Overconsumption

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Embracing an ethic of care could help us critically address overcon-sumption, a pivotal source point for most other dangerous planetary problems. In the West, consumer culture is facilitated in part by applied social psychologists who go to work in the advertising industry, designing messages to persuade their audiences to buy products they otherwise would not purchase. As the chairman of President Eisenhower's Council of Economic Advisers once said, the American economy's "ultimate purpose is to produce more consumer goods" (quoted by Seager, 1993, p. 120).

Today, the most frequent and explicit messages we receive are sales pitches. Advertising, an enormously powerful form of applied social psychology, explicitly urges us to see ourselves deprived until a particular product is purchased, unfulfilled until a new gadget is owned, hungry until that next burger is consumed. And advertisers are especially likely to focus on the self-doubt and personal insecurities of women. As one chief executive put it 40 years ago, "It's our job to make women unhappy with what they have" (quoted by Seager, 1993, p. 120). Total global advertising is a truly colossal enterprise, rising from $103 billion in 1992 to $256 billion in 2001 (Agency Income Report, 2002).

The result is that in the industrialized countries, an average person consumes 3 times as much fresh water, 10 times as much energy, 14 times as much paper, and 19 times as much aluminum as someone in a developing country (Durning, 1992). Per capita, per day, people in the United States use energy equivalent to that of 3 Germans, 6 Mexicans, 14 Chinese, 28 Indians, or 168 Bangladeshis (Whole Terrain, 2001/2002). Our voracious appetites are fed by the natural resources of the developing countries that typically export to us their raw materials in exchange for some of our manufactured ones. Our disproportional use and abuse of the planet's resources not only pollutes and depletes our own country, but fuels a global trade system that feeds us as other countries fall into debt and disintegration. Our consumer culture sponsors much of our own dangerous behavior, and also encourages developing nations to abandon their cultural traditions and adopt ours. As Durning asked in the title of his 1992 book analyzing overconsump-tion, we must also ask: How Much is Enough?

We believe this is a crucial question each individual must examine on a continual basis. Yet there is little reason to believe that very many people are asking it. Consumerism is spreading in our country as well as throughout the world. For example, in 1970, 39% of entering college students in the United States indicated they believe that it is essential to be "very well off financially"; in 1998, 74% said so. The proportion reporting they are going to college "to make more money" rose from 50% to 75%. Meanwhile, those who said they believed it essential to develop a meaningful philosophy of life fell from 83% to 43%. By 1998, financial wealth became first priority, ranked higher than meaningful philosophy, helping others, becoming an authority in one's field, or raising a family. "For today's young Americans, money matters" (D. Myers, 2000, p. 58). Meanwhile, in the last 5 years, the savings rate of U.S. citizens has gone negative, so that we now spend around $35 billion more than we earn. United States credit card debt is $1.5 trillion, and one million bankruptcies are filed annually (Schumaker, 2001). Undoubtedly, these numbers reflect the success of the intentionally designed consumer culture articulated just after World War II.

Yet, increased consumption does not deliver the really important goods: Research shows that people are not happier when they own more things. Above a minimal poverty level, reports of personal happiness are completely unrelated to financial income or material possessions. Since 1950, the purchasing power of Americans has doubled, yet their reports of personal happiness has remained essentially constant (see Fig. 3.4). Instead of contributing to our happiness, consumerism is more likely to detract from it because it reduces our potential for building personal happiness. Again, to quote Durning (1991):

Has Economic Growth Advanced Human Morale?

$20,000 $18,000 $16,000 $14,000 $12,000 $10,000 $8,000 $6,000 $4,000 $2,000

Percentage Very Happy- 40%

Percentage Very Happy- 40%

1956 1963 1970 1977 1984 1991 1998

FIG. 3.4. While inflation-adjusted income has risen, self-reported happiness has not. From Myers, D. G. (2000). The funds, friends, and faith of happy people. American Psychologist, 55, p. 61. © American Psychological Association. Reprinted with permission.

The tragic irony is that while the consumer society has been stunningly effective in harming the environment, it has failed to provide us with a sense of fulfillment. Consumerism has hoodwinked us into gorging on material things because we suffer from social, psychological, and spiritual hungers. .. . Fulfillment . .. has to do with the timeless virtues of discipline, hope, allegiance to principle, and character. Consumption itself has little part in the playful camaraderie that inspires the young, the bonds of love and friendship that nourish adults, the golden memories that sustain the elderly. The very things that make life worth living, that give depth and bounty to human existence, are infinitely sustainable, (p. 169)

Empirical research on happiness supports Durning's claims. When asked "what makes you happy?" the vast majority of people mention, before anything else, satisfying close relationships with friends, family, and romantic partners (D. Myers, 1992). Well-being also comes from active hobbies pursued during leisure time, along with meaningful work (Csikszentmihalyi, 1999), and a sense of personal control over one's life and circumstances (Langer, 1983). Leisure time, meaningful work, and personal control tend to become scarce in the mad rush to work harder and own more. Moreover, college graduates with "yuppie values"—who preferred a high income and occupational success over close friends and happy marriage, reported much more unhappiness (Perkins, 1991). Thus consumerism is threatening not only our environment, but also our psyches.

Maintaining an environmentally responsible lifestyle in the midst of commercial culture is not easy. However, there are alternatives to buying unnecessary goods that damage the planet. One important form of resistance is the growing "Voluntary Simplicity" movement (Elgin, 1993) in which people intentionally downsize their jobs, homes, and personal possessions in order to live a more balanced and harmonious life. Voluntary simplicity in the United States has grown steadily in the last decade as people discover that their frenzied lives surrounded by myriad material possessions do not deliver the fulfillment for which they yearn. We will say more about this issue in the last chapter and in the appendix.

As we consider purchasing habits, it is important to remember that reducing consumption is far more important than recycling or reusing. Our global trade patterns make overconsumption the single most important change that we in the developed nations can make. Carrying a cloth grocery bag to the market is important, but it will not change the global pattern of industrialized nations gulping the planet's resources, while simultaneously causing more and more poverty throughout the world. However, when we shop, there are greener choices of products that inflict less harm on the environment.

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Responses

  • Janne
    Why is overconsumption causing global warming?
    10 months ago
  • victoria
    What enviornmental issues is overconsumption causing?
    9 months ago

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