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The evil of the consumer economy

(Due to the holiday, I am reposting something from last year, updated and edited.)

Each year, the Thanksgiving holiday is ruined by the revolting attention that the media pays to the retail industry in the days immediately following Thanksgiving. They wallow in stories of sales, of early-bird shoppers on Friday lining up in the cold at 4:00am to get bargains, fighting with other shoppers to grab sale items, people getting trampled in the crush, the long lines at cash registers, the year’s “hot” gift items, and the breathless reports of how much was spent and what it predicts for the future of the economy. The media eggs on this process by giving enormous amounts of coverage to people going shopping, a non-news event if there ever was one, adding cute names like “Black Friday” and more recently “Cyber Monday.”

Frankly, I find this obsessive focus on consumption disgusting. In fact, I would gladly skip directly from Thanksgiving to Christmas, because the intervening period seems to me to be just one long orgy of consumerism in which spending money is the goal. The whole point of the Christmas holiday seems to have become one in which people are made to feel guilty if they are not spending vast amounts of time and money in finding gifts for others. There is an air of forced jollity that is jarring, quite in contrast to the genuine warmth of Thanksgiving. And it just seems to stress people out.

Since I grew up in a country where people were encouraged to be frugal, often out of necessity, I still find it disquieting to be urged to spend as if it were somehow my duty to go broke in order to shore up the retail industry and help “grow the economy.” I still don’t understand that concept. An economy that is based on people buying what they do not need or can even afford seems to me to be inherently unsustainable, if not downright morally offensive.

One of the few silver linings in the bleak outlook caused by the current financial crisis is that people are likely to cut back on their purchases. I know that this is supposedly ‘bad’ for the economy but perhaps we need to change the basis of our economy, to one in which services, rather than goods, are the drivers. For example, we should be more willing to pay people to repair things rather than throw them away and buy replacements.

There is a curious schizophrenic attitude one finds in the media to this consumption. On the one hand people bemoan the fact that the savings rate in the US is so low that the country has to borrow from overseas to meet its investment needs, that individual Americans are not saving enough for retirement, that they are living beyond their means because of easy access to credit, and that personal bankruptcies are on the rise. The current sub-prime mortgage debacle has been caused by people being urged to pay more for houses than they could afford, and now many face foreclosure and homelessness.

On the other hand, the media gleefully cheerleads when it is reported that people are going shopping, since this is supposed to be a ‘consumer economy’, and the stock market goes up when retail sales are high.

I don’t get it. Apart from the fact that buying stuff other than to meet a direct need is simply wasteful, surely people must realize that we live in a world of finite resources, not just of fossilized energy but of minerals and other raw materials and even fresh water? Surely we should be cutting back on consumption so that we can leave something for future generations?

We are using up resources like there is no tomorrow and I am amazed that people don’t see the disastrous consequences of this. It is not even a long-term issue since the resources crunch will start to manifest itself in around thirty years or so. I know that the ‘end-timers’, the rapturists and the like who think that the world is on the verge of coming to an end see this problem (and that of global warming) as nothing to worry about since Jesus will return very soon. But what about the others? Is it that religious people think that since we are special in the eyes of god, he will somehow pull a miracle out of his hat and save us from our profligate selves?

To me the long-term problem faced by the Earth having finite resources is so obvious that I am amazed that we are not doing anything drastic about it. Here is a suggestion to start. We begin by boycotting Black Friday, staying at home and enjoying a quiet day. We should also decide that we will only buy Christmas gifts for children under twelve years of age, and then too just a few simple things, rather than the expensive “must have” items that advertisers thrust on us. We must force a shift from a consumer economy to a sustainable economy

And we use the holidays mainly to spend time with people, enjoying the old-fashioned pleasures of socializing.

POST SCRIPT: Ball jointed dolls

Speaking of consumption, NPR a few months ago had an extraordinary story about a new fad that is sweeping the country: ball-jointed dolls.

These are very expensive, customizable dolls for which people pay hundreds of dollars and then thousands more for outfits and even physical parts. The owners, mostly middle-aged women, dress their dolls up, make up stories and lives for them, and take them to BJD conventions where they compare their own “children” with others.

People spend hundreds, even thousands, of dollars buying just one BJD sight unseen off the Internet. At the convention, BJD owners shelled out hundreds of dollars for mind-blowingly beautiful Armani-esque wool-lined coats, black wraparound pocket dresses and garnet jewelry for their dolls.

For BJD fans, the dolls are worth the expense. When Jennifer Kohn Murtha starts talking about her doll Kimora, it sound like she is talking about a child:

“I have one 15-year-old girl who is my love,” she says. “I have ordered for her a boyfriend who is a boxer and a physicist who will take good care of her. I’ve also ordered a vampire for her … I couldn’t resist.”

Comments

  1. says

    Ok, I agree on this black Friday frenzy. Now that people are getting trampled to death (I cannot figure out why a human would walk over someone on the floor – this is dispicable) it should bring some sort of sanity, but it does not.
    I think black Friday will wilter away as now some retailers are opening on Thanksgiving Day to get a jump.
    You are right, we dont need more stuff from China.

  2. says

    This black Friday has always been horrible for retailers. I didn’t know that some are now opened on Thanksgiving Day. It will be interesting to see if this strategy has any impact on their sales.

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