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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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Even so, our homes are overflowing, inspiring a massive increase in personal self-storage facilities. Between 1985 and 2008, the self-storage industry in the United States grew three times faster than the population, with per-capita square feet of storage space increasing 633 percent. And somehow despite this amazing abundance, we find ourselves drawn into stores like moths to flames, on the quest for yet more.

The Sanctity of Shopping

Shopping is a nearly sacred rite in the United States -- in fact, in the wake of the 9/11 tragedy, President George W. Bush included shopping in the daily activities that he said were the "ultimate repudiation of terrorism." When our country was in shock and no one was quite sure what would happen next, Bush told us to hang our "America is open for business" signs in the windows and keep shopping.

Not to buy means to fail our workers and stifle the economy, say most economists and politicians; shopping is our duty. Those who dare challenge the ethic of consumerism have been declared unpatriotic or just plain loony. After The Story of Stuff film was highlighted in the New York Times in early 2009 many teachers were using it in classrooms to spark discussion about consumerism and environmental issues, and conservative commentators accused me of threatening the American way of life, terrorizing children, and called me "Marx in a ponytail."

When Colin Beavan, aka No Impact Man, got press for the year-long project in which he reduced his New York City family's consumption to a bare minimum, he received hate mail, including an anonymous death threat! Henry David Thoreau, who in the mid-1800s wrote of living simply and in harmony with nature in Walden, was variously described by critics as "unmanly," "very wicked and heathenish," and an "unsocial being, a troglodyte of sorts."

Even many of the nonprofits and advocacy groups that work on issues related to consumption don't question it on a fundamental level. There are many excellent groups that focus on the quality of the goods we consume—fighting for fair trade chocolate over slavery chocolate, for example, or organic cotton clothing over conventional toxic cotton or PVC-free kids toys. But few look at the issue of quantity and ask that tough question: aren't we consuming too much? That's the question that gets to the heart of the system. I am learning it is not a popular question.

Once upon a time the factors that contributed to our national economic growth included a broader set of activities, especially in extraction of natural resources and production of goods. After World War II, however, the focus shifted to consumption. In the 1950s, the chairman of President Eisenhower's Council of Economic Advisers stated, "The American economy's ultimate purpose is to produce more consumer goods." Really?

Rather than to provide health care, safe communities, solid education for our youngsters, or a good quality of life, the main purpose of our economy is to produce Stuff? By the 1970s, consumption had taken a lead role both culturally and economically. Most of us alive today have been raised on the assumption that a consumption-driven economy is inevitable, sensible, and good. We are supposed to participate in this economic model without question. Nevertheless, it's been questioned and continues to be, by a growing number of people. Myself definitely included.

In the same holiday season as Damour's tragic death, the credit card Discover launched a new ad campaign. On top of the serene soundtrack of a simple tune being plucked out on a guitar, the voiceover says: "We are a nation of consumers. And there's nothing wrong with that. After all, there's a lot of cool stuff out there. The trouble is, there's so much cool stuff, it's easy to get a little carried away. If that happens, this material world of ours can stop being wonderful and start getting stressful. But what if a credit card company recognized that? What if they admitted there was a time to spend and a time to save? . . . We could have less debt and more fun. And this material world could get a whole lot brighter."

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