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Consumerism vs. Frugality

A Vietnamese immigrant reflects on U.S. consumer culture -- how it's shaped not only his family's ideals of 'The American Dream,' but the world's.
 
 
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For his first job in America my eldest brother worked in a supermarket. Among his many chores he found one particularly distasteful: throwing expired food into the garbage bin nightly, then pouring Clorox on top to discourage scavengers and the poor.

Thus into the bin went perfectly preserved bags of cookies, frozen dinner trays, cans of tuna, bags of flour and a myriad of other edible goods -- all waiting to be bleached. Like the rest of us who hailed from Vietnam, my brother hadn't yet bought into the consumerist culture, and it pained him to see so much go to waste. Without fail he would call friends and relatives to come over and salvage whatever they wanted before he poured the chemical.

After a while the supermarket manager caught on to this scheme and had a new trash bin installed with a padlock. My brother was soon thereafter out of a job.

Barely a teenager in America, I remember hauling some of the supermarket's expired food home to my family with giddiness. What Americans threw away was sustenance back home in Vietnam, where children scavenged through piles of garbage for anything salvageable and people canvassed the neighborhoods buying old papers and magazines to recycle or begged for slop to feed their pigs.

The word environmentalism was not part of the vernacular in the mid-1970s when I came here. Nothing was recycled, and paper and plastic and glass -- what back in Vietnam was someone else's living -- went blithely into trash bins without a second thought. It had shocked me to see so much wealth going to waste.

What the child marveled at, however, causes the adult to fret. The commercial culture -- the culture of wanting more, of consuming -- requires continuous acquisition, and is built upon the concept of disposable goods. If everything is disposable, so reasoned the economists after World War II, the market will never be saturated.

But then there are the side effects: garbage production in the United States has doubled in the last 30 years. Approximately 80 percent of U.S. products are used once, then thrown away, while 95 percent of all plastic, two-thirds of all glass containers, and 50 percent of all aluminum beverage cans are never recycled, but instead get burned or buried.

The United States has less than 5 percent of the world's population, yet it consumes more than 30 percent of the world's energy resources. The average American discards almost seven pounds of trash per day. Of all people on earth we produce the most waste.

Not long ago, frugality was a virtue. Now, two-third of our economy is based on consumption. In the age of melting glaciers and rising sea levels, in an age where polar bears drown and frogs die en masse and coral reefs disappear and biodiversity dwindles along with forestland -- in the age, that is, of global warming, where hurricanes ravage cities and towns -- our way of life has become unsustainable and has created an unprecedented crisis on a planetary scale.

"When consumption becomes the very reason economies exist, we never ask, 'How much is enough?' 'Why do we need all this stuff?' and 'Are we any happier?'" writes David Suzuki, author of The Sacred Balance: Rediscovering Our Place in Nature.

"Our personal consumer choices have ecological, social, and spiritual consequences," Suzuki writes. "It is time to re-examine some of our deeply held notions that underlie our lifestyles."

More Americans are beginning to ask these same questions after Katrina. SUV sales are down, and recycling is up. But materialism is a powerful force, and when elevated into a concept called consumerism, refined by the genius of advertising and given the title "American Dream," few can resist. Consumer spending makes up more than 70 percent of our economy. We know we need to change, but like many an overweight person who wants to diet and exercise, we, as a nation, haven't found the will to break the habit.

My own family and relatives, too, have moved on from our humble beginnings as refugees in America to become middle class Americans whose motto, at times, seems to be "shop 'til you drop." The latest technology, the latest trend in fashion, the newest cars, the best laptop -- we've got to have them all.

Indeed, even as Americans are beginning to wonder if our way of life has a direct consequence on the weather, everyone else wants to become us. From China to Bombay, from Cape Town to Rio de Janeiro -- everyone wants a piece of the good life a la American style, putting more pressure on ecosystems already on the brink.

Last night, walking home, I saw two old Chinese ladies looking for aluminum cans and plastic bottles in a garbage bin behind a restaurant near my home. One of the workers came out and yelled at the old ladies to stop.

As I watched the two scurry away into the shadows, I thought of my own humble past. But I fear that, with the way things go, with global warming threatening to undermine our civilization, those two old scavengers may well represent our own retro-future.

Andrew Lam is a New America Media editor and the author of "Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora." (Heyday Books, 2005).