The Future of Consumption


To: consumerforum@motherjones.com
From: bill_mckibben
Re: Sawicky’s comments

Consumerism as “The biggest problem we can think of?” I’ve just come back from two weeks in Kyoto at the global warming conference, so I’m inclined to agree with you that it’s not. The biggest problem I can think of is the alteration of the planet’s basic workings, which already threaten us in deep ways. But there’s no question either that one of the reasons those threats are so hard to deflect is that we in the West consume an immense amount, and increasingly the developing countries follow our lead.

What all that has to do with Christmas, which was the subject of my article, is that this holiday represents the epitome of unnecessary consumption that doesn’t bring great joy. In fact, as I wrote, our real reason for trying to change Christmas practices is because Christmas is not as much fun as it could and should be, and that many people find more pleasure in it once it’s been separated from consumerism.

The fact that poor people are getting poorer in this country — and this world — is fundamentally important. (Getting people to deal with it was one of the key aims of he whose birthday we celebrate on Dec. 25). I too think that we should change our taxes and take other measures to reverse the gap in incomes. But why don’t we do this? At some level it’s because we’ve bought in to the hyperindividualism of a consumer society, where satisfying one’s own (myriad) needs is always and forever Job One.

As a final point from the real world, celebrating a “proper” consumer Christmas is a ruinous enterprise for many low- and middle-income Americans. Check with consumer counselors in a few weeks. Or come visit the poorest counties in New York State where I live, and see people who do without heat because they’re cleaned out by Christmas.

To: consumerforum@motherjones.com
From: max_sawicky
Re: McKibben’s response

It would be nice if, abstracting from our own issues of poverty and inequality, we in the West surrendered some resources for the sake of the world’s destitute millions. I’m for it, and I’d do it myself, to some extent, even if nobody else did. I’d be amazed, however, if developing countries did not prefer to take this transfer in precisely in the form we’d surrender it: the usual sort of consumer goods (either directly, or via the more roundabout means of getting the technology, plant, and equipment to produce it themselves).

What I’d like to know is how any such commitment is not an act of political suicide for any serious politician, trade union official, or business leader in the West. In the same vein, what developing country’s politics are not going to be driven by consumption demands?

People do borrow unwisely — been there, done that — and can be improvidential. That’s why we have Social Security and other programs. But how deep do you want the state or any external agency to get into regulating people’s personal affairs?

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