Country Connections, Pine Mountain, CA, Sept/Oct, 1997:

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         Travis Charbeneau  3421 Hanover Ave., Richmond, VA 23221
      Phone: 804 358 0417
                     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
     "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
     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 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
     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.