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Consumerism and Its Discontents

Society & Culture  (tags: americans, culture, dishonesty, education, environment, ethics, freedoms, internet, media, politics, society )

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About 25 percent of Millennials do not want a car, compared with 10 percent of their parents at their age. In 1978, sixty-seven percent of 17-year-old Americans had drivers' licenses, compared with just 45 percent in 2010.

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Kit B (276)
Monday May 27, 2013, 12:32 pm
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Consumerism and Its Discontents

A quiet revolutionary struggle is brewing in the minds of the US "millennial" generation, those 80 million Americans between ages 16 and 34. They are wrestling with the fundamental edict of capitalism: Buy and you shall be happy. The millennials have not rejected consumerism, but they have also not embraced it fully. They experience its very real downsides - that also afflict millions of older Americans and go to the heart of capitalist sustainability and morality.

Recent polls by marketing firms and the respected Pew Research Center show strong environmental concerns among millennials, but hint at a broader issue: whether consumerism itself makes for a good life and society. Americans, especially the young, love their computers and sleep with their iPhones next to their pillows, but still worry about the negative sides of consumerism.

Technology itself may be contributing to what commentators have called the "death of ownership" culture, since the issue is not owning a book or television set, but having access through the web. Technology is changing the very idea of ownership. But broader factors - including the very availability of so much "stuff" - are contributing to making consumerism less new, exciting and "cool."

In a recent informal study of Boston-area college students, I asked them how they felt about American consumerism. Almost all said they would prefer to be in a society that was less consumer-oriented, because consumer culture gives them these headaches:

* It creates fierce competitive pressure to have more and newer "stuff."

* It complicates their lives, always worrying about how to maintain, pay for and use all the things they buy.

* It distracts from a quality life with their family and friends.

* It creates a "dirty" lifestyle that makes them and the planet sick.

* It leads to more inequality, with people seeking more at the expense of others.

* It distracts from political engagement - President Bush told them to go shopping as he was gearing up for war with Iraq after 9/11.

* It imprisons them in a life full of products and empty of meaning.

These negative feelings are reflected in changing purchasing patterns, with recent polls indicating that a growing percentage do not want to buy a house or car. About 25 percent of Millennials do not want a car, compared with 10 percent of their parents at their age. In 1978, sixty-seven percent of 17-year-old Americans had drivers’ licenses, compared with just 45 percent in 2010. Of course, these differences may reflect reduced income, credit or safety issues as well as changes in consumer attitudes.

These attitudes may seem like the self-indulgent whims of affluent, high-consuming young Americans. Or they may seem a reaction to the Great Recession, as they can no longer afford to buy so much. They could also reflect a phase of life since young idealists too often turn to traditional consumerism as they assume the responsibilities of adult life. They certainly do not suggest that young Americans are decisively rejecting consumerism.

But a quick history of American consumerism suggests something very important: that the growing awareness of its real and serious downsides can largely be explained by problems of sustainability and freedom at the core of US capitalism.

Up until the 1920s, most Americans made their own clothes, grew their own food and bought very little. They were producers and not consumers. This changed in the 1920s, when the growth of capitalism had created large corporations that could no longer prosper simply from World War I production. They needed Americans to become consumers.

The corporations hired public relations experts and launched the modern advertising industry. Retailers such as the giant Sears Roebuck sent out millions of catalogs with alluring pictures of clothes, furniture and other commodities. This was the beginning of "coerced consumption." In the 1950s and 1960s, the new advertising culture mushroomed and became massive and irresistible, with corporations redefining American freedom as the freedom to buy.

Since profits require ever-expanding consumer markets, capitalism has always coerced consumption, typically by seductive advertising but also by harsher means. In the 1920s, Los Angeles had a huge electric trolley system that allowed people to move around the city without cars. General Motors responded by buying the trolley system and tearing up the tracks. By the 1950s, the automakers succeeded in getting the US government to underwrite highways and cars. People began to buy cars because other transportation choices had been ripped away from them, a perfect example of coerced consumption and a form of "un-freedom."

What is the solution for Americans unhappy with consumerism? Many are beginning to make changes in their personal lives. Students are starting to grow food in gardens at their universities. Many Americans are living closer to work, so they can walk or bike to the job. Some are looking for companies offering the choice of shorter work hours, which liberates them from the work-and-spend treadmill. Some are joining the "share economy," where they share things - Zip cars and bikes - with others. Many are "downshifting" to a simpler life.

But constraining consumerism requires far larger changes in US capitalism: severely limiting corporate power and rewriting corporate charters and international trade agreements to emphasize worker rights and environmental health. Quality must replace quantity as the measure of economic and cultural success. Government tax and regulatory policy must end extreme inequality and reduce production and consumption of dirty energy, unhealthy food and luxury goods. Large investment in public transit, community-owned enterprises, national parks and other public goods must substantially reduce private consumption.

