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Deconstructing Over-Consumption 5 August 2010

Posted by magicdufflepud in Uncategorized.
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As a college-educated twenty-something it is your duty to hate consumerism, corporations and the hard-working American way of life that engineered the $.99 hamburger. It’s a hatred that evidently grows out of a critical blend of sociology courses and casual screenings of Supersize Me and Food Inc. Just as moderately bright high school students discover (and then hopefully ditch) Ayn Rand, wantonly idealistic college grads latch on to the notion that if only Americans could tear apart Western acquisitiveness, they’d find true happiness–empiricism be damned.

The whole of human history says otherwise: money has allowed us to satisfy preferences and to demonstrate status. Not perfectly, of course, and even very very badly at times, but overall it’s performed better than anything else we’ve imagined. The anti-consumerist sentiment on the other hand has found success only in religion where it accompanies a promise of Heaven. It’s nearly impossible to argue against a guarantee of infinite bliss, but undermining idea that going Thoreau forever will ensure worldly satisfaction requires substantially less effort. And it’s more fun.

Anymore, American “over-consumption” has become axiomatic in this sort of conversation, yet because of that, the term rarely receives definition. What constitutes over-consumption? Following the meme far enough seems to indicate that Americans have been over-consuming since about the beginning of the twentieth century—when this country began to speed ahead (imagine ahead in scare quotes if you like) of its peers. Recognize the sliding scale: if Americans consumed at 1940 levels now, it would no longer count as over-consumption. But the world economy is growing. With that in mind, over-consumption appears to mean “to consume more than most everyone else.”

Just defining the term reveals the argument’s core. All this turning American consumerism on its head stuff distills to a desire for a more egalitarian society. It’s about baselines. The average world citizen consumes at, say, C, a level most I imagine most anti-consumption apologists will say is okay. After all, at issue is over-consumption not consumption itself. But American s consume at XC where X is some multiplier. Ignoring the fact that relationship between the two is more technical than that, the point of contention remains: Americans consume more than the average world citizen.

That seems to raise another problem, however, namely that only a small percentage of the world’s population can consume at an American level–the Earth’s resources will stretch only so far. On the surface, that concern appears trickier, but in reality it’s the same Malthusian bunkum as always. When humans deplete the Earth’s resources, well, there’s a whole universe out there. And that will continue until the species destroys itself or runs out of universe to mine. (Downside: as I wrote a while back, we’ll be forced to kill every non essential living thing on the planet first. Sorry, giant pandas.)

The key point, then, is that it doesn’t matter what Americans consume, just how much they consume relative to everyone else. No one would be in a tizzy if everyone on earth lived in a Malibu mansion. In fact, if consumption is simply the satisfaction of preferences through purchases, then it seems even the anti-consumerist crowd would support spending at any level so long as it remained equal.

Money doesn’t buy happiness, though. Okay. If that’s then case, then consider two scenarios with the assumption that watching the sun set over the beach makes a person happy. In scenario A, he has the money to purchase a plane ticket to the beach. In scenario B, he’s broke and stuck in Decatur. Logic dictates that he’s less happy in Decatur. Funny how, if money doesn’t buy happiness, nearly everything folks enjoy doing requires it. And, please, don’t argue that socialization produces all of that. Skiing is fun. Cycling is fun. Watching a movie is fun. Given the choice between any of those things and picking berries for survival, I’ll go for bike ride, thanks.

To get around that point, you might argue that if we simply didn’t know about iPods and motorcycles and what have you, then we we’d never know what were missing. True, but not a case for anti-consumerism. If you can’t even conceive of the alternative to your present situation, you’re not in a position to state a preference either way.

If you liked listening to music on the go in the 80s, you would probably say you were happy. But you didn’t even know that you could be happier with an iPod. Ethically, this gets a bit complex, but if we know that American-style consumption drives innovation, and that innovation leads to products that create new forms of happiness, then we are denying ourselves potential happiness if we stamp out consumer culture.

If you tired of theory, try this:

Here’s global happiness.

Here’s purchasing-power-adjusted per-capita GDP.

I’d written another 350 words on status, but this is all that’s getting published for now. If you were looking for the smackdown finale, come back later and maybe I’ll have have an appropriately witty conclusion.

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