Consumerism undoubtedly brings greater physical comfort, convenience and variety to those who can afford it, which in this country is, by and large, the majority . And whilst our advertising-soaked culture makes it difficult for anyone to reject consumerism, it's foolish to claim that it has been forced on people. If anything, people seem to love consumerism. They actively choose to embrace it.
But... consumerism doesn't inevitably bring happiness, fulfilment, or quality of life (as opposed to a high standard of living). People express nagging doubts about it, hinting that life in a consumer society is somehow alienating, unsatisfying and shallow. It isn't just empty nostalgia that makes us envy some of the qualities we see in our less commercialised past, or in other less commercialised cultures. We see more integrated communities, a greater sense of belonging through work and neighbourhood. . it's a powerful image, that of children once being able to play in the street. And we suspect that pursuing consumerism has taken these things away from us - that we have collectively traded them in for material advantage.
But let's look closer at the simple example of wanting to buy some wood and nails What does the ideal consumerist vision of this everyday activity have to offer us?
Well. . . you get into a car that you haven't finished paying for yet and drive out of town very slowly because everyone else is doing the same and park in a huge concrete carpark (that used to be a real park) and enter an anonymous aircraft-hangar-style super clean warehouse with piped music and bored-looking security "personnel", to choose from a selection of overpriced PVC-wrapped this-size-only- identical-from-Land's-End-to-John-O'Groats-pre-cut sheets of wood, grab a packet of nails in a Houdini-proof plastic box from a 60 foot long neon-lit display rack, pay for them by handing over your (membership has its privileges) American Express card to a spotty 17-year old trapped behind a video-monitored check-out booth who hates the place as much as you do, and then drive home (slowly. .) wondering why you feel like you've spoken to no one in the last two hours, and worrying about the environmental consequences of all that packaging and shrinkwrap. . .
that Americans drove in 1969
were on shopping trips,
including food shopping, by
1983 the figure was 13%. The
neighbourhood green grocers,
bakeries and butcher shops
that still predominate in much
of the world disappeared years
ago in the United States. Now
the supermarkets that
replaced them are giving way
to so-called hypermarkets."
Alan Thein Durning, How much
is enough? (Earthscan 1992)
And what could the naive, woolly-minded, anti-progress alternative possibly be?
Well... you put your shoes on and walk to the small local cram-it-all-in DIY shop, you have to (Oh no! How will you bear it?) queue for a bit and then get served by someone who more or less likes what they're doing and gets a bit of satisfaction from it and who actually talks to you, and will cut you a bit of wood to just about the right size, yor nails get served to you from a tatty old cardboard box and wrapped in a bit of old newspaper, there's sawdust on the floor, and the whole place has at least got a bit of atmosphere about it - you can even smell the wood for God's sake - and alright, the person who runs the place can be a bit patronising but hey, at least life is colourful and has a bit of variety to it and bingo! you go home feeling more or less happy.
OK - maybe it's just me? Maybe I've got a thing about little DIY stores. But its not the only example. . .
Consumerism wants to put an end to these alternatives. It thrives on big shopping malls, on insecurity and alienation. It takes away our personal contact with people and then tries to comfort us with useless trinkets.
So in order to afford these useless trinkets, we end up working harder in jobs we don 't like, making or selling things no one really needs. But we don't have to go down this line. It's not the only way to create jobs, nor is it the only way to meet our commercial and physical needs.
The standard knee-jerk response to anticonsumerism is to see it as having less, to see it as a sacrifice, automatically meaning a drop in our quality of life.
But 'lowering' our material standard of living, moving away from a culture dominated by always wanting more, does not inevitably mean lowering our quality of life: it may even improve it. Quality of life is not an inevitable result of a high income, and a lower income does not invariably result in a feeling of 'having less'. These things are relative, once our basic needs have been met. If as one lone individual we try and consume a fairer share of the world's resources, and no one else does, we are bound to feel ill-at-ease. Our children certainly will. But it's important to distinguish between the feeling that a comparative lack of wealth brings, and the actual level of income we have. And in turn to carefully distinguish between consumerist trappings, and those products and innovations that really do improve life, or health, or communication. These things can still be available in a culture that has turned its back on the excesses of consumerism. It's a simplistic myth to say you cannot have one without the other.
