The Future of Consumption

Should you try and take a step back from consumer society? Or would that just put your favorite shop owner out of a job? A special MoJo Wire forum.

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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.

The Players:

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?

Responses: 1 2 3

The Forum Part II: Searching for Solutions

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We've never been very good at being conservative.

And usually, that serves us well in doing the ambitious, hard-hitting journalism that you turn to Mother Jones for. But it also means we can't afford to come up short when it comes to scratching together the funds it takes to keep our team firing on all cylinders, and the truth is, we finished our budgeting cycle on June 30 about $100,000 short of our online goal.

This is no time to come up short. It's time to fight like hell, as our namesake would tell us to do, for a democracy where minority rule cannot impose an extreme agenda, where facts matter, and where accountability has a chance at the polls and in the press. If you value our reporting and you can right now, please help us dig out of the $100,000 hole we're starting our new budgeting cycle in with an always-needed and always-appreciated donation today.

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