Editor’s note: This new column will explore with you some basic thoughts about what living with a view to the future means to those of us living in the north woods of Minnesota.  Douglas and Barb will look at a broad range of topics by asking basic questions and trying to separate reasonable conclusions from propaganda and political jargon.  Although they are not experts, they have focused on implementing sustainable living practices in this area for many years. Direct comments to weiss005@umn.edu and they will respond and consider them as they write future articles.

How did we become a culture characterized by conspicuous consumption?

In 1899, the sociologist and economist, Thorsten Veblem coined the term “conspicuous consumption” to describe the lavish spending of the upper class as a way to display their wealth and thus establish their status and reputation in society. However, at that time, conspicuous consumption characterized only a very small fraction of wealthy elites in American society. Most Americans had an annual income that barely afforded the essentials of life. They had no phone, no indoor plumbing, no car and about half of the children lived in poverty. Most teenagers left school and worked on farms or in factories. Factory wages at the turn of the century were $1 to $2 at 14- to 16-hour long days.

Two developments converged at the turn of the century that dramatically changed the economic climate in America by spurring the Industrial Revolution. These were the availability of fossil fuels as a highly dense, inexpensive source of energy for manufacturing, and the invention of the production line. These two developments allowed mass production of all sorts of products, which lead to an over-supply. Complicating the problem of excess products was the fact that only the wealthy were inclined to buy these products. The average American was quite uninterested in these “luxury items.”

For the first time in history, markets for goods and services had to be created. Both corporations and government got involved in convincing Americans to buy products. The theory behind these efforts is set forth in Edward Bernays’ books “Propaganda” and “Crystallizing Public Opinion.” Bernays proposes that public relations is about “creating news” and theorizes that by understanding the “group mind” it is possible to manipulate it without people realizing it. Bernays tested his hypothesis by undertaking a campaign to convince women to smoke cigarettes. Bankrolled by corporations and support of government, the advertising industry was launched.

Did it succeed? It did. It was called the Roaring 20’s. People bought like crazy. However, this conspicuous consumption was still mostly limited to a new developing middle class in cities. They bought all manner of goods and services like there was no tomorrow. But, of course, there was a tomorrow with the Wall Street Crash of 1929 followed by the Great Depression.

In the intervening years, consumption has spread to all levels of society. The ability to purchase on credit grew, making it easier to purchase products even if we couldn’t afford it.  Advertisers have perfected strategies to entice us to buy products by exploiting our emotions and promoting dissatisfaction with our present lives. They tell us  we can be more attractive, more masculine or feminine, happier or more successful when we buy their products. And advertising works. We Americans have about 5 percent of the world’s population and yet we consume 15 percent of the world’s products, 33 percent of the paper, 25 percent of oil, 23 percent of the coal, 27 percent of the aluminum and 19 percent of the copper. Beyond that, Americans produce 40 percent of the world’s waste.  

Shopping has become one of our favorite national pastimes. We shop when we are lonely, or bored or depressed or when we had a bad day at work. We shop as a way of socializing with friends and family, and as a reward for a job well done. There is a thrill associated with buying stuff but, like chocolate, coffee, cigarettes, or drugs, the feeling is fleeting. The thrill actually relates to the act of buying and not the product that we obtain. Ultimately our identity can become based on the things we purchase and consumption can be used as a yardstick to establish our position in the social hierarchy, whether we can afford it or not.

As we look at the future, more and more of us are admitting that we cannot go on with this level of consumption.  The earth has a finite number of natural resources to be used for energy and raw materials, and they are being rapidly depleted. Further, our planet is drowning from loads of waste products dumped into the land, water and air. In future articles we will discuss some alternatives to conspicuous consumption.

References to all factual information quoted provided on request; comments and questions are encouraged: weiss005@umn.edu

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