PRIVATE CARS WERE RELATIVELY SCARCE in 1919 and horse-drawn conveyances were still common. In residential districts, electric streetlights had not yet replaced many of the old gaslights. And within the home, electricity remained largely a luxury item for the wealthy.
Just ten years later things looked very different. Cars dominated the streets and most urban homes had electric lights, electric flat irons, and vacuum cleaners. In upper-middle-class houses, washing machines, refrigerators, toasters, curling irons, percolators, heating pads, and popcorn poppers were becoming commonplace. And although the first commercial radio station didn’t begin broadcasting until 1920, the American public, with an adult population of about 122 million people, bought 4,438,000 radios in the year 1929 alone.
But despite the apparent tidal wave of new consumer goods and what appeared to be a healthy appetite for their consumption among the well-to-do, industrialists were worried. They feared that the frugal habits maintained by most American families would be difficult to break. Perhaps even more threatening was the fact that the industrial capacity for turning out goods seemed to be increasing at a pace greater than people’s sense that they needed them.
It was this latter concern that led Charles Kettering, director of General Motors Research, to write a 1929 magazine article called “Keep the Consumer Dissatisfied.” He wasn’t suggesting that manufacturers produce shoddy products. Along with many of his corporate cohorts, he was defining a strategic shift for American industry — from fulfilling basic human needs to creating new ones.
In a 1927 interview with the magazine Nation’s Business, Secretary of Labor James J. Davis provided some numbers to illustrate a problem that the New York Times called “need saturation.” Davis noted that “the textile mills of this country can produce all the cloth needed in six months’ operation each year” and that 14 percent of the American shoe factories could produce a year’s supply of footwear. The magazine went on to suggest, “It may be that the world’s needs ultimately will be produced by three days’ work a week.”
Business leaders were less than enthusiastic about the prospect of a society no longer centered on the production of goods. For them, the new “labor-saving” machinery presented not a vision of liberation but a threat to their position at the center of power. John E. Edgerton, president of the National Association of Manufacturers, typified their response when he declared: “I am for everything that will make work happier but against everything that will further subordinate its importance. The emphasis should be put on work — more work and better work.” “Nothing,” he claimed, “breeds radicalism more than unhappiness unless it is leisure.”
By the late 1920s, America’s business and political elite had found a way to defuse the dual threat of stagnating economic growth and a radicalized working class in what one industrial consultant called “the gospel of consumption” — the notion that people could be convinced that however much they have, it isn’t enough. President Herbert Hoover’s 1929 Committee on Recent Economic Changes observed in glowing terms the results: “By advertising and other promotional devices . . . a measurable pull on production has been created which releases capital otherwise tied up.” They celebrated the conceptual breakthrough: “Economically we have a boundless field before us; that there are new wants which will make way endlessly for newer wants, as fast as they are satisfied.”
Today “work and more work” is the accepted way of doing things. If anything, improvements to the labor-saving machinery since the 1920s have intensified the trend. Machines can save labor, but only if they go idle when we possess enough of what they can produce. In other words, the machinery offers us an opportunity to work less, an opportunity that as a society we have chosen not to take. Instead, we have allowed the owners of those machines to define their purpose: not reduction of labor, but “higher productivity” — and with it the imperative to consume virtually everything that the machinery can possibly produce.
FROM THE EARLIEST DAYS of the Age of Consumerism there were critics. One of the most influential was Arthur Dahlberg, whose 1932 book Jobs, Machines, and Capitalism was well known to policymakers and elected officials in Washington. Dahlberg declared that “failure to shorten the length of the working day . . . is the primary cause of our rationing of opportunity, our excess industrial plant, our enormous wastes of competition, our high pressure advertising, [and] our economic imperialism.” Since much of what industry produced was no longer aimed at satisfying human physical needs, a four-hour workday, he claimed, was necessary to prevent society from becoming disastrously materialistic. “By not shortening the working day when all the wood is in,” he suggested, the profit motive becomes “both the creator and satisfier of spiritual needs.” For when the profit motive can turn nowhere else, “it wraps our soap in pretty boxes and tries to convince us that that is solace to our souls.”
There was, for a time, a visionary alternative. In 1930 Kellogg Company, the world’s leading producer of ready-to-eat cereal, announced that all of its nearly fifteen hundred workers would move from an eight-hour to a six-hour workday. Company president Lewis Brown and owner W. K. Kellogg noted that if the company ran “four six-hour shifts . . . instead of three eight-hour shifts, this will give work and paychecks to the heads of three hundred more families in Battle Creek.”
This was welcome news to workers at a time when the country was rapidly descending into the Great Depression. But as Benjamin Hunnicutt explains in his book Kellogg’s Six-Hour Day, Brown and Kellogg wanted to do more than save jobs. They hoped to show that the “free exchange of goods, services, and labor in the free market would not have to mean mindless consumerism or eternal exploitation of people and natural resources.” Instead “workers would be liberated by increasingly higher wages and shorter hours for the final freedom promised by the Declaration of Independence — the pursuit of happiness.”
To be sure, Kellogg did not intend to stop making a profit. But the company leaders argued that men and women would work more efficiently on shorter shifts, and with more people employed, the overall purchasing power of the community would increase, thus allowing for more purchases of goods, including cereals.
A shorter workday did entail a cut in overall pay for workers. But Kellogg raised the hourly rate to partially offset the loss and provided for production bonuses to encourage people to work hard. The company eliminated time off for lunch, assuming that workers would rather work their shorter shift and leave as soon as possible. In a “personal letter” to employees, Brown pointed to the “mental income” of “the enjoyment of the surroundings of your home, the place you work, your neighbors, the other pleasures you have [that are] harder to translate into dollars and cents.” Greater leisure, he hoped, would lead to “higher standards in school and civic . . . life” that would benefit the company by allowing it to “draw its workers from a community where good homes predominate.”
It was an attractive vision, and it worked. Not only did Kellogg prosper, but journalists from magazines such as Forbes and BusinessWeek reported that the great majority of company employees embraced the shorter workday. One reporter described “a lot of gardening and community beautification, athletics and hobbies . . . libraries well patronized and the mental background of these fortunate workers . . . becoming richer.”
A U.S. Department of Labor survey taken at the time, as well as interviews Hunnicutt conducted with former workers, confirm this picture. The government interviewers noted that “little dissatisfaction with lower earnings resulting from the decrease in hours was expressed, although in the majority of cases very real decreases had resulted.” One man spoke of “more time at home with the family.” Another remembered: “I could go home and have time to work in my garden.” A woman noted that the six-hour shift allowed her husband to “be with 4 boys at ages it was important.”
Those extra hours away from work also enabled some people to accomplish things that they might never have been able to do otherwise. Hunnicutt describes how at the end of her interview an eighty-year-old woman began talking about ping-pong. “We’d get together. We had a ping-pong table and all my relatives would come for dinner and things and we’d all play ping-pong by the hour.” Eventually she went on to win the state championship.
