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Our Obsession With Stuff Is Trashing the Planet, Our Communities and Our Health

A new book questioning our consumerism says we spend more on shoes and jewelry than higher education; more on ocean cruises than providing drinking water for all.

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When the doors opened, a thirty-four-year-old temporary worker from Haiti named Jdimytai Damour -- his friends called him Jimbo -- was overwhelmed by the surging crowd. He was knocked down, and witnesses said people just walked over his body to get to the holiday bargains. Emergency medical technicians who arrived to help were also jostled and stepped on by the shoppers. Damour was pronounced dead just after 6:00 a.m. He died of asphyxiation; he was trampled to death. An employee in the electronics department, who was in the store during the stampede, reportedly commented, "It was crazy . . . The deals weren't even that good."

And this took place in a recession year, against a background of growing economic insecurity, rising gas prices, mounting consumer debt, collapsing mortgages, and increasing unemployment. Retailers had been worried that Black Friday revenues would suffer. Instead, Damour suffered the ultimate loss, and America kept on shopping. We are a society of consumers, we're told. We shrug and nod and accept this as a fundamental truth. It's just human nature, is more or less what we tell ourselves.

And boy do we shop. Globally, personal consumption expenditures (the amount spent on goods and services at the household level) topped $24 trillion in 2005, up from $4.8 trillion (in 1995 dollars) in 1960. In 2004-'05, Americans spent two-thirds of our $11 trillion economy on consumer goods, with more paid for shoes, jewelry, and watches ($100 billion combined) than for higher education ($99 billion). According to the United Nations, in 2003 people worldwide spent $18 billion on cosmetics, while reproductive health care for all women would have come to $12 billion. While eliminating hunger and malnutrition would have cost $19 billion, people spent $17 billion on pet food in the United States and Europe combined. And our tab for ocean cruises came to $14 billion, although it would have cost just $10 billion to provide clean drinking water for everyone.

In 2000, teenagers alone (twelve to nineteen years old) spent $115 billion; the same group controlled $169 billion in 2004. The hundred-acre Mall of America -- the size of seven Yankee Stadiums -- is one of the top visitor attractions in the United States. The average American has 6.5 credit cards. The average U.S. supermarket contains thirty thousand items. As of 2003, the United States had more private cars than licensed drivers.

In the average middle- to upper-middle-class American's 2,000-somesquare-foot home, you'll find: several couches and beds, numerous chairs, tables, and rugs, at least two TVs, at least one computer, printer, and stereo, and countless books, magazines, photos, and CDs (although these last, like vinyl and tapes before them, are a dying species now, destined for the dump); in the kitchen there will be an oven, a stove, a refrigerator, a freezer, a microwave, a coffeemaker, a blender, a toaster, a food processor, and endless utensils, dishes, storage containers, glassware, and linens (or at least paper napkins); in the bathroom, a hairdryer, a razor, combs and brushes, a scale, towels, medicines and ointments, and bottles and tubes of personal care products galore; in the closets, dresses, sweaters, T-shirts, suits, pants, coats, hats, boots, and shoes and everything in between. (In 2002, the average American acquired fifty-two additional pieces of clothing, while the average household was throwing away 1.3 pounds of textiles every week.)

The average house also contains a washer and dryer, bicycles, skis, other sporting equipment, luggage, garden tools, jewelry, knickknacks, and drawer upon drawer of crap both relatively useful (like staplers, Scotch tape, aluminum foil, candles, and pens) and entirely pointless (like novelty key chains, gift wrap, expired gift cards, and retired cell phones). We've got so much Stuff that, according to builders, families often buy a home with a three-car garage so that one-third of that space can be dedicated to storage.

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