Sunday, December 5, 2010

My "Mea Culpa" on Consumerism

I was in the midst of composing a "mea culpa" of sorts, regarding my sense of shame about being a part of western consumer society when I received this link to an article written by Dan Hamburg. He is a former Congressman of California's First District. These words were like a pie thrown in my face.
We're stuck in a culture (ie., a way of thinking), now roughly three centuries old, that has finally proven itself inadequate. All the way up through the years of my childhood in the Fifties and Sixties, this culture (i.e., western bourgeois) was not only acceptable, it was unassailable. It's core tenet has been the inevitability of progress and the "fact" as Margaret Thatcher put it during her reign as British prime minister, that "There is no alternative (TINA)."

If she's right, we're f**cked. Because while globalized capitalism has brought unparalleled comfort and power for the few--conquering the chronic limitation of space and time as never before--the contradictions of TINA thinking have become too odious to ignore.

We humans are literally destroying our own habitat. While a few feast, billions suffer malnourishment, illness and death from preventable disease and lack of basic necessities of life. (Have you ever attended one of those Hunger Banquets first conceived by the international anti-hunger organization OxFam? The top 15% are served a sumptuous meal. the middle 35% eat rice and beans. The leftover 50% help themselves to small portions of rice and water.)

This is the world we live in and these trends--global environmental collapse and mass poverty--are steadily worsening.

Contrary to a popular view, this state of affairs is neither "natural" nor unavoidable. The logic--resulting from a misreading of Darwin but powerful nonetheless--that we humans are creatures who "naturally compete" for scarce resources has finally revealed itself to be illogic, since its consequence is the demise of our entire species!
I read this nodding my head in a knowing fashion. This is me. This is the world I grew up in and the world I have perpetrated for most of my life. I am part of that top 15%. I get the best food, shelter, education and opportunities. I feed at the trough that is constantly replenished with cheap goods and services provided by the bottom 50%. I was discussing this recently with my brother and I thought his words captured our situation best.
We baby boomers as a group have become so obsessed with the accumulation and conservation of tangible assets that we are willfully blind to the environmental carnage and social justice issues which such accumulation causes. (Wal-Mart has big screen televisions on sale for $300. They're built by people who are essentially slaves in factories which cause massive environmental damage? Who cares, they're cheap! Oh, and yeah, someone should do something about that - so long as it doesn't cause me any inconvenience or increase my taxes so that I have the money to buy the $50 blu-ray player to go with the new TV.
This comment strikes at the core of the problem of our western society. Let's be blunt. We know what the problem is: it is us, the baby boomer generation and our offspring whom we have imbued with insatiable desires. We have fallen, hook, line and sinker for the admonitions of the post-war marketers who redefined citizenship to embody a consumer oriented ethic.

Everywhere I look, I see outrageously obscene consumption and an incredibly greedy sense of entitlement, as David Dingwall so selfishly points out to us.

Our demands are far out of proportion to what we should reasonably expect to be anything close to our fair share of the world's wealth. We have adopted the attitude that if we have the money, we have right to acquire whatever we want with it. Well, that approach is killing us, and it must be turned around.

The problem is clearly getting worse, as the gap between rich and poor widens, whether in the U.S. or Canada. We pay ever escalating millions of dollars every year to individual grown men who are "playing a game" in professional sports, yet somehow can't imagine paying sufficient taxes to ensure adequate housing for everyone. We whimsically change our decor to make the latest fashion statement, tearing out perfectly adequate bathrooms & kitchens while complaining about the price of gas. We are never satisfied because we seem incapable of accepting the notion that sometimes "Enough really is enough!" We are stuck in a rut of borrowing money we do not have, to spend on things and experiences we neither need nor appreciate.

I say this, not to mock others, but to recognize this in myself. This is how I was brought up in suburban, middle class Toronto. It is what my loving parents taught me, and, although I offered occasional token resistance, I followed the same path. I got sucked in by the branding, and the pummeling of my senses with advertising. Whether it was my make of car (Volvo or Saturn), sporting equipment (must be MEC!) or how I identified my trips, (I'm a traveler, not a tourist), I continued to hang much of my identity on what I possessed, and how I could obtain more.

In my most downtrodden moments when I review this, I feel like I have lived almost 60 wasted years of consumerism. When I look around at the plethora of "stuff" that fills my modest home, and flip through the memories of acquisition, I am terribly saddened.

We must hold a mirror up to ourselves, and recognize what we have done. What I see is not pretty. We need to find ways to break this downward death spiral of consumerism. What we are doing is obscene. As Hamburg concludes, we need a
"new narrative...a narrative that celebrates community over competitiveness, stewardship over exploitation."
I continually see sparks of light as I look around, but, unfortunately, they are not anywhere near a forest fire yet, but mere shooting stars. These "points of light" are the untold millions of us around the world trying to come to terms with our imbued "sense of entitlement". Unfortunately, there are still ever greater numbers of us who continue to cling to the old paradigm that money ultimately solves everything and that all poor people around the world need to do is acquire more of it. Then, they too can live like us. If it were only that easy.

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