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C is for: Curbing compulsatory consumption

Observations from the Edge
Robert T. Nanninga
Coast News
November 28, 2002


"Even assuming rapid progress in stabilizing human numbers and efficient technologies, human wants will overrun the biosphere unless they shift from material to nonmaterial ends." — Alan Durning

If you doubt the holy grail of American life is the acquisition of mountains of stuff, one need only turn on the television to witness the parade of priorities being sold to everyone within arms reach of the remote control. Morning, noon, and night we are subjected to a constant bombardment of corporate propaganda, with the sole purpose of encouraging mindless consumption.

The Consumer Age began shortly after World War II, being clearly defined in 1960 when retailing analyst Victor Lebow waxed prophetic: "Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption. "Forty-two years later the gospel of Victor is still preached from womb to tomb, and all points in between.

The rituals we wrap around consumption are varied and many. Holidays stand out for their excess, coming complete with seasonal wardrobe, icons, etiquette, menus, and decorating schemes. Designed to encourage unrestrained consumerism, Madison Avenue and the advertising industry have but one goal, sell people more than they need, or could ever properly use. Included in the call of the consumer is the directive for things to be consumed, burnt up, worn out, replaced and discarded at an ever-increasing rate.

There are few places on Earth where someone can escape the unending barrage of commercial pitches. Schools are littered with advertisements, as are roadways, buses, airports, park benches and movie theaters. Media programming and print journalism is never without a considerable effort to convince people that they can't live without this gizmo or that gadget. Kids grow up greedy thanks to the onslaught of marketing, aimed directly at their impressionable minds.

More seems to be what everyone is after. Without more, Americans would be just like everybody else, and that is hardly acceptable to those who make a living producing consumer goods. Quantity far outshines quality in the eyes of most Americans. COSTCO, the temple to over consumption, the perfect analogy for a super-sized country living in the illusion of unfettered abundance.

Capitalism spins webs of denial, allowing everyone to believe more can always be found at the business end of a credit card, and that there is no downside to an over active appetite.

Christmas is the mother of all consumer rituals. Where some folks start their shopping in July, most people wait until after Thanksgiving. Mainly because they have been programmed to do so. Also hardwired into the American consciousness is obligatory giving of gifts. As if we didn't have enough reasons to go in debt. We have turned senseless shopping into a tradition, where the ultimate measure of love is the number of boxes stacked beneath the dead tree.

One of my biggest pet peeves is the hype and hoopla surrounding the media creation known as "The Busiest Shopping Day of the Year. " The purpose of this ritual is to convince the sheep people malls are the place to be once the turkey has been dried to perfection, and cranberries pushed around the plate. Fat, happy, and needing to work off the annual feast, people are told the best place to be is shopping. So they go.

The day after Thanksgiving is also known as International Buy Nothing Day. Born 11 years ago in Vancouver, British Columbia, Buy Nothing Day is growing in prominence, with the aim of becoming a global event on par with Earth Day. This year more than a million people will celebrate the unofficial "opening day" of the Christmas frenzy, by saying no to the frenzy with swap meets, teach-ins, concerts, street theatre, credit-card cut-ups, postering, and potlucks. Personally I will spend the day communing with nature in the company of friends.

When I reminded a friend that November 29th was Buy Nothing Day, she said it was a stupid day to hold a protest because there were only 25 shopping days before Christmas, and because everyone had the day off it was the perfect day to shop, "so why not get a head start on Christmas shopping." When I told her that was the whole point of BND was to have people rethink the shop to you drop mentality, she shook her head, as if I had somehow failed her.

This probably means no Barbie for Bob this year.

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