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Do Americans Consume Too Much?

Why is it difficult to talk about over-consumption?

As an anthropologist interested in American culture, I am curious about many of the odd rituals practiced by the natives in this land (of which I am one). Many of the most important rituals in American culture center around the consumption of goods and services: we buy a lot of stuff. Many people assert that Americans consume too much. Here’s a passage from Affluenza, a popular critique of consumerism in America:

Since World War II, Americans have been engaged in a spending binge unprecedented in history. We now spend nearly two-thirds of our $11 trillion economy on consumer goods. For example, we spend more on shoes, jewelry, and watches ($100 billion) than on higher education ($99 billion). We spend as much on auto maintenance as on religious and welfare activities. Nearly 30 percent of Americans buy Christmas presents for their pets…(p. 13)

Let’s talk about this idea that people consume too much. The language of this paragraph goes beyond saying that we buy a lot of stuff, it implies that we buy the wrong stuff, that (for example) it would be better if we spent more money on higher education than shoes, jewelry and watches. And this is where a problem emerges in the discussion of over-consumption.

Arguments about over-consumption are in fact thinly-disguised discussions about values and politics. And since we are all consumers, these discussions always come down to assertions by one person that he or she is buying the right stuff and other people are buying the wrong stuff.

Consider Mr. A: he is obese, in debt up to his ears, and unable to resist buying some new gadget. Consider Mr. B: he is trim, with a downsized lifestyle and a significant savings account. Mr. B says that Mr. A is consuming too much. But Mr. B has air conditioning in his late model hybrid car and a comfortable pair of shoes; his children get plenty to eat and excellent education opportunities.

Now consider the third character in my little play, Mr. C. An inhabitant of an impoverished nation, he is consistently undernourished and has seen two of his children die from water-borne diseases. Mr. A and Mr. B do not look all that different from Mr. C’s standpoint. What gives Mr. B the right to set up his own standard of living as the politically and morally pure one?

Or, to return from the land of people whose names are letters, what right do I have—with my comfortable job and new laptop computer—to tell others where to locate the boundary between reasonable consumption and over-consumption?

Yet, for all this, surely it must be possible to discuss our level of consumption. It is possible—I think it is likely—that our consumption patterns are not environmentally sustainable over the long term. Wherever you stand on that issue, surely you agree that the discussion is important. Is there no way to even bring this up without getting into the problems I have just outlined?

If we want to have a genuine discussion about consumption, first we must understand it. And as I have said, that means we have to understand that consumption is about values, it is about people’s moral convictions. We have to start from the realization that people consume in an attempt to lead a life that is meaningful according to ther values. I’ll have something to say about that in my next post.

For more information, please visit the Caught in Play Website. Photo by Stephen Hanafin

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