Is Consumerism Dead?

It is very important to carefully parse the headline of this recent article in Alternet.

Consumerism" Is Dead -- Can Obama Lead Us to a Downscaled Lifestyle?

Anyone that follows my book’s theses, would think I would be jumping for joy since I see consumerism as resting at the base of the present state of unsustainability. Here’s the gist of the column.

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Among the questions that disturb the sleep of many casual observers is how come Mr. O doesn't get that the conventional process of economic growth -- based, as it was, on industrial expansion via revolving credit in a cheap-energy-resource era -- is over, and why does he keep invoking it at the podium? Dear Mr. President, you are presiding over an epochal contraction, not a pause in the growth epic. Your assignment is to manage that contraction in a way that does not lead to world war, civil disorder or both. Among other things, contraction means that all the activities of everyday life need to be downscaled including standards of living, ranges of commerce, and levels of governance. "Consumerism" is dead. Revolving credit is dead -- at least at the scale that became normal the last thirty years. The wealth of several future generations has already been spent and there is no equity left there to re-finance.

I believe that this headline and comments in the text I quoted are confused and misleading. Consumerism is very much alive and kicking. What has taken a perhaps mortal blow is an economy that is based on ever-continuing growth. The impossibility of such an economic foundation grows starker with every passing day.

The inherent instability of the economic system--the bubble metaphor is most appropriate--is tied to consumption, that is, the economic measure of economic output. It would be more accurate to ask whether consumptionism is dead. This questions the underlying model that is used by policy makers and financial managers to adjust the conditions under which markets function.

This is a very different "ism" than consumerism although the two strongly interact. Consumerism is a cultural attribute of people living in modern, technological societies. It is a belief that everything valuable in life can be acquired and possessed. Erich Fromm calls this the “having" mode of life. It is inauthentic and leaves one unsatisfied and unfulfilled. The response to this condition is, not surprisingly, more consumption. The pattern is a nearly perfect exemplar of addiction.

The alternative to consumerism or having is “being.” Being is a mode of living where relationships become more important than things. One’s identity becomes formed by acts of caring rather than by some measure of material wealth.

It is no coincidence that this question is being asked frequently these days. The assumption of many is that the financial collapse will force changes in consumptive behavior and that will become embedded as a permanent cultural attribute.

Grant McCracken writes:

The question is whether we might habituate to a lower level of spending. I think this can only happen if some of the deeper cultural drivers of the consumer culture fall silent. These would include competitive spending. (This is largely dead among some Millenials.) It would also include the wish to stay in fashion or in touch with the curve. (Here too some young consumers are turning their backs on fashion, especially the branded, mainstream variety.) There are positive forces: the wish to go green, to "save the planet," this has been the great staple of elementary school education and it is now on the verge of being installed in our culture as orthodoxy. (This is no doubt as it should be.) This is where we really have to do our anthropology: what are the cultural drivers that might intervene here and lock consumption habits into place.

I agree that this question is timely and offer a critique in Sustainability by Design of the present consumerist culture, and discuss the kind of cultural values and beliefs that have to change before real change in consumer behavior will show up. They are much deeper than competitive spending or fashion-seeking. These only describes the apparent cause but fail to ask why people feel the need for competitive spending and so on. Too much here for the blog. You will have to read the book.

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