Such system-wide changes are politically difficult - and they may not limit consumerism fast enough to avert climate catastrophe or reverse dangerous inequality. But in the most optimistic scenario, they could put society on a new path toward a more sustainable, cooperative way of life.

These changes will be on the agenda of people around the world in the 21st century. Europe is already a far less consumerist society than the United States. China, India and Brazil are struggling with environmental justice and inequality that inevitably highlight the issue of global consumerism. It will take a new social economy that rejects American-style consumerism to solve these problems and help save the world.

By Charles Derber, Truthout | Op-Ed

Kit B (276)
Monday May 27, 2013, 12:33 pm

This is exactly the way to force change. Just stop buying the crap, consumers do power the market.

Debbie G (306)
Monday May 27, 2013, 12:43 pm
Interesting and very good news. Now if we could just convert those addicted to consumerism and "keeping up with the Jones".

JL A (281)
Monday May 27, 2013, 12:47 pm
In terms of rejecting the car or license--the limits of use under restrictive laws/less freedom and the parents having to pay insurance for them the minute they get a license in some states (all resident drivers counted) are factors contributing to the downward data trend. Would like a less informal, broader study on this subject. But I agree Kit--reject companies whose values are not our own in terms of human rights and stewardship of this earth and refuse to buy what they sell. More selective buying is also good self-protection given the economic realities of recent years.

Elle B (84)
Monday May 27, 2013, 1:40 pm
Ty Kit. . .so's all just fear and illusions and addictions to products of fear and illusion. . .get off it and nature will assist so fast we will be busy just trying to keep up with the assists. . .

My grandparents taught me this in the 1950's. Grandma said stay away from processed it's all a bunch of baloney. Grandpa said research each and every purchase. . .know what it's made out of, who made it and where it comes from. It's more difficult now because corpo thugs control the large markets and have upped there bully activity to monitor and strong arm successful small businesses out. But it can still be done...better late than never and we should have the decency to give our best and at least die trying. . .

“These temple destroyers, devotees of ravaging commercialism, seem to have a perfect contempt for Nature, and, instead of lifting their eyes to the God of the mountains, lift them to the Almighty Dollar.” ― John Muir

“Keep trying to do what is necessary, then what's possible and suddenly you're doing the impossible.” ― St. Francis of Assisi [1181 – 1226]


Kit B (276)
Monday May 27, 2013, 1:50 pm

To buy or make at home, that once was decision we made about almost every product. Some time back we stopped thinking and began buying.

I'm not so sure many are still trying to keep up with neighbors, but I have read enough to realize that most are just trying to pay the monthly bills.

Roseann d (178)
Monday May 27, 2013, 3:14 pm
Personally, I like getting rid of stuff. It's like shedding a skin. Refreshing, so much lighter. I hate moving crap. That's when I always ask, Do I really need this? WIse to start asking that in the stores too.

Theodore Shayne (56)
Monday May 27, 2013, 4:32 pm

JL A (281)
Monday May 27, 2013, 6:56 pm
You cannot currently send a star to Kit because you have done so within the last day.

Angelika R (143)
Monday May 27, 2013, 7:10 pm
I assume more coming sequester pains might take care of consumerism in some ways. Interesting, at the same time a new book came to market here titled"Buying for the dump", pretty much addressing the same topic and problems. Personally, I have no issue with that as I am a notoric anti-consumer, certainly not representative for the majority. And fortunately, I did not grow up in capitalism. Thx Kit, good article!

lee e (114)
Monday May 27, 2013, 8:04 pm
I'm with Angelika all the way - of course who knows what I'd be like if I had some money :) Just kidding - I've never been such a consumer, and would "grow things in garden" but alas it takes a rather ample sum of money to grow things on a terrace in NYC without sun. As for the biking issue - I'd be scared biking in the city - that too demands a great deal of investment in the bike, helmet and glow things, and even at that - friends of mine have been mangled in accidents, besides Bloomberg is trying to cash in on this idea by commercializing the biking in the city with "rent-a-bikes" for different fees per amounts of time - another money making scheme by the profiteers - he's made all of these 'bike paths" in the city narrowing roads and making pedestrians fear being hit not only by cars, but now by bikes -- ugh! - I'll have to resign myself to a lot of processed foods and pubic transportation. That's just me - it would help if I weren't retired, old and disabled!