But above all, if we choose to continue consuming more than our share of the world's resources, we are placing ourselves in danger. Those who are left without are unlikely to passively tolerate the situation. Conflicts will arise, producing a more policed, more governed, more insecure world. Some argue that this has already begun, and yet few commentators point to correcting these disparities as a solution.
"BLAHTM is the latest in identity clothing. Make a startement. Everyone else does. You don't want to be ODD or STRANGE or (insert latest media buzz word for not being up to date - Ed. ) do you? Everyone is going to laugh at you if you don't wear one of these. "
Bullshit. Fashion is not the same as style. You don't have to wear what's dangled in front of you in every magazine in order to avoid looking like a train spotter. And if your friends don't like you because of it then they weren't worth having in the first place .
"Your clothes can be whiter than white with new BLAHTM... with active BLAH BLAHTM to tackle even the really tough stains that other powders leave behind!"
Sod whiter than white. Go for more or less white instead. You don't seriously think anyone's really going to notice or care, do you? Seriously? I mean people don't look you over with a magnifying glass, do they? If they do then there's something distinctly odd about them, don't you think?
"BLAHTM. It wipes out the germs you can see - and the ones you can 't . . . the ones lurking on every worksurface, waiting to put you and your family in hospital."
Our bodies are chock full of germs already... ask any biologist. So just give things a wipe every now and then, try not to eat out of the dustbin, and you'll be OK. . . honest. And then you'll have more time to put your feet up.
"The Tecno PX BLAHTM with four phase ultramix sound separation: stores up to 20 CDs at a time"
Get up, walk over to the stereo and change the music yourself. You could probably do with the exercise. Keep your old stereo. If the music is good, a 2% improvement isn't going to make that much difference, is it? Not #399 worth of difference surely?
"New BLAHTM. . . it's not a chocolate, it's more a way of life. BLAHTM - for the taste of heaven... "
Forget it. Chocolate is just chocolate. So what if there's only 100 different kinds to choose from, and not 200? You can still have a meaningful life...?
"My hair's never felt shinier or more atractive with new BLAHTM. . . Try it and see what happens to you tonight. . . ."
Why not try getting people to like you because you've got a great personality? If you haven't got a great personality, no amount of shiny, more attractive hair is going to make up for it. Sorry.
"When I was attending the School of Advertising and Propaganda, I was confronted with a great contradiction: the media deals with techniques of manipulating human beings so they consume goods in an alienated way, without any reflection about this unrestrained consumption. Since then I have been thinking about ways of using advertising to fight against this situation (Letter from Marcelus William James, Brazil)
consumer class is bombarded
with 3000 advertising messages
(Business Week 23/9/93)
American vlewers watch 3.5 million years of TV commercials per year. (Earth Island Journal)
TV commercials: UK 9 mins/hour, US 19 mins/ hour (Adbusters Summer 1993)
At the height of the Ethiopian famine in 1984 to 1985, Britain Imported #15 million worth of linseed cake, cotton seed-cake and rape seed meal. Although none of this was fit for humans to eat, it still meant that good quality farm land was being used to grow animal feed for rich countries when it could have been used to grow food for Ethiopians. (Vegetarian Society)
An area of land the size of five football pitches (10 hectares) will grow enough: meat to feed 2 people OR maize to feed 10 people OR grain to feed 24 people OR soya to feed 61 people. (Vegetarian Society)
the Third World], either we would
not get coffee at all, or we would
be able to buy less of it only at
very high prices. We can have it
in abundance only because large
areas of Third World land which
should be growing food for local
people are growing coffee to
export to us."
Ted Trainer, Developed to death
(Green Print 1989)
The Breadline Britain survey of 1983 found that 66% of Britons regarded a washing machine as a necessity, and 43% felt the same way about a telephone: by 1990 the figures were 92% and 57% respectively. As time goes on, it seems that people in consumer societies need more and more things.