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Posts Tagged ‘consumer culture’

Mainstream economics is built on a convenient untruth: that humans act rationally when it comes to money.

Over the last couple of decades, however, behavioral economists have been showing how that’s simply not always the case. In making many of our financial decisions (and we’re talking significant ones like which car to buy, where to live, how much to spend heating our homes etc.) it turns out that emotion trumps logic.

With ever more books on the subject being published, behavioral economics is starting to gain some serious traction. That’s good news for anyone who believes that we need to change the way we run our economies.

It’s one thing to acknowledge that what we’re doing now is unsustainable. But to find a better way we need tools that reflect the way things are, not the way we’d like them to be.

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Green shopping is quite the fashion these days. No newspaper ‘home’ section goes a week, it seems, without an article on ‘green living.’ Magazine publishers are launching ever more eco-consumer titles, nourished by advertising budgets devoted to ever-growing lines of ‘eco-friendly’ products.

Much less often, though — in fact almost never — does consumption itself get questioned in the mainstream press. Which is why were delighted to see Monica Hesse’s article ‘Greed in the Name of Green’ in the Washington Post this week.

With tongue firmly in cheek, Hesse has this to say in reviewing the trend towards  ‘green’ shopping:

“And let us never consider the other organic option — not buying — because the new green consumer wants to consume, to be more celadon than emerald, in the right color family but muted, without all the hand-me-down baby clothes and out-of-date carpet.”

To do anything else, she points out, would be to fly in the face of a culture built on consumption. And yet, as she has Paul Hawken (as in the high-end consumer home and garden retailer Smith and Hawken) explain:

Really going green, Hawken says, “means having less. It does mean less. Everyone is saying, ‘You don’t have to change your lifestyle.’ Well, yes, actually, you do.“”

While it might be unrealistic to expect media dependent on advertisements to vocally advocate against unnecessary consumption,  our voracious appetite for stuff — and its absolute centrality to the Western way of life — is perhaps the biggest obstacle facing anyone hoping to reduce our impact on the environment.

We’ve built our perceived wealth on the ‘virtuous cycle’ of product invention, manufacture, consumption and disposal followed by further consumption.  We see breaking, or even decreasing the size of that cycle, as enormously threatening to our entire economic system — because, of course, it is.

But if that cycle is unsustainable, which large elements of it (at the very least) genuinely seem to be — then simply carrying on as before doesn’t seem an especially smart move.

Consumer capitalism, Barbara Ehrenreich reminds us this week, now binds the entire world. If the American consumer stops consuming — and that amounts to the only really productive thing Americans do these days, Ehrenreich suggests — then the entire world will be economically devastated.

Ehrenreich’s concern seems to be less a critique of consumer culture than a fear that Americans have outsourced themselves out of any other productive role.  If we fail as shoppers, we’ll be forced to become ‘shoplifters,’ she suggests.

That presumes, however, that we should — and can — only define ourselves as consumers.  And it offers us the false choice of either remaining a consumer culture (only producing more stuff ourselves) and becoming lawless thieves.

What if we strove to see ourselves as something else, though — as citizens, as caregivers, as guardians of a fragile Earth, as people who don’t need to buy to find worth in our lives, perhaps?

Sure, in this scenario, we might not be as ‘wealthy’ or have as many shopping choices or cool stuff as we have now.  But it might be a way to secure for ourselves — and our planet — an better fate.  And since owning more stuff seems rarely seems to corleate to psychological well-being, it might make us happier to boot.

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One issue EarthQuaker cares a lot about is our collective consumption of material objects — especially the kind that get lumped together in the category ‘products.’ How we think of, purchase, use and discard the objects that are sold to us commercially is — after all — a fundamental determinant of our impact on the world.

And asking hard questions about the patterns of thought, habit, and economics that determine our relationships with products is very much part of our plan here.

But we don’t plan to be reductively contra the very idea of products. We like our computers well enough, for example, as well as our bicycles and our attractive new cedar tool-shed-cum-earthquake-kit-storage device.

We don’t long, in other words, for a world without products. We do, however, long for a world that is smart about products (and yes, it could include smart products). And we long to attain those smarts ourselves.

All of that’s also a long justification for why you’ll find some links categorized to your right as ‘stuff’ — they take you to places where you can find — yes — products. But these are places that sell, for the most part, cool eco-friendly things (like our wonderful plastic bag drying rack from Lehman’s, for example). And no, we make no money from the links.

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