Many women used the extra time for housework. But even then, they often chose work that drew in the entire family, such as canning. One recalled how canning food at home became “a family project” that “we all enjoyed,” including her sons, who “opened up to talk freely.” As Hunnicutt puts it, canning became the “medium for something more important than preserving food. Stories, jokes, teasing, quarreling, practical instruction, songs, griefs, and problems were shared. The modern discipline of alienated work was left behind for an older . . . more convivial kind of working together.”
This was the stuff of a human ecology in which thousands of small, almost invisible, interactions between family members, friends, and neighbors create an intricate structure that supports social life in much the same way as topsoil supports our biological existence. When we allow either one to become impoverished, whether out of greed or intemperance, we put our long-term survival at risk.
Our modern predicament is a case in point. By 2005 per capita household spending (in inflation-adjusted dollars) was twelve times what it had been in 1929, while per capita spending for durable goods — the big stuff such as cars and appliances — was thirty-two times higher. Meanwhile, by 2000 the average married couple with children was working almost five hundred hours a year more than in 1979. And according to reports by the Federal Reserve Bank in 2004 and 2005, over 40 percent of American families spend more than they earn. The average household carries $18,654 in debt, not including home-mortgage debt, and the ratio of household debt to income is at record levels, having roughly doubled over the last two decades. We are quite literally working ourselves into a frenzy just so we can consume all that our machines can produce.
Yet we could work and spend a lot less and still live quite comfortably. By 1991 the amount of goods and services produced for each hour of labor was double what it had been in 1948. By 2006 that figure had risen another 30 percent. In other words, if as a society we made a collective decision to get by on the amount we produced and consumed seventeen years ago, we could cut back from the standard forty-hour week to 5.3 hours per day — or 2.7 hours if we were willing to return to the 1948 level. We were already the richest country on the planet in 1948 and most of the world has not yet caught up to where we were then.
Rather than realizing the enriched social life that Kellogg’s vision offered us, we have impoverished our human communities with a form of materialism that leaves us in relative isolation from family, friends, and neighbors. We simply don’t have time for them. Unlike our great-grandparents who passed the time, we spend it. An outside observer might conclude that we are in the grip of some strange curse, like a modern-day King Midas whose touch turns everything into a product built around a microchip.
Of course not everybody has been able to take part in the buying spree on equal terms. Millions of Americans work long hours at poverty wages while many others can find no work at all. However, as advertisers well know, poverty does not render one immune to the gospel of consumption.
Meanwhile, the influence of the gospel has spread far beyond the land of its origin. Most of the clothes, video players, furniture, toys, and other goods Americans buy today are made in distant countries, often by underpaid people working in sweatshop conditions. The raw material for many of those products comes from clearcutting or strip mining or other disastrous means of extraction. Here at home, business activity is centered on designing those products, financing their manufacture, marketing them — and counting the profits.
KELLOGG’S VISION, DESPITE ITS POPULARITY with his employees, had little support among his fellow business leaders. But Dahlberg’s book had a major influence on Senator (and future Supreme Court justice) Hugo Black who, in 1933, introduced legislation requiring a thirty-hour workweek. Although Roosevelt at first appeared to support Black’s bill, he soon sided with the majority of businessmen who opposed it. Instead, Roosevelt went on to launch a series of policy initiatives that led to the forty-hour standard that we more or less observe today.
By the time the Black bill came before Congress, the prophets of the gospel of consumption had been developing their tactics and techniques for at least a decade. However, as the Great Depression deepened, the public mood was uncertain, at best, about the proper role of the large corporation. Labor unions were gaining in both public support and legal legitimacy, and the Roosevelt administration, under its New Deal program, was implementing government regulation of industry on an unprecedented scale. Many corporate leaders saw the New Deal as a serious threat. James A. Emery, general counsel for the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), issued a “call to arms” against the “shackles of irrational regulation” and the “back-breaking burdens of taxation,” characterizing the New Deal doctrines as “alien invaders of our national thought.”
In response, the industrial elite represented by NAM, including General Motors, the big steel companies, General Foods, DuPont, and others, decided to create their own propaganda. An internal NAM memo called for “re-selling all of the individual Joe Doakes on the advantages and benefits he enjoys under a competitive economy.” NAM launched a massive public relations campaign it called the “American Way.” As the minutes of a NAM meeting described it, the purpose of the campaign was to link “free enterprise in the public consciousness with free speech, free press and free religion as integral parts of democracy.”
Consumption was not only the linchpin of the campaign; it was also recast in political terms. A campaign booklet put out by the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency told readers that under “private capitalism, the Consumer, the Citizen is boss,” and “he doesn’t have to wait for election day to vote or for the Court to convene before handing down his verdict. The consumer ‘votes’ each time he buys one article and rejects another.”
According to Edward Bernays, one of the founders of the field of public relations and a principal architect of the American Way, the choices available in the polling booth are akin to those at the department store; both should consist of a limited set of offerings that are carefully determined by what Bernays called an “invisible government” of public-relations experts and advertisers working on behalf of business leaders. Bernays claimed that in a “democratic society” we are and should be “governed, our minds . . . molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of.”
NAM formed a national network of groups to ensure that the booklet from J. Walter Thompson and similar material appeared in libraries and school curricula across the country. The campaign also placed favorable articles in newspapers (often citing “independent” scholars who were paid secretly) and created popular magazines and film shorts directed to children and adults with such titles as “Building Better Americans,” “The Business of America’s People Is Selling,” and “America Marching On.”
Perhaps the biggest public relations success for the American Way campaign was the 1939 New York World’s Fair. The fair’s director of public relations called it “the greatest public relations program in industrial history,” one that would battle what he called the “New Deal propaganda.” The fair’s motto was “Building the World of Tomorrow,” and it was indeed a forum in which American corporations literally modeled the future they were determined to create. The most famous of the exhibits was General Motors’ 35,000-square-foot Futurama, where visitors toured Democracity, a metropolis of multilane highways that took its citizens from their countryside homes to their jobs in the skyscraper-packed central city.
For all of its intensity and spectacle, the campaign for the American Way did not create immediate, widespread, enthusiastic support for American corporations or the corporate vision of the future. But it did lay the ideological groundwork for changes that came after the Second World War, changes that established what is still commonly called our post-war society.
The war had put people back to work in numbers that the New Deal had never approached, and there was considerable fear that unemployment would return when the war ended. Kellogg workers had been working forty-eight-hour weeks during the war and the majority of them were ready to return to a six-hour day and thirty-hour week. Most of them were able to do so, for a while. But W. K. Kellogg and Lewis Brown had turned the company over to new managers in 1937.
The new managers saw only costs and no benefits to the six-hour day, and almost immediately after the end of the war they began a campaign to undermine shorter hours. Management offered workers a tempting set of financial incentives if they would accept an eight-hour day. Yet in a vote taken in 1946, 77 percent of the men and 87 percent of the women wanted to return to a thirty-hour week rather than a forty-hour one. In making that choice, they also chose a fairly dramatic drop in earnings from artificially high wartime levels.