Lydia S (155)
Monday May 27, 2013, 9:58 pm
Truly a case for ' less is more ' It's refreshing to read the next generation is realizing and living it so young
I remember the endless tupperware things my Mother & her peers had to have in the 1970's and the food
store plate of the week to collect and fast food glasses ect .
I do feel going to certain stores store tempt me to buy , Not food stores , other stores I seldom go to I hate to
shop but when I'm there I'm tempted to buy . But usually come to and don't !
Thanks for good post .

Lynn D (0)
Monday May 27, 2013, 11:50 pm

Past Member (0)
Tuesday May 28, 2013, 1:17 am
Thank you.

Sherri G (128)
Tuesday May 28, 2013, 1:30 am
I hope corporations have shot themselves in the foot by cutting the pay of US workers, getting rid of the middle class, deleting and/or reducing health benefits, and sending jobs to China. Net results the consumer class is dwindling from insufficient money and jobs and can't afford consumerism. If the trend causes millennials to be more critical of where they put their money the better for the planet, animals, millennials, and future generations. Thanks for sharing Kit noted.

Judy C (97)
Tuesday May 28, 2013, 1:37 am
It's good to hear of this trend toward reduced consumption among this young age group. It isn't novel to me, or to my kids, though. My parents were modest in their lifestyle, and it's been passed along in my family. My Dad used to say, "If you can't afford it today, what would make you think you can pay for it tomorrow, plus interest? So he didn't buy anything on credit except the house. He had a high-paying factory job, so we were comfortable, but not lavish. My Mom stayed at home with us kids, as I did with mine. We had less money for stuff, but we didn't care. I taught my kids to be resistant toward advertising, as my Mom did with us. We can be happy without luxuries. If we ever splurged, it was on music or musical instruments.

Gloria p (304)
Tuesday May 28, 2013, 1:48 am
As much as I agree with the article I have to laugh because I had a dream I was hanging out with Paris Hilton last night. She's very nice.

Barbara Tomlinson (431)
Tuesday May 28, 2013, 2:22 am
The Social Network we are on right now, Care2, with Millions of members - it, and we, have done and are doing OUR share, to promote Environmental Awareness which is the antithesis of Consumerism!
Yes, we have made it "all right" to NOT consume mindlessly! ALL the Social Awareness methods, are starting, just starting, to make themselves felt.

paul m (93)
Tuesday May 28, 2013, 3:37 am


Craig Pittman (52)
Tuesday May 28, 2013, 5:55 am
This trend away from Consumerism is heartening indeed. More and more young people are buying/building "Tiny Homes" as a way of owning a home without a mortgage. We purchase most of what we need at re-use stores and this is very popular here as is ride share. We don't have to play the Corporate game and pay endless interest on loans and credit card balances. So many folks now work in jobs that pay non-living wages or don't have jobs at all because of outsourcing. It appears Corporations may have shot themselves in the ass.
Good! Thanks very much for the article Kit.

Nancy M (197)
Tuesday May 28, 2013, 7:52 am
Great article Kit. Thanks.

Indeed, many lessons to learn here though some I had already learned. Now if only my husband would listen!

Kit B (276)
Tuesday May 28, 2013, 8:29 am

Do you remember your mothers washing aluminum foil to reuse? I do. That and using the clothes line and not a dryer, being cautious about how much water was used. Without knowing it our parents and their parents began the reuse, repair and recycle revolution long before it became popular. I still question every purchase and feel somehow cheated that so many things that we buy seem to have a built in termination date.

We are the consumers and we can take charge by not being so free and easy with our money.

Barbara Tomlinson (431)
Tuesday May 28, 2013, 9:30 am
Corporations have outsourced EVERYthing, even their Customers. Corporations are INTERNATIONAL and, in spite of their advertising, have NO PATRIOTISM OR INTEREST IN ANY ONE PARTICULAR COUNTRY.

Corporations are presently going after the "Rising Middle Classes" in places like India, China, Korea, the Arab World, etc. {Yes, China is no longer "Communist" in anything but NAME... and the "Arab World" is not just a source of getting us all paranoid about "terrorists", but is ALSO the target for the Brand Names and Upscale Consumer Goods we are familiar with! Think places like Saudi Arabia and Dubai... }
The JOBS, including white-collar jobs on Computers, are being outsourced there, where their new Customers also are, Customers who were formerly perhaps from poor or rural families; therefore they need "everything" and are very susceptible to Status Symbols such as inflated Brand Names for goods.
Meanwhile the world's Poor are being exploited WORSE THAN EVER, and the world's Resources are RELENTLESSLY EXPLOITED AND USED UP.

This at least is giving US the "space" and the ideas we need, to live in a POST-CAPITALIST WORLD of our OWN choice and making!
Corporations could just dump and ignore us, as they have dumped American cities and American industries... it's all happening, all the wars over resources and the sweatshops, just out of most peoples' sight...

