person insofar as family went. But, thanks to his wages, he could buy consumer goodies that included labor-saving devices like indoor plumbing and four-slice toasters that would "liberate" Mom to become what Roseanne Barr would eventually term a "Domestic Goddess." Mom would play bridge, shop and occasionally threaten the children with "wait until your Father gets home." Rather than fear, as often as not, bemusement followed from the numberless children who only vaguely recalled a tired and confused old gentleman who occasionally sat mute in "his chair" reading the paper or watching the eternal ball game. But the Industrial Revolution was certainly not finished with Mom. After smooth sailing in the glorious and unfailing trade winds of the 1950s-60s, America in the '70s ran up hard on the reefs of post-OPEC global economics. Mom was just beginning to dabble in something called "women's lib" when the press gangs came 'round. In order to keep the consumer ship of state afloat, in the cruelest, anti-family labor draft of them all, a cultural crime so foul that not even the communist boogiemen had ever been accused of it, Mom, too, was torn from her children, ripped from the home, and thrust into the lower levels of the labor force. This, not to pursue some "femi-nazi" agenda of "self-actualization," but to pay for $90 basketball sneakers made for American corporations by Chinese prison labor. Today, all sentient beings, down to perhaps 18 months of age, are unquestioningly sold on the American Dream: not "freedom," but "more." And they're buying -- even at the expense of family and those "family values" respecting which there is now so much sturm and drang. First Dad, then the children, younger and older, and finally Mom -- the very axis of the family -- all have been consumed in order to consume, like the snake swallowing its tail. The result has been devastating. From "Affluenza": the percentage of Americans characterizing themselves as "very happy" peaked in 1957. By age 20 Americans have watched one million television commercials each, and we will each spend one full year of our lives watching television commercials. Each family component works ever-harder for ever-less purchasing power to buy and service "possessions" that in fact do most of the possessing. In this condition of "possession overload," we take better care of our stuff than we do of each other. (Consider: one's stuff does not leave one in the lurch because it is running late for a meeting.) We struggle to service a one trillion dollar consumer debt, pursue bankruptcy and divorce proceedings at ever-more-competitive rates, experience widespread social anomie and dysfunction from the ever-growing gap between rich and poor in a society where self-esteem is tallied at the Great Bottom Line -- All terrible developments. And yet, all this very real complaint amounts in truth to so much trivial and parochial whining. In 1972 a much-ridiculed and reviled little book was published by a futurist group known as the Club of Rome and titled _The Limits to Growth_. The very title, like the idea of "enough," outraged capitalism generally, and the book was enthusiastically ignored. In 1992 Donella Meadows, Dennis Meadows, and Jorgan Randers, three of the authors of "Limits," published _Beyond the Limits_, a sequel, probably even more enthusiastically ignored, yet even more crucially relevant. The passage of 20 years, the accrual of scientific data, and the arrival of sophisticated computer modeling enabled the authors to far more strongly support their heretofore fantastic assertions: 1)you can't have infinite growth in a finite system, 2)the window of opportunity for establishing a state of global equilibrium was closing very rapidly. From _Beyond the Limits_: "... evolving industrial culture has implanted within the human mind the expectation of ever-continuing growth ... therefore the idea that there might be limits to growth is for many people impossible to imagine ... politically unmentionable and economically unthinkable." The ineluctable result of continuing the current consumption paradigm, _irrespective of any combination of amelioratives_, is systemic collapse somewhere near midpoint of the 21st century. In other words, merely salving consumerism, no matter how glorious the balm, will not suffice. Even if we were to discover unforeseen stores of nonrenewable resources like oil, or as yet unknown sinks for our pollutants, or if we could somehow level off population growth, or increase food supply, the very best we can do is buy ourselves a few more years before the raging inertia of consumption overshoots finite planet tolerances and folds up the entire system. At this point, a sort of "virtual hypothalamus" comes into play that only says "enough" once, like death. The idea of "limits" and "enough," not salve but genuine paradigm shift (that sadly abused term), is still politically and economically incorrect. It requires imagination and interferes with shopping and the "growing" of the economy. Our money is in mutual funds, and, so long as the market is going great guns, why ... But, of course, our story does not end in books. In 1974, only two years after the first "Limits," a scientist by the name of F. Sherwood Rowland co-authored a paper for _Nature_, titled, "Stratospheric Sink for Chlorofluoromethanes: Chlorine Atomic Catalysed Destruction of Ozone." It wasn't poetry then, and it still isn't. But Rowland wouldn't shut up about it. He went to the National Academy of Sciences in the United States. He went to his Congress. He spoke to then-fledgling environmental groups. He went to the media; those who would listen. Rowland said that a popular and very profitable industrial chemical, CFC, was eating away at the ozone layer which protected the planet from the sun's ultraviolet light. Because women enjoyed the convenience of propellant for hairspray instead of a thumb pump; because men preferred spraying their under-arm deodorant and not rolling it on, because air-conditioning was making the Sun Belt boom a reality, life on Earth was cast into the balance. Indeed, no one can say even now whether already-emitted CFCs did not reach a deadly critical mass years ago and are now simply working their 20-year route into the stratosphere before kicking in. Like cigarettes causing cancer or global warming, like any activity that imperils dollars, the ozone depletion critique was resisted literally until tumors started showing up on the noses of Australian politicians. The overwhelming fact behind all this annoying science is that consumerism American-style is not just upsetting, or even ruinous to American culture and society, it is physically destroying the planet upon which America is located. Obviously, since Americans set their shining example before the cosmos, it is up to us to redefine it, and _not_ by telling the Third World -- abroad or at home: "We've got ours, but yours will be insupportable." And, since it is the white, middle class, baby boomer, ex-Hippie/Yuppie demographic that most drives this diseased consumer ethos, it is certainly most sensible to begin with them, educate them, raise their consciousness, make them feel better about adopting a simpler lifestyle in which they can enjoy closer family weekend ties while (sigh) hanging on to last year's BMW. And you no doubt begin to see the problem. At what point does the raising of consciousness devolve into "feel-good consumerism," which is, of course, still consumerism? How far-fetched is it to imagine "Buy Nothing Day" brought to you by Nike and Coca-Cola, replete with free buttons bearing their logos and boasting "I survived BND 1997!" Corporate America will help you get "it" out of your system while associating their enterprises and products with hip concern both for the planet and the American quality of life. Put it on the website and see who logs on (and find out what brand of toothpaste they use). We must not forget that we live in a period of "apolitical correctness" when, to belong to a labor union, to get out to a demonstration, to "join" a lobbying organization and do the gritty work of political organizing and activism -- all this is considered passe. The Great Society didn't work. Government (read "politics") is the problem, not the solution. We live with the legacy of the Gipper and the currency of the New Democrat with his fat, brown envelopes stuffed with "campaign contributions" from you-know-who. We're too sophisticated, cynical, "cocooned" and "couch-potatoed" to fall for any political nonsense. We may buy a book, or log onto www.newdream.org to browse the gospel according to voluntary simplicity. But politics? Really. It's just possible, given our powerful new media and our unprecedentedly high levels of education, that enough cocooned browsers could reach a "critical mass" of their own, an untapped consensus which, overnight, could suddenly blossom into political will. It has also always been true, undeniably true, that if only everyone would make nice to everyone else, people would stop shooting each other no matter how many guns were lying about the place. Wanna bet the future on it? I'm the last person to beat up on productions like "Affluenza," authors like Alan Durning, or the Center for a New American Dream. These are all very important segments in a spectrum for potential change. But there is the forever danger of forever potential. It is at the Great Prism of politics that potential becomes sufficiently focussed to affect real change: recycled content legislation, bottle bills, electric cars, equal pay for equal work, the banning of replacement workers, telecommuting at living wage -- all these and more are essential paving stones in the road to a sustainable future, an example set for a world that seems hell-bent on following our example for good or ill. And the rubber meets this road in the "passe" realm of political activism -- you know, the stuff that "doesn't work" because it's not finished yet -- nor ever will be so long as we're opted out of the process. If it is true that the one thing we've really had "enough" of is politics, we can probably say "enough" to the human experiment by no later than 2050.