By Erica Sofrina, author of the book Small Changes, Dynamic Results! Feng Shui for the Western World.
I recently wrote about Tips for Downsizing your Living Space and it got me thinking about the History of Stuff. What made us the huge consumers that we have come to be in the United States?
The Story of Stuff is a powerful video about how we got here and what it is doing to our planet.
It talks about how my grandmother’s generation was committed to resourcefulness, stewardship and thrift. So what happened between then and now to bring us to this place of ultra consumerism which threatens the extinction of our planet?
It all started right after WWII. In order to jump-start the economy, President Eisenhower’s Council of Economic Advisers had to come up with a plan to get people to buy – and quickly! The guru and retail analyst of the day, Victor Legough, wrote in 1955:
“Our Enormously productive economy…demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption…we need things burned up, replaced and discarded at an ever-accelerating rate.”
So the era of “shopping as a spiritual practice” began! It was a message crafted by the government in cooperation and collaboration with the advertising media. The people bought it, and continue to do so to this day. The problem is that there are oodles more of us now than there were then, and it can’t continue if we are to have a planet at all.
These carefully crafted ads implied that shopping was the answer to happiness and that you were not okay if you didn’t have the latest and greatest gadget, appliance, car, fashions, etc. The goal was to make people feel badly about the stuff they did have, and badly about themselves if they didn’t have the new stuff. So they had to rush out and buy the new stuff, only for it to quickly go out of fashion so they had to buy more … You get the picture.
A new era in marketing was ushered in. Things were specifically made not to last. The product was made to fall apart right at the point where the consumer still had enough confidence in it to purchase another. It was called planned obsolescence.
The second new scheme was called perceived obsolescence. It was about re-designing the packaging of a product and adding a few more bells and whistles so that it was clear by looking at it whether or not a person had the latest and greatest object of desire (hello..Steve Jobs!) Quality went out the window and things were made to become obsolete within a carefully planned period of time, so that consumers would buy more.
Families were encouraged to move to the suburbs and buy a home, which then required them to have a car. Ushering in the new culture of multiple car homes and the ensuing pollution that follows. You then had to fill your spacious new home with all of the latest and greatest stuff. Every woman needed to have her own refrigerator, washer, dryer and vacuum cleaner, promising more leisure time for doing the things she loved.
You see, prior to this many women were working in the factories to support the war effort. It was promoted as patriotic and was very successful (i.e. Rosie the Riveter which was a hugely successful governmental campaign) – so much so that many women did not want to give up their jobs and “go home.” Working outside the home became socially acceptable and even desirable. But now the government needed to lure the women back to the homes so that the returning men could have the jobs. However, for the first time, many of the women had found self worth outside the home. They were making their own money, were a part of a vital cause, and had found community. (The Rosie the Riveter image was used later in the women’s movement as an example of women’s independence)
It was now the woman’s civic duty to give up her job, go home, make lots of babies to replenish the depleted population, and most of all – consume!
In doing so, they were promised fulfillment by shopping. But living out in the suburbs made them feel more isolated and less fulfilled. So they shopped some more.
Interestingly enough, polls show that our national happiness quotient peaked in the ’50s and has been steadily declining ever since. Clearly shopping has not made us happy and all of this stuff has not given us more leisure time. In fact, research indicates that we have less leisure time than we have ever had before.Somehow we have gotten into a toxic cycle of endless work in order to endlessly consume.
But our media continues to promote the happiness is shopping message. We see more ads in one year than people 50 years ago saw in a lifetime, and they get the children early to that they are indoctrinated into consuming as a way of life.
The reality is that we are just as addicted to consumerism as ever.
But it is as simple, and as serious, as this: we can no longer maintain it, and maintain a healthy planet.
The U.S. encompasses 5 percent of the world’s population, yet we consume 30 percent of the world’s resources and produce 30 percent of the world’s waste. In just three decades we have run through 1/3 of the planet’s natural resources.
We can change, but we need to first understand how we got here and be aware that we are constantly being programmed.
I realize I am often preaching to the choir, because so many of my Care2 friends are already making a huge difference in their communities, and for that we all thank you!
I invite you to spread the word and watch and share this powerful video, the Story of Stuff. Share it wide and far, and send it out to your networks. The point they make in the video is that people made this happen, and we are people, so let’s make something different!
Please share your thoughts with us and what you are doing to make a difference. I would love to hear from our Care2 friends in other countries as well. Is consumerism just as prominent there or is it different?
Part II of this series: 7 Ways to Curb Your Addition to Stuff