Jo S (619)
Tuesday May 28, 2013, 10:06 am
I'm glad to know we still have the power, I utilize it often to protest companies I don't agree with. I wish more people did. I guess the young are learning early, Bravo for them!
Thanks Kit.
Noted & shared

M B (62)
Tuesday May 28, 2013, 1:53 pm
Thanks for the post, Kit. I'm quite resistant when it comes to adverts; I reuse as well and I buy my clothes at the recycling-shop, just like my furniture. When I see : 3.99, I count 4.00 and not "3:00". Once I counted in a supermaket, and the staff heard me and said "you're very well trained "!! That says enough.
Another thing : we're trained to use hair shampoo: let me tell you this, you don't need it at all. First the hair gets greasy, but that's only because we're conditioned to use shampoo, but after a some time, when you use water only, your hair gets healthy again and no more greasy ! My hair is long and in a perfect state, and I never use hair shampoo, again.

Birgit W (160)
Tuesday May 28, 2013, 2:14 pm
It creates fierce competitive pressure to have more and newer "stuff."?
Well it is up to us what we do with all the brainwashing. Don't we all have a brain to make our own decisions?

Bryna Pizzo (139)
Tuesday May 28, 2013, 3:14 pm
Thank you for the post! There is hope for the future. (n, p, t)

Past Member (0)
Tuesday May 28, 2013, 3:26 pm
Great article Kit! After noting and sharing, I'm sending a galaxy of stars your way!

Past Member (0)
Tuesday May 28, 2013, 4:00 pm
Thanks for a great article, Kit.

Past Member (0)
Tuesday May 28, 2013, 4:07 pm
I see that Care2 is functioning as erratic as ever. First comment only appears after the second is posted. But then what the hell....Kit, I can't thank you enough!

Pat B (356)
Tuesday May 28, 2013, 4:26 pm
Thank you, Kit for this. Enjoyed reading the comments. BTW...I still re-use foil, and also wash and re-use paper plates, and collect rain water for my plants out back. Every little bit helps.

Barbara Tomlinson (431)
Tuesday May 28, 2013, 6:25 pm
When I use a paper plate for a sandwich, cookie, etc., it doesn't even need to be washed - just brush, blow or shake the crumbs off and use it again! and again...
I read a book that suggested using "one bowl" for all your eating - from soup to dessert, just one bowl, without washing - then when you're done, drink some hot tea from that same bowl, swirling it around to get all the residue off. {As my Mom used to say, "It all mixes together in your stomach anyway!"}
Think that's a great idea, if I'm cooking two things I use the same pot {with plenty of water} without washing it in between times. First thing lends flavor to the second thing...
Think we make to much of a fetish of washing with tons of water & detergent, etc. Of course I live alone so I can get away with this...

Lydia S (155)
Tuesday May 28, 2013, 8:11 pm
We washed foil too Kit , I still do generic heavy duty washes up fine I actually have not had plastic wrap in over
20 years , its not reusable ,hard to work with and a waste !
I am very big on repurposing what we have and keeping what do use , I wearing a shirt from 1995 still good enough for pajama shirt a little tired looking but no rips or stains .

Robert Hardy (68)
Tuesday May 28, 2013, 9:41 pm
Just isn't going to happen. We may win a few battles but we have already lost the war.

Past Member (0)
Tuesday May 28, 2013, 11:16 pm
And you know Robert, with that approach, I can almost guarantee it.

reft h (66)
Tuesday May 28, 2013, 11:47 pm
thanks for a good article

Robyn Vorsa (4)
Wednesday May 29, 2013, 7:01 pm
I work in a huge department store and I have seen people come in and buy, buy, buy even though they have maxed their credit cards out. For some reason it's an addiction. A close friend of mine lives way beyond her means, buys the most expensive crap and can't stop talking about it.
Me, I don't really care about shopping or buying things anymore. I love going to op shops to give old things a new lease of life but I don't care about new shiny things.
The trouble is, people, particularly kids are constantly being targeted by the media and huge mega corporations. Don't even get me started on Abacrombrie and Fitch.
Hope this generation can break the cycle and live consumer free

marie C (163)
Thursday May 30, 2013, 6:23 am
Yet another great article thank you Kit

Aaron Bouchard (158)
Thursday May 30, 2013, 7:42 am
Noted thanks

Kit B (276)
Thursday May 30, 2013, 9:31 am

Like Robyn said it is a compulsion and many people report feeling better when they make a frivolous purchase, like a rush of adrenalin. Maybe it's just my age, but when I use my credit card, I deduct that amount from my checking balance. That way I know I will have the money to the card balance each month.

Patricia R (13)
Thursday May 30, 2013, 10:35 am

Past Member (0)
Monday June 3, 2013, 7:09 am
love it
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