"Because you can't hug a tree if you can't find one."

2/16/2008

Corporations Invented My Culture?


Somewhere in our history we made some bad decision
s. Or rather, they were made for us. How did we let that happen?
According to Vance Packard in "The Waste Makers," in the years after World War II, industrial productivity was at an all time high, but most people who could afford consumer goods had everything they needed. They just weren't buying any more. So rather than reduce the work week and accept limits to their profits, corporations began figuring out how to market goods that no one really needed. They chose to increase their wealth by creating consumer demand both for specific products (clothes dryers, cars, toasters,) and by creating a culture of consumption in general.

Yes, I am thinking about plastic bags again. But this is also about all the other things that we use up and throw away on a daily basis. Some are explicitly disposable (paper towels, newspapers, batteries, disposable cameras, packaging of all kinds;) and some are just made so cheaply (toys, electronics, even furniture) that they break after a little while. Most were things that people were able to get along without, before marketers convinced us that their products filled the gaping holes in our lives.

Fifty or sixty years ago, people were looking forward to this shiny new world of time saving appliances, independence through private vehicles, and the "housewife liberation" of paper plates and pre-packaged meals. The future as advertised was all about convenience.

And of course people fell for it. They could not have predicted how the consumer trajectory would lead to the crises of today: emissions induced climate change; resource depletion, including peak oil; the trash we are increasingly buried under; and the wasteland of materialism and self-gratification that passes for American culture. (That is: we want what we want, we want it now, and we don't care who or what planet gets hurt as long as we get our shiny new gadgets.)

So that is part of the story of how we became dependent on the "conveniences" that corporations produce. We resist anything that seems like it will make our lives harder, and embrace every available product without examining the consequences to our health, our communities or the environment. The government, instead of protecting the consumer, supports businesses because that's "good for the economy."

Fast forward to the 21st century: corporations have more power than ever. We are over our heads in debt, our closets are full to bursting, yet we are still buying more. Disaster strikes, and the government tells us that the only way to fight back is to buy more. Activists organize a day off from shopping, and they are labeled unpatriotic. Why the singlemindedness? All this shopping hasn't created general prosperity. Rather, in the last half century of unrestrained spending, wealth has become more concentrated than ever before. Only a few rich people are benefitting from all our shopping.

Of course with the economy heading into a recession, we're bound to shop less. A lot depends on the severity of the recession. Perhaps on a pro-active level, this is an opportunity for people to wrestle back control of their lives, to take responsibility for the environment we live in. Can people stop looking at the planet as a giant shopping mall long enough to consider what this shopping frenzy means for the planet beyond this generation? Taking back control of our lives could involve more investment in artistic production/cultural activities, and/or spending more time with the people who matter most in our lives.

US consumption patterns were not sustainable anyway. Not everybody will adjust from the get go, but those who have been thinking along those lines all along will be faced rather suddenly with the responsibility of showing the way to others. In times of crisis, people of conscience are afforded a rare chance to step ahead of the flock, to lead the rest of us into thinking collectively.

(Photos brazenly clipped from all over the place.)

3 comments:

Xris (Flatbush Gardener) said...

Try buying an article of clothing without a logo on it.

I remember when it wasn't this way.

Melinda said...

Rejin, I've just returned from the Dominican Republic. There is nothing like going to another (poorer) country to show me how much stuff we have. And how much less we could have and be just as happy (or even - gasp - happier).

We visited some rural places where sanitation was too expensive, and it was sure an eye-opener to see the piles of trash - where food scraps had disintegrated or been eaten by animals, but the plastic trash was piled high.

I've been inspired anew to become more resourceful with very little.

I am enjoying your blog - so glad you joined the Growing Challenge so that I found you! I've "tagged" you for an Archive meme. The rules are in today's post.

Rejin L said...

Xris:
Its painful to see my students all branded from head to toe, and loving it. I struggled with my stepson about the logos for years, particularly Nike, which is the best known of the sweat shop companies.

Melinda:
While growing up I visited Haiti a lot. Seeing what true poverty means makes it so much easier to understand how insane it is that we have so much in the US.
(I had already read your Dominican Diaries, and was surprised by how different the food is from Haitian food.) And thanks for the tag, I think I'll enjoy going back through my archives.