From consumer to citizen

(Text of a talk given at Case Western Reserve University’s Share the Vision program in Severance Hall on Friday, August 20, 2010 1:00 pm. This program is to welcome all incoming first year students. My comments centered on the common reading book selection Bottlemania by Elizabeth Royte.)

As those of you near the front rows can see from my grey hair, I am roughly the same age as your parents, which means that I am a member of the infamous group that, like locusts, exploded upon the world and consumed everything in sight. I am speaking of course of the baby boomer generation.

As you would thus know and are probably sick of already, baby boomers love to talk about themselves and the wonderful things that their generation achieved. And a lot of good things really did happen during the time that we grew up and started running things. We had great advances in science and medicine, sent people to the moon, advanced civil rights, obtained greater equality for women, and fought for equal rights for gays and lesbians. We also invented the personal computer, the internet, and the ubiquitous cell phone, things we cannot imagine being without today.

But while we did many good things, we also are responsible for one major bad thing and that is that we well and truly trashed the planet. We baby boomers have been like children who have inherited a fortune in the Earth’s resources and have busted it on one long big party. And that is something so bad that not even our greatest contribution to humanity (the invention of rock and roll) will excuse.

The people of my generation have not been good custodians of the resources of the planet. We have been so wasteful that we risk leaving future generations resource poor. And we are leaving it to you, the next generation, to clean up our mess. If you are not angry about that, you should be. But at the same time I am hopeful that you will channel that anger into finding real solutions to the major problems of energy use, water, and food sufficiency for everyone, and to the careful use of resources in the future.

How did the present state of self-absorption come about? I think the crucial change occurred when at some point along the way, we were persuaded to think of ourselves not as citizens but as consumers. Everywhere in the media today people are referred to as consumers. The word citizen is now used only in a narrow sense, when people are talking about immigration and the like. But the word citizen is much more meaningful than that. When we think of ourselves as citizens, it carries with it a sense of community, a sense of social responsibility, a concern for people other than ourselves.

Consumers, on the other hand, are people who merely consume, who think only of themselves. As a result of this change in self-perception, we started to think that we were entitled to have all our wants gratified, and we started consuming the Earth’s riches at a rapid pace, at the same time creating enormous amounts of waste products. It bred what the book calls ‘hyperindividualism’, that “lets those can afford to opt out – whether from public schools, mass transit, or tap water – to further isolate themselves, in style.” (p. 45)

While this perception of ourselves as consumers has resulted in high standards of living for the elites in the world, it has also resulted in wasteful excess. I am referring now to the kind of lifestyle that drives people to buy things that are not based on any actual need but instead from the impulse to flaunt wealth and consumption, to let others know how ‘successful’ we are. We have a culture that sees consumption for its own sake as something desirable, where people feel the need to buy new stuff they don’t need even before the old stuff they also didn’t need is completely used up, and where waste is endemic.

This is a disease that afflicts not only the affluent. Since the media celebrates those living lavish lifestyles, the middle classes also seek to emulate the very rich by living like them. The global reach of the media creates similar desires in the affluent classes of the second and third worlds, who also live high consumption lifestyles, which creates similar pressures on their middle classes, and so on. The resulting mindless consumption is like a virus that has spread all over the world. The bottled water craze is a symptom of this collective madness, giving everyone the chance to emulate the wastefulness of the rich. Bottled water first became a status symbol and now is seen as a necessity, when it should be neither.

The absolute low point in this consumer mentality occurred right after 9/11 when the president said that the best thing that people could do was to go out and shop. Imagine that. Nearly three thousand people killed in an act of mass murder, and the president’s concern was that it might deter us from shopping and consumption.

Right now, as a result of the recession that has thrown many people out of work or fearful of becoming unemployed, people are being more frugal, living simpler, less consuming lives out of necessity. Amazingly, I hear commentators in the media actually worrying about this, fearing that during this period, people might discover that a simple life is actually enjoyable and that they might not start consuming wildly again when things get better. Oh, the horror!

How did it happen that being an addicted consumer, wasting money and resources on things we don’t need, is the new standard of good behavior? How have we let ourselves be duped into thinking that being a consumer is better than being a citizen?

Not all consumption is bad, of course. Some increase in global consumption is inevitable and even desirable because it means that more people are able to live better lives. No one would doubt the benefits of increased availability of drinking water and food, more widespread availability of indoor plumbing and electricity, and the construction of homes that are better able to withstand the elements. All these things enable those people who are currently living in poverty and squalor and susceptible to disease to live better and healthier lives. Increases in consumption to achieve these ends are clearly desirable.

But we have to come to terms with the consequences of the fact that the Earth’s resources are finite. Once we use them, they are degraded and we have no means of getting them back to the original state however conscientiously we recycle. Hence higher levels of basic consumption by the poor of the world have to be balanced by less wasteful and unnecessary consumption by the affluent. But that kind of thinking will occur only to people who think of themselves as citizens, not as consumers, who see themselves as responsible for others, not just for themselves.

The one hopeful sign that I see is that the next generation, people like you, is far more conscious of the need to conserve resources than ours was, and more likely to be good stewards of the planet. But to be really effective at changing course, you will need the most sophisticated tools at your disposal and that is where your next four years are crucial. During this period of your education you will have access to the finest teachers and scholars, incredible knowledge resources in the library, and most importantly, like-minded, smart, and concerned fellow students. You should take maximum advantage of this opportunity to equip yourself to overcome the challenges you will undoubtedly face in your lifetime.

Whatever subjects you choose to study, remember that your ultimate goal is to learn how to be a good citizen and not a mere consumer. In fact, the future of the planet depends upon it.

POST SCRIPT: The Hollies

Talking about rock and roll, I love this song Stop, Stop, Stop, especially the banjo playing.

And one great Hollies song deserves another, this time it’s Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress.