Commentary

Our Consumerist Culture

In the past decade or so, the terms “supersize,” “McMansion” and “SUV” have penetrated our language and in some cases, dictionaries. While their exact definitions differ, the very ideas that they represent are sadly what our society has become addicted to. Even though we may have a president, consumption has become our King. In a place where more is simply never enough, our culture has morphed into an insatiable monster with quixotic dreams. So if consumption were our King, quantity would most certainly be our Queen. Over the past years, the once quaint idea of focusing on one’s quality of life has evaporated from our culture; what fresh, little drops of it that are left are few and far between. The emphasis of quantity, with a paramount focus on possessions, has come to dominate our lives and, unfortunately, is here to stay. As the concept of an adequate income becomes an intangible aspiration, the necessary spending patterns essential to securing one’s social identity are growing increasingly more unsustainable. By nature of competitive comparisons, people always equate themselves with someone they believe is better, further ahead or faster. Consequentially, when people compare their earnings to that of others, it becomes impossible to determine a sufficient income. To delve even deeper into this matter, one should examine exactly who these “others” are. Are they the artificial personalities we know as celebrities? How about the people down the street who seem to own two of everything you have? While both parties may address different audiences, in actuality they represent the same idea. What is important to note about these two examples is that the major players or participants are as far from reality as possible. Television, the Internet, tabloids and magazines, and the like, not only strive to illustrate the so desired luxury and lifestyles of the wealthy, but are built on the very foundation of those ideas. With a once booming economy propped up by various bubbles, these very luxuries and lifestyles have been attainable. Loans, home equity, credit cards and the ability to mortgage the future have all been readily available to the average American and in most cases, taken advantage of. By dictating how we should behave, consumption is now one of the greatest factors in determining our identities, often times outweighing other heavy players such as race and ethnicity. We have lived in a time where the risk takers appear to be winning, but whereas their race is soon ending, another has just begun. Doom and gloom have proliferated throughout newspaper headlines; the collapse of the housing market, the falling dollar, rising oil prices, layoffs, flailing companies, increasing grain prices and most recently, Bear Stearns’ ominous end. These events have not only highlighted our suffering economy, but have also provided good examples, in most cases, of the consequences of unchecked risks. President Bush, however, has taken the initiative to ensure that the economy will be “stronger than ever before” once, according to him, people spend their rebate checks. While visiting a small business in Virginia, he said, “I’m confident in the long term we’ll come out stronger than ever before. One of the most decisive actions a government can take is to give people their money back so they can spend it, and that’s exactly what we’ve done.” So, rather than concentrating on our economy’s future, the Bush administration has gone for the quick fix method. Consequently, it is believed that our culture’s dependency on consumerism will not only be able to heal the economy, but sustain it as well. If we do not begin to alter, or even discuss, our spending patterns, the economy, society, and most importantly, our own personal happiness, will suffer. For example, if nothing is changed, attempts to redefine how we perceive income as an adequate or acceptable amount will be self-defeating. As a result, some are looking for a way out of the vicious consumer driven cycle we have fallen into and have found an answer in what has been coined a “green bubble.” Combined with conservation efforts, energy efficiency measures, through green technologies and buildings, for example, will be able to lift our economy up. Under these ideas, jobs will be created, small businesses will be revived and investors will see returns. On the other hand, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan has proposed a consumption tax that he feels could help the economy. By enforcing a national retail sales tax, goods would be taxed at each stage of manufacture, distribution and ultimate purchase. With this method, prices will accurately demonstrate the energy it takes to make them. While these methods or predications may not be proven useful or accurate, the underlying theme of acknowledging and reducing consumption is prevalent. Although building a third home and making it “green” will make less of an impact on the environment, think of how much impact on the environment an open field would have; green or not it is still unnecessary consumption. It may seem daunting to try and save moral values, the economy and the environment all at once, but it can be done. Unnecessary consumption can be resolved and less really can be more. Celia Lewis is a two-year Lower. clewis1@andover.edu