Consumption and commercialism are the foundations of the U.S. economy and, some would say, U.S. society. Advertising has a fueled a cycle of desire, to buy the things we don’t have and to be the things we aren’t. The results of this kind of economy, to be overly simplistic, have been good and bad. On one hand, we have a far higher standard of living than ever before in history; we’re living longer and healthier lives. On the other hand, our demands for ever more stuff have rough consequences on the land, the atmosphere, the living systems around us. Has our advertiser-charged desire to consume more — and to be commodities ourselves — spun out of control? How much is enough? If we’re on a path of hyper-consumption, what are the potential consequences, environmental and otherwise? And is any of this making us happier?
Over the past several decades, critics have begun to ask these questions, and some have concluded that we need to consume less; one example is Bill McKibben’s article in the December issue of Mother Jones, “The $100 Christmas.”
But what are the real effects of buying less? It may indeed make you happier, but what about the worker over at the mall who might lose her job because you decided to scrimp? What about the argument that you’d be helping to “save the world?”
We invited a small panel to mull these and other questions; their responses follow. We’d also like to hear your thoughts on the subject, so we’ve created a topic in Live Wire for you to discuss the issues; when we post Part 2 of this forum next month, we will also highlight selected posts from Live Wire.
Bill McKibben is the author of numerous books and articles including The End of Nature and “The $100 Christmas” (December 1997, Mother Jones). His next book, Maybe One: An Environmental and Personal Argument for Single-Child Families, will be published by Random House in the spring.
Max B. Sawicky is an economist for the Economic Policy Institute. He has worked in the Office of State and Local Finance of the U.S. Treasury Department, and the U.S. Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations. He has been a contributor to Newsday, the Houston Chronicle, and In These Times. He is on the board of Americans for Democratic Action and is a member of Labor Party and the New Party.
Tom Vanderbilt is a contributing editor to The Baffler and has also written for, among others, The Nation and the Los Angeles Times.
The forum will be hosted by Eric Umansky, editor of the MoJo Wire.
First question: Bill, you say in your article that “consumer addiction represents our deepest problem.” You urge us to take a small step away from our habit by trying to spend only $100 on presents for Christmas. I’m curious, Tom and Max, what are your reactions to the idea of spending less? Max, as an economist, what would be the effect on a U.S. economy so dependent on (driven by?) retail sales? And, Max, as a consumer yourself, would you rather be spending less? Tom, what do you think is an effective response, if any, to the rising spiral of consumerism and commodification?
The Forum Part II: Searching for Solutions