The company responded with a strategy of attrition, offering special deals on a department-by-department basis where eight hours had pockets of support, typically among highly skilled male workers. In the culture of a post-war, post-Depression U.S., that strategy was largely successful. But not everyone went along. Within Kellogg there was a substantial, albeit slowly dwindling group of people Hunnicutt calls the “mavericks,” who resisted longer work hours. They clustered in a few departments that had managed to preserve the six-hour day until the company eliminated it once and for all in 1985.
The mavericks rejected the claims made by the company, the union, and many of their co-workers that the extra money they could earn on an eight-hour shift was worth it. Despite the enormous difference in societal wealth between the 1930s and the 1980s, the language the mavericks used to explain their preference for a six-hour workday was almost identical to that used by Kellogg workers fifty years earlier. One woman, worried about the long hours worked by her son, said, “He has no time to live, to visit and spend time with his family, and to do the other things he really loves to do.”
Several people commented on the link between longer work hours and consumerism. One man said, “I was getting along real good, so there was no use in me working any more time than I had to.” He added, “Everybody thought they were going to get rich when they got that eight-hour deal and it really didn’t make a big difference. . . . Some went out and bought automobiles right quick and they didn’t gain much on that because the car took the extra money they had.”
The mavericks, well aware that longer work hours meant fewer jobs, called those who wanted eight-hour shifts plus overtime “work hogs.” “Kellogg’s was laying off people,” one woman commented, “while some of the men were working really fantastic amounts of overtime — that’s just not fair.” Another quoted the historian Arnold Toynbee, who said, “We will either share the work, or take care of people who don’t have work.”
PEOPLE IN THE DEPRESSION-WRACKED 1930s, with what seems to us today to be a very low level of material goods, readily chose fewer work hours for the same reasons as some of their children and grandchildren did in the 1980s: to have more time for themselves and their families. We could, as a society, make a similar choice today.
But we cannot do it as individuals. The mavericks at Kellogg held out against company and social pressure for years, but in the end the marketplace didn’t offer them a choice to work less and consume less. The reason is simple: that choice is at odds with the foundations of the marketplace itself — at least as it is currently constructed. The men and women who masterminded the creation of the consumerist society understood that theirs was a political undertaking, and it will take a powerful political movement to change course today.
Bernays’s version of a “democratic society,” in which political decisions are marketed to consumers, has many modern proponents. Consider a comment by Andrew Card, George W. Bush’s former chief of staff. When asked why the administration waited several months before making its case for war against Iraq, Card replied, “You don’t roll out a new product in August.” And in 2004, one of the leading legal theorists in the United States, federal judge Richard Posner, declared that “representative democracy . . . involves a division between rulers and ruled,” with the former being “a governing class,” and the rest of us exercising a form of “consumer sovereignty” in the political sphere with “the power not to buy a particular product, a power to choose though not to create.”
Sometimes an even more blatant antidemocratic stance appears in the working papers of elite think tanks. One such example is the prominent Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington’s 1975 contribution to a Trilateral Commission report on “The Crisis of Democracy.” Huntington warns against an “excess of democracy,” declaring that “a democratic political system usually requires some measure of apathy and noninvolvement on the part of some individuals and groups.” Huntington notes that “marginal social groups, as in the case of the blacks, are now becoming full participants in the political system” and thus present the “danger of overloading the political system” and undermining its authority.
According to this elite view, the people are too unstable and ignorant for self-rule. “Commoners,” who are viewed as factors of production at work and as consumers at home, must adhere to their proper roles in order to maintain social stability. Posner, for example, disparaged a proposal for a national day of deliberation as “a small but not trivial reduction in the amount of productive work.” Thus he appears to be an ideological descendant of the business leader who warned that relaxing the imperative for “more work and better work” breeds “radicalism.”
As far back as 1835, Boston workingmen striking for shorter hours declared that they needed time away from work to be good citizens: “We have rights, and we have duties to perform as American citizens and members of society.” As those workers well understood, any meaningful democracy requires citizens who are empowered to create and re-create their government, rather than a mass of marginalized voters who merely choose from what is offered by an “invisible” government. Citizenship requires a commitment of time and attention, a commitment people cannot make if they are lost to themselves in an ever-accelerating cycle of work and consumption.
We can break that cycle by turning off our machines when they have created enough of what we need. Doing so will give us an opportunity to re-create the kind of healthy communities that were beginning to emerge with Kellogg’s six-hour day, communities in which human welfare is the overriding concern rather than subservience to machines and those who own them. We can create a society where people have time to play together as well as work together, time to act politically in their common interests, and time even to argue over what those common interests might be. That fertile mix of human relationships is necessary for healthy human societies, which in turn are necessary for sustaining a healthy planet.
If we want to save the Earth, we must also save ourselves from ourselves. We can start by sharing the work and the wealth. We may just find that there is plenty of both to go around.
This article, along with other landmark Orion essays about transformative action, are collected in a new anthology, Change Everything Now. Order your copy here.
I always tell people that the most embarrassing thing in my life is that I have a degree in business administration. I say that for two reasons. First, the marketing courses are courses in psychological warfare. It is know how to get people to buy things they don’t want or need. The second is tied to the first. The economic courses taught a false “linear system”, which didn’t value the resource until it was mined, milled, manufactured and sold. There was then no accountability for the waste. They now call these “externalities”, the cost that can be passed on to others.
This history of consumerism should be required reading in 6th grade, and again in 10th! This sums up nicely (though sadly) what underlies our worship of growth everlasting. Today’s economic headlines trumpet the hope that a stimulus package will convince consumers to spend and jump-start the economy. And too few realize that creates more problems than it solves.
We are on the hamster-wheel and we cannot get off. Have you noticed they don’t even call us “citizens” anymore? We are referred to as “consumers.” That is our role in the collective.
Hooked on Growth: Our Misguided Quest for Prosperity
This is an article to share with others. Remember to watch the http://www.storyofstuff.com too. This is a continuing groundswell of wake up that we need in order to ensure the protection of our wild areas, including those in our heart.Talk with your neighbours, walk, plant a garden, smile with children and older folkes. I may be simple…but I have to get back to work.
This is an outstanding piece of writing, and I am going to incorporate it into my freshman English classes. It is a side of the story that needs to be told, if nothing else to counter this fashionable libertarian ideology that is breeding more rats for the rat race. I appreciate the fact that Orion Magazine continues to beat this drum with articles from visionary thinkers like James Howard Kuntsler and this article by Kaplan.
I’ve been trying to figure out a way to appeal to the locals who don’t turn out to support activities for the Bear River Narrows near Preston, Idaho, where a canal company is proposing construction of a shallow, ruinous dam. I think Kaplan addresses the main problem in the community: People no longer have time to talk with each other in an empathetic manner. They don’t share a concern for the landscape because they don’t get out to enjoy it with each other. They collapse in front of the TV, where they hear only about the economy, as if it were something that will sustain us. In the mean time, the people who profit from dam-building (in the name of “energy” and “jobs”) lull the locals into complacency. How do we help when we face such despair?
