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The Gospel of Consumption

Gregory Wendt, CFP | Monday June 15th, 2009 | 1 Comment

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Most of us are unaware that we are religious fundamentalists – market fundamentalists… in the “religion” of traditional economics. The values of the current economic system are rarely in question of us operating in the global economic system. Many of us rarely consider whether or not concepts of limitless growth, ruthless competition, more stuff and other “fundamentals” of today’s business environment are even up for question.
And most of us don’t think twice when we hear that, according to modern economic thinking, that our primarly role in society is limited to a role “consumers” – mere functionaries in vast economic machine for the “growth” and the accumulation of money. And to boot, when we hear the growth of the economy we may not consider what is growing, and at what cost. More? Always good? At what cost?


Hmmm… Did the Beatles really have it right? “Money Can’t Buy You Love.”
Whether we like it or not – most of us are programmed through a barrage of media to have the appetite of simply having more cool stuff over quality of life, whether it be time for self improvement, with friends, family, and other forms of “quality time.” In other words, according to a recent article by Jeffrey Kaplan in Orion Magazine, to some extent you can’t live in this civilization without being indoctrinated, or at least heavily saturated with the “Gospel of Consumption.”
Kaplan speaks of the reality that technology and industry were created to provide for our basic human needs, and enjoyment of life – anyone remember “the pursuit of happiness”?
Once machines make enough stuff, turn them off, and go live – was the basic thought behind Kellog’s 6 hour work day in the 20’s…
Then something changed – the “marketplace” turned Kellog to pursue something else – Money. More work hours, to make more stuff, to make more money. Workers were shifted to an eight hour work day… and quality of life was reduced for the workers.

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.”

…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.

Read the entire article here.


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  • Selena

    Yes, extremely accurate.