Beyond American Consumerism

By Helen Marie Casey

The second conference of the Center's 2001 economic justice series featured spirited discussions on the nature, value, and limitations of American consumerism. Joining keynote speaker Juliet Schor were academics Elfriede Fürsich, James Twitchell, and Douglas Holt, along with activists Rajiv Rawat, Felice Yeskel, Roni Krouzman, and André Norman.

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The event began with a keynote address by Juliet Schor entitled, "Toward a New Politics of Consumption." Schor is well-known for placing the controversy over consumerism in a broad social context, as she has in her books The Overworked American, The Overspent American, and Do Americans Shop Too Much? As a well-known economist, social critic, and acting chair of the Women's Studies Department at Harvard University, Schor brings an interdisciplinary perspective to her work and is not shy about posing uncomfortable questions: Is growth inevitable? Are current American patterns of consumption ecologically viable? Should consumer issues be a matter of public debate?

Schor’s position, particularly on the link between consumerism and environmental degradation, is clear: "To support the average American lifestyle, 500 pounds of natural resources are moved or used up each day for every American, and this excludes water,” Schor says. Furthermore, she is quick to explain that green technology is essential but not sufficient to deal with American consumerist habits, which are characterized by insatiability.

Her keynote laid out the core values of consumerism: novelty, a built-in bias toward private ownership of things that could be shared, the desirability of globalization, and what she described as “see no evil/hear no evil” product information that allows consumers to ignore the social and environmental impact of their decisions in the marketplace. "The dynamics of our consumption patterns," Schor emphasized, "are unsustainable and the globalization of consumerism will be catastrophic."

Elaborating on the relationship between patterns of consumerism and use of time, Schor referred to the erosion in free time for families and communities that has occurred in America in recent years. "People are time poor, sped up, and out of control," she said, adding that our "default option" is to upscale with the herd.

Referring to the findings of some sociologists, Schor reported that materialism accounts for a range of emotional and physical problems, from depression to physical addictions. Consumerism must be addressed in a far-reaching social context, she insisted. "We need to broaden the discussion to include: What makes a good society?"

Among the quiet value shifts that are occurring, Schor mentioned the voluntary simplicity movement, downshifting, and a growing group of "cultural creatives” consisting, primarily, of women like the late environmental writer and activist Donella Meadows. In closing, Schor stressed that a transformative movement must be cross-cultural and cross-class. “Most importantly,” she said, “it must be about more, not less: more nature, more security, more joy, more equality, more time.”

Juliet Schor’s keynote was followed by a provocative trialogue moderated by Boston College professor of communication Elfriede Fürsich. In addition to Schor, speakers included University of Florida professor of English James Twitchell and Harvard Business School assistant professor of marketing Douglas Holt. Dr. Twitchell suggested that the ad culture is doing the job that literature and politics used to do by providing stories that give lives meaning. Twitchell, the author of Lead Us into Temptation: The Triumph of American Materialism, brings a cultural historian’s point of view to modern marketing. "We're not after the thing but the aura, the meaning," he stated, as he explained the lure of consumerist values.

Douglas Holt's view diverged slightly from that of James Twitchell. Rather than look to products as sources of meaning, Holt believes that marketers appropriate meaning from popular culture then build that meaning into product marketing with clever associations. “The system has learned that it's easier to look to public culture as the wellspring of values and to weave these values into the products," he explained.

Schor resisted the notion that products bring real satisfaction or meaning to human lives. “A deficit of meaning is driving these [anti-consumerism] movements. There is a very widespread hunger in this country for meaning,” she said.

The larger question of the economic justice of consumerism led to strong and opposing views. According to Twitchell, there is an inherent “fairness” in consumerism because it’s up to individuals to decide if they want to do what is necessary to get the “stuff” they want. Juliet Schor objected, refusing to accept “fair” as an accurate depiction of what occurs when access to employment is not fair and economic opportunities are not fairly distributed. “Fairness and equity must be at the heart of any progressive vision,” she said.

In the open discussion, Center executive director Ginny Straus asked whether a new transformative politics would seek to curb advertising. Dr. Schor, who would not want to interfere with our need to respect free speech, admitted to a fantasy: a media not funded by advertising.

A brief report on the AIDS in Africa Project by Rajiv Rawat keyed into the discussion on consumerism with an update on the Global Day of Action project. This demonstration took place to support South Africa in a climate of growing frustration with pharmaceutical companies who were sued three years ago for blocking access to AIDS drugs in an effort to protect patents and profits. “In the past three years, 400,000 people have died of AIDS in South Africa,” he reported.

As the afternoon progressed, Felice Yeskel, co-founder and co-director of United for a Fair Economy, addressed "Building a Movement for Economic Justice: The Personal and the Political," by speaking out of her childhood experience. As she described the profound effect the reality of social class had on her, she explained that, as a student, she never invited anyone from school to her home. "Children know when they’re poor,” she said.

Yeskel went on to define economic inequality as a problem for our democracy, a destabilizing force in our economy, and a contributor to a breakdown in the social fabric of civil society. She invited the audience to focus on successful social changes that have already occurred to help us fight our feelings of hopelessness. “Change takes sacrifice. Investing in the possibility of change is a complete act of faith,” she said. “One of the most important things each of us can do to achieve economic justice is to become a messenger of hope.”

Providing a concrete example of individuals uniting to effect change, Boston Mobilization's Roni Krouzman spoke of the success experienced by the Boston University students who have joined together to promote more affordable housing in Boston where 135,000 students compete for 28,000 dorm rooms. The group has attended zoning board meetings and is working with tenant organizations to make a difference.

Reverend Eugene Rivers, pastor of the Azusa Christian Community in Dorchester, Massachusetts, was scheduled to speak in the afternoon but could not participate due to an unexpected conflict. In his place, he sent his associate, André Norman, director of Operations of the Ella J. Baker House in Dorchester. Norman’s remarks emphasized the need for education and brought an entirely different approach to the question of consumerism. “When you grow up poor, you just plain don't have,” he said. “Talking about consumerism is a luxury. If I had a magic wand, I would free the poor.”

Norman works with young men who are coming out of prison and trying to build a future. "What about the have-nots who want?" he asked, implying that it is easy for people who are comfortable to tell others they shouldn't be seduced by a consumerist culture. "What does downscaling mean to someone who has a Lexus? Would you give up sending your kids to good schools?"

In the final exchange of views, moderator Elfriede Fürsich urged those present to learn about the economic and corporate power behind the media and how this power drives values and expectations in the marketplace. James Twitchell suggested that in spite of its superficiality, consumerism can actually have an equalizing effect. “Maybe the world of ‘stuff’ does have some redemptive power,” he pondered aloud. Juliet Schor declared Twitchell’s interpretation of meaning “a precarious one” while Holt suggested that “one provocative possibility is rebranding the values around brands. We as customers can demand those values [that we want].” André Norman returned to the desire for personal and collective transformation that had motivated the conference with a sense of humor and a serious point: "I deputize you as activists. You can make a change."


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