It is a strange experience to realize (again and again and again) that our society’s misfortunes can be attributed to the greed of a few and how far-reaching a handful of events, conversations, meetings, etc. can be in establishing a widespread, mostly-unquestioned paradigm. Kudos to the author for presenting this information in an approachable manner that will hopefully encourage a few of us hamsters to question the wheel and, perhaps, begin devising a way to step outside of the cage.
This article aptly describes the seemingly inextricable trap into which we Americans, have fallen. But the trap is not inextricable. Conscious decisions, on a personal level, regarding saving and spending, working and time off, can free each one of us, individually. One glaring omission in the article is the now-commonplace fact of the two-earner household. This phenomenon alone has contributed to much of what the article bemoans, and much of what it omitted, such as the problem of latchkey kids and the rise of juvenile crime. Once again, this can be remedied by personal choice on a family by family basis. Note that the woman in the article who celebrated her husband’s shortened workweek by claiming it was important for him to spend time with his 4 boys, was probably already at home with them.
We can buck the system or we can work the system. Here’s a new way of organizing the power of our consumer culture, such that it is: http://www.chesapeakeclimate.org/blog/?p=374
Do you want to engage in a immediate action to open people up to consumerism??..check out http://www.greenslowmovingvehicle.com. This grassroot’s action has been on the ground since 2006 and can be found throughout the U.S.. It’s simple, basically free, and effective. Just a small step but in the right direction. DRIVE EASY
Excellent article whose message needs to be continually heard. It’s funny, but the comments I added last month to Mike Tidwell’s article on global warming are probably more apt here, so I’ll add them to the discussion after first saying: Henry David Thoreau spotted this insidious pattern to consumerism over a century and a half ago… why isn’t he considered the epitome of a Real American and why don’t we have a national holiday in his honor?… Obviously another holiday would cut that much more into production. (Note also that holidays under this consumerist model are primarily diverted away from their original purposes to become functioning units of economic stimulus, the most obvious example being Christmas. Likewise with education, which has little or nothing to do with the enlightenment and liberation of the individual; rather, education is now mostly functioning as nothing but a subservient arm of the economy.)
The writer [Mike Tidwell] makes the usually rare point in environmental arguments that to confront this problem [of global warming] would mean that humans would have had to pass through a spiritual catharsis. This suggests that the problem is not just physical/technological, that somehow our spiritual “wrong-headedness” is at the root of the problem. “Spiritual” suggests concerns not just for physical survival, our “means,” but also the “ends,” i.e. identifying a purpose for life once our physical needs have been met. But we have been functioning under an extreme consumerist model that holds as its rewards such concepts as “luxury” or “the American Dream”… in other words, in lieu of identifying any purpose beyond physical comfort and pleasure, we have asked double-duty of our means, that they also function as life-goals (e.g. bigger house, faster or more comfortable car, etc… a pattern with no end in sight).
How does this comment help with the problem? Maybe it doesn’t, since we seem to be at such a desparate point. But at least let’s not kid ourselves that spraying the atmosphere with sulfer, or painting everything white, is anything more than treating symptoms. If we could somehow solve global warming with giant mirrors only to support more gluttonous consumption, that’s precisely the type of unenlightened society not worth saving. So let’s hope that what the writer implies will come to pass: as we save the planet, we find (and save) ourselves.
This is a terrific article and says in wonderful form what the organization I represent, TAKE BACK YOUR TIME (Ben Hunnicutt of the Kellogg’s Six Hour Day is on our board) has been working for for the past six years. Check out our Web site at: http://www.timeday.org Thanks for writing this Jeffrey–would love to discuss these issues with you sometime! TAKE BACK YOUR TIME is currently championing a national paid vacation law and the theme of trading productivity for time instead of stuff–to improve our health, quality of life and environment. best, John de Graaf
Executive Director, TAKE BACK YOUR TIME.
I wonder sometimes how consumers who butt against logic (buying gas guzzlers like large SUVs at a time when global warming is devastating our earth and United States) can be so narrow minded (downright uncaring) about the obvious disaster. Then I feel no pity.
Business men are in th business to make money and they rewards those who bring in more sales. Well we provided them the opportunity to mine our kids. Long live consumerism.
This article was my first insight into the idea that consumerism wasn’t always the basis for the American economy. I’m not ignorant enough to have thought that things have always been the same as today, but I never realized that our economy was devised by politics and businessmen and then lobbied/campaigned for. In standard history courses, we don’t learn about political sway when it comes to our “consumerism” and in economics classes we are only taught how to live in the economy as it is, as though it is a stagnant entity. The history of consumerism should be taught everywhere, with an emphasis oh how it was created, giving fuel to those who are faced with the conquest of how to change it and start something new. The age of the consumer needs to end.
After 9/11 George W. Bush urged American to go shopping. John McCain and Hillary Clinton want a vacation on the gasoline tax credit so we will mindlessly consume the fuel we should be conserving. It is not about facing reality and making the necessary adjustments to deal with serious socio-economic and environmental issues, it is about propping up an archaic and burdensome economic system that needs to collapse and will. The longer we wait the harder will be the impacts and adjustments.
Congratulations to Jeffrey Kaplan for skillfully illuminating the sad fact that our modern mass-consumption economy was deliberately engineered as a way to keep the profit-making machinery of mass production from choking to death on its own output. For those just becoming aware of this sordid truth, I offer another revealing quote, from post-war retail analyst Victor LeBow: “Our enormously productive economy…demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and selling of goods into rituals. …We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced and discarded at an ever increasing rate.” Growing up in a small town in the 60s, I had no idea how this short-sighted agenda was transforming the quieter, saner life of my parents’ day into the frantic, insecure life of today.
As a student nearing completion of a master’s degree in environmental studies, I read this article as a means of procrastinating work on an already-late paper for an environmental policy class. The paper concerns the dry policy-theory concepts of problem definition and agenda-setting, as applied to the growing political awareness of climate change as a serious issue. It seems, however, that all roads lead me to where I’m supposed to be, because this article is closely related to the subject of my work: Do we define climate change as an emissions problem—essentially just another kind of pollution—to be solved by typical technical and regulatory means? Do we see it as an efficiency problem, to be solved by hybrid cars, compact fluorescent bulbs, and living closer to our jobs? Or do we define it as a fundamental flaw in an economic paradigm based on the ideas of limitless production, limitless consumption and endless, unlimited growth? More importantly, what are the consequences of the way we frame the discussion?
We may, of course, need all of the above perspectives to avert the calamity we’ve called down upon our children’s heads. But if we think our salvation lies in technology and incremental changes that leave our present practices substantially intact, we may find that our best efforts have been swamped by relentless growth, that we have merely slowed the stampede without turning its course. Kaplan shows that time and community are the real luxuries in human culture; if we pursue them with half the zeal of our current religious devotion to money and possessions, we can have not only a healthier society, but a healthier planet as well.
