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Archive for the ‘consumer culture’ Category

Gloom — appropriately perhaps — seems to be the theme this Earth Day.

Joseph Romm in Salon thinks it’s already too late to save much of the flora and fauna on our planet. It’s time to worry out ourselves, he says.

Over at Alternet, Michael Klare worries at length about a ‘new world order in energy.’ The comments are as interesting as the article: some alarmed, some thoughtful, others desperate, crazy, excited even.

In the New York Times, Paul Greenberg reviews two novels that conjure ‘ecological end-times.’ Ecotopia, first published in the 1970’s, imagines a better life (for a part of America, at least) emerging from eco-crisis. The more recent novel, The World Made by Hand, is based in an East Coast town of the future in which most people return to laboring and can now only dream of driving. Says Greenberg:

I would prefer to live in Ecotopia, but the verisimilitude of Kunstler’s world leads me to think the future is Union Grove. Thirty years from now, it will be interesting to see if that little town seems excessively sad, richly luxurious or spot on. But for now, I’m hedging my bets. Where I live, one block east of ground zero, I’ve started keeping a compost bin and am thinking about adding a micro wind generator.

Meanwhile columnist Paul Krugman fears that we’re running out of commodities. That won’t mean the immediate collapse of civilization, he reassures us. But

rich countries will face steady pressure on their economies from rising resource prices, making it harder to raise their standard of living. And some poor countries will find themselves living dangerously close to the edge — or over it.

No critique from Krugman, though, about whether the way we’ve come to define a good life is part of the problem. And no ideas for how we might resolve the crises that will come when countries do tumble over the various precipices upon which they teeter.

Over in the UK, the Independent is doing its usual best to add to the bad news. Yesterday they mourned the decline of birds that usually migrate to the UK.

So what are we to do? For an exhortation not to give up — but to act both personally and politically we can turn, thankfully, to Michael Pollan — writing in the Time’s magazine this Sunday.

Whatever we can do as individuals to change the way we live at this suddenly very late date does seem utterly inadequate to the challenge. It’s hard to argue with Michael Specter, in a recent New Yorker piece on carbon footprints, when he says: “Personal choices, no matter how virtuous, cannot do enough. It will also take laws and money.” So it will. Yet it is no less accurate or hardheaded to say that laws and money cannot do enough, either; that it will also take profound changes in the way we live.

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Every week some 32 million copies of Parade Magazine — the popular (and populist) insert to many US Sunday newspapers — get printed. So it’s hardly a paragon of environmental sustainability. As wikipedia notes, one of its signature features is also “a significant amount of advertising for consumer products.”

So we say ‘God Bless’ to Parade for this week running an article that points out a truth rarely acknowledged in the commercial press: that truly green activities are often more about not spending than buying something new.

In describing some ‘better ways to go green,’ author Christie Matheson reminds us that while you might feel good about redecorating your home with eco-friendly furniture, it would be better to reupholster and refurbish what you already have. Better to drive less than buy a new Prius. Better to drink tap water than water from plastic bottles that you assiduously recycle.

None are earth-shatteringly original ideas. But thanks to their emphasis on restraining consumption as opposed to enabling more of it, they’re ideas that get aired all too rarely in commercially-supported media — including a great many outlets designed specifically to appeal to people who see themselves as environmentally aware.

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Mental health issues are a bit off-topic for us here at EarthQuaker. But we are interested in ideas that, to quote the Preamble to the US Constitution, ‘promote the general welfare.’

So here’s an interview with Charles Barber, author of the new book Comfortably Numb, which argues that too many American doctors now view mental states that are part of (and essential to) normal life as illnesses to be treated with psychotropic drugs.

When it comes to treating mild depression, Barber recommends following a European model:

The clinical guidelines to the National Health Service for mild depression recommend watchful waiting, diet and exercise, self-help and counseling, cognitive behavioral therapy, and then if all those things don’t work, to try antidepressants. Our de facto practice in the United States is pretty much the opposite.

But feelings of unhappiness or mild depression brought on by identifiable life circumstances (divorce, losing a job or moving house) are not, Barber argues, mental conditions at all.

Says Barber,

our American sensibility is to be uncomfortable with unhappy feelings and root them out as quickly as possible. I want to be very clear not to romanticize suffering, but there can be a utility to some difficult emotions.

The right to pursue their own happiness is something that Americans rightly hold dear. And yet that happiness has also proven elusive, despite the nation’s enormous success in building its citizens’ wealth.

We’ve noted elsewhere that shopping doesn’t seem to do much to make people happy. And plenty of researchers have found that happiness fails to keep increasing after we reach a certain level of material comfort.

So is taking drugs the solution? It seems fairly obvious that however much those drugs might keep us ‘comfortably numb,’ they won’t do much to change whatever circumstances limited our happiness in the first place.

More broadly, it might also help to rethink our expectations of what can make us happy. In that context, Barber says, it’s ironic that

if you set happiness to be your primary goal, it tends not to work out very well. The late Canadian novelist Robertson Davies said that happiness is a byproduct, and that you become happy when you’re engaged in productive activity or when you’re in a relationship with someone you love. So this idea that we have to be happy is a highly American thing and highly problematic concept.

If our relationships are poor, and if we find that the activities that motivate our lives are more destructive than constructive, we can choose to stay unhappy and self-medicate for it. Or we can seek to be constructive, and to redefine the relationships we enjoy with our fellow planet-dwellers, and our planet.

Imagining what such a redefined-life might look like — and asking what we can do to achieve it — is very much our topic here.

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It’s good to see critiques of consumer capitalism getting more common and attracting more attention.

Here’s a smart analysis of the idea that consumer cultures reproduce — indeed require — addictions. In talking about Sally Erickson’s 2007 documentary What a Way To Go: Life at The End of Empire, writer Charles Shaw says:

industrial civilization — and its end product, consumerism — has disconnected us from nature, the cycle of life, our communities, our families and, ultimately, ourselves. This unnatural, inorganic, materialistic way of living, coupled with a marked sharp decline in society’s moral and ethical standards — what the French call anomie — has created a kind of pathology that produces pain and emptiness, for which addictive behavior becomes the primary symptom and consumption the preferred drug of choice.

Shaw references the connection that environmentalists (and spiritual leaders) are increasingly making between the drive to consumption and spirituality. He sees it as the main hope we have against self-annihilation as a species.

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Salon has an interview this weekend with Pamela Paul, author of the new book, “Parenting, Inc.” It’s a must read for anyone interested in the consumer culture of affluent Western parenting.

Paul tells Salon:

“I think that we have professionalized parenting, and in a consumer society that becomes translated into buying a lot of things. Parents aren’t as worried about spending too much as they are about not spending enough. It’s what I call the anxiety of under-spending.”

Especially enjoyable are her takes on Baby Einstein (“If Baby Einstein had been called “Couch Potato Kiddie,” . . . that would have been honest marketing”), doulas (“in the U.K. and in France the government provides people to do that, state paid, and it’s considered the natural course of things”) and Gymboree (“It’s not for your baby. It’s for the parents. You don’t actually have to spend a lot of money [to] expose your kid to massive amounts of stimulation”).

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