Missing from this article and the Kelloggs 6 hour day is the concept of multi-stakeholder participation investment in each business and industry. First Nation Production Societies pre-invasion were structures of progressive ownership for workere growing from apprenticeship to elder (master) status and always having a responsible say. A Gospel of Consumption occurs because of is missing counterpart of intelligent responsible participation in both production and consumption. Indigenous peoples of the world were able to work shorter days because they cultivated the massive productivity of the multilevel orchard, typically oak (acorn), butternut, chestnut, hazelnut etc mixed with fruit trees, berries, grapevines, mushrooms, and much more. This three dimension food production for all species held water in its roots, pumped water, minerals and nutrients deep from the roots into the substrate, harvested some 95% of solar energy and condensed moist ocean winds onto the leaf surfaces. Weather is drawn by the cold energy vacuum of photosynthesis’ conversion of solar energy.
We have manufactured scarcity in our ‘agri’ (L = ‘field’) cultural removal of the indigenous orchards. Agriculture supplants 2 dimensional production at 1% of the 3 dimensional production of multi-level orchard production. We have lost the abundance of nature’s engine. We are the earth speaking, so one can understand that the wisdom of nature is to be found in the interactive choir of our collective effort and voices. Our role as passive workers, suppliers or consumers is not particularly relevent.
What is missing from your essay is what people my age have been shunted into since becoming adults: debt.
I remember after high school, that if your parent or scholarships didn’t appear you aquired a government loan for college. A high school counselor told our class that “if you go to college you will earn a million dollars”. Of course I neglected to ask if that was net or gross.
This time period included the rapid cost increase of college tuition, price of a car, rents, real estate well beyond inflation. Coupled with wage stagnation you can see a whole generation shakled to work that unless you declare bankruptcy and throw it off, you won’t be agitating for unions or shorter work hours any time soon.
The religious left and the secular / green left should be working together:
These issues aren’t new: the Bible has a lot to say about exploitation of workers and the burden of debt. Consumerism is a newer phenomenon, made possible by industrialization, although it’s really just another form of idolatry (spiritual redemption through material artifacts), another thing the Bible attacks.
Maybe this might help a little:
Cheers all…. Chris
Great article. Some of the same ground about Bernays and commercial propaganda is covered in the various UK documentary series made by Adam Curtis, principally “The Century of Self”.
As a general point though, this article’s data about ordinary people spending huge multiples on consumer goods compared to the past seems to contradict the work of bankrupcy expert Elizabeth Warren who is eager to prove that it is the rise in the cost of basic things like (not very much bigger) houses, education, medical bills, and child care since 1970 that are pushing most Americans over the edge, not consumer goods like flat screen tvs, brand label clothes, or eating out. According to Warren’s data, spending on consumer goods has actually fallen. To back up Yankee’s comment above, Warren’s data also shows that median male income has been stagnant for over thirty years.
Training people how to buck the system and go right-on for happiness, health, well-being, integral community, ecological sustainability and local self-reliance:
Join us for a great time in northern Thailand this Nov – Jan doing natural building projects, organic farming, seed saving and biodiversity conservation, and a lot more!
Great read! I’m an undergrad student currently writing about this very topic. Does the author recommend any additional books detailing the evangelism that our consumer economy is dependent on? Thanks in advance.
Thank you for this. I don’t think that the connection between environmental protection and labor rights is clear very many people, but this article draws a clear, bright line to connect them.
The thing is, the whole econmic system has mutated to the point that it is *ABSOLUTELY* dependent on continuous economic growth. Now that the growth as stopped, there are cries of “recession! recession” coming from all corners.
Why should it be so? Where I live (Québec), we are economically punished for not willingly assimilating in the anglo-saxon “norm” of North America, so we experience regular economic downturns. A side effect is that we have seen the emergence of a distinct class of entrepreneurs that are able to frugally weather economic hard-times without having to rely on “old-boy’s” business “rescue” networks. So when our entrepreneur rise above the rest, they really kick ass (one can think of Bombardier, who in 35 years, from next to nothing, became the third largest aircraft manufacturer, and the world’s largest manufacturer of passenger railroad rolling stock, even putting to shame mighty Alstom [maker of the world’s fastest train] in it’s own backyard!).
Another positive aspect of economic downturns is the affordability of goods and services. For example, housing is quite cheap here compared to similar urban areas elsewhere in North-America. People are less concerned with housing problems and thus can live well on a lower salary, thus helping to prevent inflationary outbursts.
Frequent economic downturns make people leery of mindless, gluttonous consumption; the net result is that the bourgeois are less wealthy and do not enjoy a disparate political influence, so the government is more compelled to do what has to be done, rather than what short-term panaceas to the problème-du-jour the wealthy are able to distract the government with to profit from.
Edward Bernays was actually Freud’s nephew. He played a massive role in the shift towards consumerism as a way of life, using his uncle’s ideas.
There’s a brilliant documentary on this called The Century of the Self from the BBC. You can watch it on Google Video last I checked.
It is not to be missed.
What a great article. We’ve diverted so much of the gains in productivity into the pockets of investors and executives, rather than into an increased standard-of-living for all. Now the consequences are becoming clear – power (money is a form of power) really does corrupt.
So basically you want a form of quasi socialism or fascism.
People buy stuff because they want stuff, they aren’t brainwashed and the companies arent forcing them to buy stuff. The fact is that people dont want to work less because they dont want to make less money. Because they want to spend money on things they want. They value the money they can earn and the things they can buy with it more than the time they would be spending outside of work.
Kellogg: this was during the great depression, it was either work less and take less money or some of you will lose your job. Oh yeah they took measures so that their income wouldnt be completely halfed by killing their lunch hour etc, but this article weighs far too heavily on trying to compromise the current market with this example that doesnt apply to current conditions. This was during the great depression! It was a good model at the time and that is why it was praised because it allowed more people to have jobs and still get by.
I agree that materialism is not the highest virtue of mankind, but it is what drives the market, it is what people want. You cant come in and have the government force people to work less because you think they should not value materialism so much. That is fascism and hasnt ever worked out too well if we look to history. You are subjecting other people to your subjective views on what is best for other people.
“We can create a society”: this is a fascist statement. No, this means, we can force society to do something. If you want to make a difference you shouldnt do it through government and force you should do it through persuasion and rhetoric. We can ENCOURAGE a society that follows your selected virtues, but force we should not. If you want to have more freetime then you can take a less demanding job and get paid less. You cant have the same pay and work less, it just doesnt pan out.
Chris Janselor, you have been duped. Do you think our current society was shaped entirely by ‘natural’ forces? Did you even read the article, in which it was made very clear that some rich and powerful people have had a significant influence on our current way of life?
We have choices in our society. There is no such thing as the “free market.” It is warped beyond recognition by vested interests, and this will not change.
1) free market, of course it doesnt exist in perfection, never said it did. If anything warps it, it is the government more than ‘vested interests.’ People that usually point to the market being skewed by corporations etc, dont realize it is usually through governmental means.
2)natural forces. The article didnt really point to any factual instances of people showing significant control over the lives of the individuals. It referenced “business and political elite,” who are influencing us ‘By advertising and other promotional devices.’ Doesnt look like they are forcing consumerism on us too much, they are advertising products, thats what companies do.
It then referenced companies reacting to FDR’s New Deal and tried to link the defense against this as a defense of the gospel of consumption. Actually they were just trying to defend their business autonomy from the government’s prying hands, thats pretty natural considering the profit incentives of companies and the governments interfering with those.
I love how the third paragraph of the article is totally conjecture without any backing and which then becomes the premise of the entire paper. He then tries to link this to the idea of creating “new needs” by the big corporations and that this is furthering their evil ends of consumerism. No actually it’s called innovation and that’s why we have computers to type on. yeah creating new desires for products is what drives the market, but there is no force involved.
All Im saying is that if you want you can live like they did in 1915 without a computer, or a car, etc, and Im sure you get by just fine without working many hours, but people have come to enjoy the “necessities” that have been created by this evil consumption drive.
Chris – the real question is *why* does the government warp the market? The answer is, in answer to bribes (called campaign contributions) and other perqs such as a revolving door between industry and goverment.
Oh I agree with you. Government is controlled to a large extent by private interests and their respective lobbying. But I think the answer is to limit government rather than using government to limit how much we can work or what we can buy.
I think that it is interesting that the belief of voluntary simplicity, or any move towards a simple life is immediately called socialist. It is not right or left it is just different. We need to wrap our heads around an idea that is new. More does not equal better, in fact it may be the total opposite.
The brainwashing is real. It starts at a very young age, and it follows us around through our entire lives. As a mental exercise, try counting the number of ads you see in one day – billboards, commercials, print advertisements, banner ads – all of it goes into your subconscious mind, even if you’re not always aware of it. If your day is anything like mine, you’ll lose count by mid-morning.
For every hour of network broadcasting, twenty minutes consists of advertising, not counting product placements and all those popups that come up during the middle of shows. Even PBS is riddled with advertising – in the form of “enhanced underwriter acknowledgments”, mind you. Kid’s shows themselves are largely advertisements for toys or movies.
As the parent of a two year old, I find myself paying much more attention to the ubiquity of advertising in modern America than I used to. I can’t shield her from it entirely, but maybe I can limit its influence on her.
I have tried to shield my children from consumerist tendencies. I home school, with out tv and limit internet. They read a lot of books.
All in all however, I found this article interesting. I never knew about the six hour work week. For my family this would be ideal provided we lived with in biking distance to work. The two hours extra spent working usually pays for gas each day, so really it would be the same income with less expense.
We’re living in what I call “plutopia”–a society almost entirely grounded in the notion that material wealth is the ultimate good. Never mind how we satisfy our many wants (as opposed to our real needs, which are relatively few). If we want to change (and I’m not sure the majority of us actually do), we must re-educate our desires, identify means with ends, and stop seeing Americans as the measure of all that is good in the universe.
To recognize the problems and to seek solutions is not by nature fascist, although it tends to be socialist (as opposed to capitalist), nor does it require draconian rules or acts of congress. If people became aware (through articles like this one) of how our everyday actions impact a much larger context, it might be relatively simple to change some minds. But, alas, most folks don’t read Orion, and judging by most of the comments in this discussion, those who do are already members of the choir.
As a part of my political activism I did a little rewrite of the opening of the Declaration of Independence and inserted a balance point. “Inherent in our inalienable rights are undeniable responsibilities.” I also changed pursuit of happiness to pursuit of joy and contentment. It is a matter of choosing, but to choose wisely one needs all the cards laid on the table.
This is fine and good for a paper but it won’t work in a living culture (at least on Earth) you can be sure about that.
It’s very interesting how these sorts of ideologies almost always come from people who they would adversely affect the least whereas you never hear of a starving or poor person using such arguments.
Kudos on a fantastic article.
How can we be sure that what the article suggests could not happen? There is a movement, albeit small, but a movement to focus on happiness as opposed to economic growth.
I can cite several examples in the town I live in. Several NGOs offer European like schedules, good time off, sabbaticals and the such. The real decisions are up to us as individuals to commit to a life that focuses on our community (by working less) and not chasing the almighty dollar.
It sounds like many of us in this discussion are on the same page. Another excellent read on this matter is Bill McKibben’s book Deep Economy. A lot of the same thoughts, but with examples of how change is being made around the world. Check it out.
Hasn’t this model already been tried in Europe? Hasn’t this model been shown to be a complete failure? Can somebody explain why we should adopt this model when almost all of Europe is in the process of rejecting it?
Jawnybnsc is welcome to his own opinion but not his own facts. If Europe was a failure why would the EURO be riding so high versus the dollar. why would americans firms be flooding europe with investments and making big profits in firms that by law have to provide 4 or more weeks vacation and other generous time perks. why would Germany still be the most effective manufactuing economy with double the exports of China. Europeans laugh when they hear these ridiculous comments. Ignorance seems to be bliss in the US. Moreover, the European countries produce only half the pollution per capita that we do, their ecological footprint is only half ours, in every measure of health they do better than we do. If that’s failure. we could use a little of it. I would expect a bit more thought from Orion readers. I’m curious as to whether jawnyybnsc (real names, please!!!–they should be required) has ever been to Europe. As the US economy tanks the europeans now don’t only have the time, they have the money too. their savings rate is 10% while ours is minus 2%. Facts please!!!
There is a movment for responsibility represented by Participatory businesses around the world which welcome the investment of their Founder, Worker, Supplier and Consumer members for a whole cycle of economy (derived from the Latin meaning care and nurture or management of the household.
Each form associations to group specific contributions of labour-money-resources, labour, goods-services and money-patronage respectively. When we inclusively plan for the livelihoods of each other, we open up enormous strengths.
Complementation (mutually beneficial relationship) is stronger than competition because it unites otherwize isolated resources into whole cycles and connects our intelligence in order to plan for the complexity that ecology and ecology represent.
Sometimes people ask questions when they don’t know the answers. I appreciate the responses.
Notwithstanding the dimensions that John de Graaf alludes to, can anyone share with me an explanation of the apparent change in political direction in Europe? If it is not connected in any way to the model we are discussing, then I would like to understand why you believe it is not. Further, if you believe there is not a relationship, then perhaps you’d care to posit your own theory.
If you would, please grant me the courtesy of assuming that my inquiries are made in earnest this time.
I think it’s also a bit disingenuous to hold up Germany as the model of Europe when it is readily apparent that Germany is the exception in Europe and not the rule.
And then by neo government decree my telivisions are to be destroyed by the forced digital conversion to” alien” technologies and i and my lands imprisoned to health insurance un regulatable costs companies, which strangely at my age and health would be a financial boon………….if i trusted corp drug companies or the paychecks they give to doctors and thus if i trusted doctors in this age of the non generak practiconer…which i maybe can not spell due to the fading memories of what may have been sensible medical practices
I appreciate your inquriy jawnybnsc. I’m just not sure where you get this idea the Europe is abandoning its social contract. there are occasional calls for more business flexibility (eg Denmark, Finland) and some tightening of welfare due to the influx of immigrants, but virtually no european political party, Left or right, calls for going the US model–Europeans are appalled by such an idea. One Dutch conservative party leader I spoke with told me his party is the party of the right in Holland but their views are far to the Left of US Democrats. German is no exception to the rules. Germans work among the fewest hours in Europe–350 less than we do. they get 30 days of vacation and generous other perks. Denmark, with 30 days vacation, is rated as having the best business climate in the world and the Nordic countries are all considered as competitive as the US in the world economy. We don’t have to work people to death and ruin their health. europe has proven that. If its policies were such a failure why would American investors invest far more each year in Holland than in china and more in Belgium than in India? It’s the European elite that spreads these myths (along with corporate America) not the average European. the elites wish they could make 400 times what the average worker makes like US CEOs do, instead of the 40 times as much they do make. You can find all these comparision in the 2007 OECD Fact book and from many other sources.
The thrust of my argument has less to do with Europe’s policies and more to do with Europe’s politics. Clearly there is a shift taking place. Just as clearly, that shift has some basis in the attitudes and desires of the European electorate. I’ll grant everything you say about Europe’s policies and about current European economic dimensions. What I do still wonder about is a changing political vector that, in my mind at least, raises doubts about Kaplan’s thesis. My argument is not about the merits, per se. My presumption was that the electorate was choosing a different path because they felt that they were on the wrong course.
This is a terrific article. Thank you for digging through the history and the statistics.
I’ve posted a link to this article on my blog, Dangerous Intersection, where I periodically post on issues relating to rampant out-of-control consumerism. See, for example, “We are drowning in material goods, yet we crave ever more stuff.”
John . . . what is your response to this BBC article about French voter attitudes on the 35-hour workweek?
jawnybnsc: it’s true there has been some push back, particularly to the 35 hour work week and people are disatisfied with certain aspects of life, but there is simply no call out there by any party to get rid of the long vacations, the shorter workweeks, the paid family leave, the oppotunities to work part-time without losing benefits. these aspects of the social contract, plus health insurance, free higher ed, etc. What does receive more support is Sarkozy’s call to increase the age of retirement. All the european countries know they must do this because they don’t have the demographics to support people for 30 years of retirement; there aren”t enough young people in the workforce. therefore they are experimenting with raising the retirement age (below 60 in some countries) and phasing in retirement. this is why Sarkozy took this on first with his attack on the pensions of the transport workers. With the 35 week, he hasn’t cut that out only given workers who want to the right to work 39 hours instead. No European leader is advocating the US system, not even Sarkozy. the British Tories published a Blueprint for a Green Economy last September that advocates far more free time for people as a key plank. I’m not saying everything you mentioned is wrong, only that calling Europe a failure is far too broad a statement.
I walked back a bit from that one. I meant that the model was a failure, not Europe. Further, I’ll agree with you that it’s a strong statement. What I really wanted to get at was a discussion of the political trend in Europe and you’ve accommodated.
It doesn’t make so much difference what we want, but what given the current state of things what we can have. With 6 billion people heading toward 9, we are going to have to deal with some pretty heavy issues. We can wake up a change our modus operandi or we can hit the wall.
Euope is only a failure to those who fail to appreciate that not all cultures are puritanically adverse to pleasure and enjoyment of life as it is.
For our family, the burden of the 40 hour work week is directly tied to health insurance. If there were another way to get reasonable health insurance for our family, my husband and I would each work 20-hour weeks and have more time together as a family. (yes there are private insurance options out there but we’ve been down that road and they suck.)
Best article on economics I’ve read since Schumacher’s wonderful little book, Small is Beautiful–Economics as if People Mattered. Now you have to admit, just on a commonsense basic level, an economy that depends on everyone being chronically dissatisfied is nuts! If enough people decided that, well, what I’ve got is enough, its good enough. I’m satisfied with my current computer, cell phone, refrigerator, TV etc. The economy would die. That kind of system is just insane.
For more, watch Adam Curtis documentaries. You can search for them on Google Video.
Having people dissatisfied is not all that bad! What better motive for progress and change there is than people not being 100% contended with their conditions of existence?
The thing is, that motive for change has to be used for better things than lining up the pockets of salesmen…
A truly excellent read in regard to a more “organic economy” is Helena Norberg-Hodge’s Ancient Future about Ladakh. We aren’t just talking about economics here, we are also talking about culture and human satisfaction. As a former wilderness survival instructor, I can say that I felt the most complete as a human being when I had the least of the modern world and was relying on my own knowledge, work and imagination. The more you do for yourself, the more engaged in life you feel.
I’m encouraged by the the sheer numbers and tenor of the responses to Jeffrey Kaplan’s article. It seems that many of us are concerned about the same things, and are (for the most part) thinking along the same lines.
Many posters have made resource suggestions I plan to pursue, and I’m especially grateful to Erich Vieth for the link to his timely blog post. I’ll add Dangerous Intersection to my own blog roll, as well as a link to “The Gospel of Consumption” in my related post, “Surviving Plutopia” on Owl’s Farm (http://owlfarmer.blogspot.com). I am not by nature a sanguine person, but this discussion has been helpful–and reassuring.
We will need to end direct “competition” between slave labor (people not allowed to form a union) from China, India, etc and free men and women that have fought for their basic rights. It is only the business owners that want us to lower our salaries to the level set by pointing a gun to the head of labor and dictating terms.
ED: That’s very simply done: just levy import or export tariffs to equalize the cost of manufacturing widgets between disparate countries.
Export duties would be kept by the originating countries if it is not willing to force it’s employers to raise the standard of living of their workers, or if a country would not do anything about it, import duties would be levied by the receiving countries.
Now that would “plainly level the playing field”…
In any case, this would spell the end of the crazy shipments of anything halfway around the world.
The decision for a longer hour work day as well as the movement to force the Mothers to work too makes perfect sense. (Double the taxes too). Especially if the goal is to raise a child who has less influence from its parents and more from The State. Obedient consumers mesmerized by Pharmaceuticals, TV and Government Shock Doctrine.
They took the history away from the youth and now they have no future as well. Network programming replaced the Oral Tradition. Each Generation
a shadow of the next. Much was lost for none who live remember it. Until Life Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness means nothing more than getting the next Iphone. Eager to live in a WiFi saturated nightmare warping and humming 24/7.
Totally lost, distorted and expendable.
This article seems to give credibility to my conspiracy theory regarding our society.
Kaplan clearly shows how the long workday serves as a means of enforcing apathy among “the ruled” and defusing democracy. It’s not just about lost time to spend with the family or on non-work hobbies (which is important in itself), it’s about limiting the time people spend thinking about their situations and wondering why the haves have and the have-nots don’t.
Just a couple of points
1) Socialism is what one finds in Denmark, Sweden, Finland as an example. It does not equal communism which is commenly done in the US.
2) The power of advertisment needs to be better understood by ALL to truely understand what it does and can do. Only after reading a few books about this and what Bernays did, did I fully appreciate the problem.
3) When I watch TV I turn off the sound when the commercials come on. It is one way to limit their influence. Do you recall cable TV’s original selling line, “We are commercial free”, well no more !!!! 🙂
Thanks John de Graaf for bringing in the detailed information of how the working man situation in Europe looks like. Those observations should be eye openers for US people who in most cases can only dream of one month vacations.
Overall the whole idea of this
has went way overboard with all
the problems this society is having
I can say that black’s in america
are seriously messed up and misguilded in relation to this
syndrome. Even black youth are
I don’t know how exactly this will
But I will say it need’s to solved
Bleak future may await our children
Humankind inhabits a tiny celestial orb that is miraculously set among of sea of stars. As far as we know, life as we know it exists nowhere else in the universe. Perhaps we of the human family have the responsibility of assuring the security for the future of life in our planetary home.
April 22 was Earth Day. Our many Earth Day celebrations focus attention on the pressing need for human beings to protect and preserve the finite resources of Earth and its frangible ecosystems. If we fail to achieve this goal, then an unimaginably bleak future awaits our children.
If 6-plus billion human beings live on Earth now and 9-plus billion are expected to populate our small planet by 2050, then we simply cannot keep doing what we are doing now because the Earth has limited resources. Without adequate resources and ecosystem system services of Earth, life as we know it and human institutions would collapse.
Some portion of the world’s human population conspicuously over-consumes the resources of our planetary home. Other people, in charge of huge multinational conglomerations, are doing business in a way that recklessly dissipates natural resources. Still others in the human family are overpopulating the planet. The leviathan-like scale and rapid growth of global human consumption, production and propagation activities are putting the Earth, life as we know it, and the human community in grave, clear and present danger.
Since Chapel Hillians live in the overdeveloped world, we are among the people who are ravenously over-consuming Earth’s resources. We could choose to consume less. People in the developing could choose to limit overproduction of unnecessary things and contain industrial pollution. People in the underdeveloped world could limit their number of offspring. Perhaps these are ways the family of humanity begins to respond ably to the human-induced global challenges that loom so ominously.
– Steven Earl Salmony, Chapel Hill
Outstanding article–with one exception: it assumes that even a 40-hour paycheck is enough today. Kaplan’s advocacy of a shorter work week is obviously a poor alternative for those of us whose wages barely cover the essentials. We need every paid hour we can get. Indeed, many employers today are all too happy to reduce hours. Their employees, however, are not nearly so gleeful about the corresponding cutbacks in food, medicine, and other necessities. Needless gewgaws are not even on our radar screen.
If you’re still looking for further reading, I *highly* recommend Land of Desire by William Leach. (As it happens, “evangelicism” is a very apt description….)
Just wanted to say thank you for all the great suggestions.
No time like the present for needed change……..
Is the tiptop of the human construction we call the global political economy a place from which leadership can gain a reality-oriented view of what is happening on the surface of the Earth? Perhaps those of us at the top of the global economic pyramid are living in a secluded, unmaintainable material world of our own making and are willfully refusing to accept the limitations of the natural world in which the rest of the family of humanity lives.
If it turns out that the conspicuous consumption and relentless hoarding of the rich, the famous and the powerful are evidence of unsustainable lifestyles, what is the human community to do differently? Perhaps necessary change is in the offing.
Steven Earl Salmony
AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population,
I appreciated this article a lot. It’s come at a time in my life, when I’ve got time to contemplate things a little rather than slave for the man as I have done for too much of life. I really believe we have a lot of gear-shifting to do on this planet and a shorter work week would be a great start on many levels. Thanks for reminding me of this fact and I highly recommend Adbusters both as a magazine and website for those interested in this kind of thinking.
I do not believe in global warming – It’s not real.. just like man bear pig.
After having cleaned out my mother-in-law’s home after her death last year, my husband and I are adamant about not accumulating too much crap! After having read Kaplan’s article, I now feel better about our decision. It is difficult in this age of “stuff” to refuse purchasing items that you really think you need… but I think if more people would do that, it would make a world of difference. Thank you for the great article Orion!
It’s funny and crazy how people
in this country keep on buying
all this cheap,slave labor made
junk and then not knowing what to
do with it,after they by it.
Why don’t they just stop
and use the money to help people
in this country and world wide.
Instead of buying more material
junk.People need to get back to
knowing each other for real.
This is why kid’s are messed up
I enjoy life at 79 years old. I am prepared to die, but am not anxious to die because life is good.
Come to think of it, I never did work: I always did things I enjoyed doing.
We have 24 hour days for about 70 years on an average. We are free to choose our occupations. Learn to make independent choices of what is important and you will avoid living a life of ‘quiet desperation’.
In “The Gospel of Consumption,” Jeffrey Kaplan channels the Sandwichman, arguing that if we want to save the earth we can start by sharing the work and the wealth. I just want to add that the connection between the National Association of Manufacturers and the abandonment of shorter hours goes deeper than the American Way campaign. Beginning in 1903, the NAM was the source of a steady stream of propaganda against shorter hours. The NAM virtually wrote the economics textbooks claiming the drive for shorter hours was based on a “dangerous fallacy.”
This is a fantastic and well-crafted article! People fear the thought of a stagnant lifestyle as though its advance will assail them, as if it would mirror their worst nightmares about poverty. “It is possible that people fear a lifestyle where they have time to look around them and see what they have been missing and where they really are,” my friend explains to me in conversation frequently.
Going back to Peter’s comments about the idea that kids are messed up because of the great God of consumerism. I would be inclined to agree and disagree. Yes, I think much of today’s youth suffer from too much stuff and not enough time with the people who they really care about. However, I would also say that this situation is not new. I remember competing with kids at school 30 odd years ago on who was wearing the most expensive “fashions.” Most of which were items made in foreign sweatshops, even then! I do not think this is a new situation but I think that we have definitely become more of a throw-away society compared to my grandmother’s generation. That may be where the fault is. What do you think?
All parents regardless of race need to start
throwing out all this electronic stuff
before it’s to late to save their kid’s
state of mind.
I kid you not
I am talking about bad music,games
and whatever else.
I see it as electronic brainwashing for sure.
How berserk life has become where I live:
a government swept into power using regional politics; in particular, one key region was represented by a star candidate whose reputation as a consumer rights lawyer (promising to overturn no-fault car insurance) was unimpeachable. In power, he was promptly stiffed, quit the cabinet and vanished (I tried desperately to contact him after being rear-ended by an irresponsible young lady who, even after the crash did not stop talking on the cell phone. The real world simply does not exist for her, and her mother later claimed I caused the crash – I was standing still, signaling a left turn. Rude passersby told me to stop blocking traffic.).