Enough! America's Obsession With Consumption

"The world's richest man/is a pauper at times/compared to the man/with a satisfied mind" -- traditional folk songTo become a guru, you don't need a set of robes, the ability to levitate or an exotic accent. Joe Dominguez and his partner Vicki Robin are two ordinary Americans whose mantra is gaining popularity throughout the western world. The pair, authors of the best-selling book Your Money Or Your Life and directors of the Seattle-based New Road Map Foundation, offer their acolytes a simple message: You can get off the high-pressure, high-stress rollercoaster. You can simplify your life and enjoy it more. You can stop being so wasteful. You can opt out of America's out-of-control consumer culture.How widespread is American dissatisfaction with the work-buy-spend-and-throw-away ethic? In a poll conducted for the Merck Family Fund last summer, 66 percent of those interviewed said they'd be happier if "they were able to spend more time with family and friends." Only 15 percent said nirvana would be achieved if they, like Madonna's Material Girl, "had nicer things in their homes." That growing opposition to buying-and-spending might have been reflected in a 1995 Christmas shopping season that the Associated Press called "the worst in years."Americans are looking for a way out even as the marketplace has become the message, replacing values with material acquisition. The Christmas season, a perky interviewee said on television recently, "is about finding the perfect gift." It's hardly surprising that Christmas has been turned from a deeply meaningful religious celebration into a hectic pursuit of "perfect gifts," because buying things is what Americans do best these days: Our per capita consumption has gone up 45 percent in the last 20 years. Working long hours and pulling down larger salaries gives us unprecedented buying power, but instead of making us happy, it's making us miserable. According to the Merck poll, 82 percent of Americans agree that "most of us buy and consume far more than we need; it's wasteful."Merck's poll found that 28 percent of Americans are actually doing something about it. They "voluntarily made changes in their [lives] that resulted in making less money" in order to have "a more balanced life." One person who did that was Anna Quindlen, the New York Times columnist in line to be the first female editor-in-chief. She quit to write novels and stay home with her kids. Another achiever who did that was Clinton advisor William Galston, who responded to a letter from his 10-year-old, who, feeling neglected, wrote, "Baseball's no fun when there's no one there to applaud you."Galston is part of the 51 percent of Americans who, according to a U. S. News and World Report poll, "would rather have more free time, even if it means less money." It's not surprising, considering that per capita consumption in the U.S. has risen 45 percent since 1970 but, according to the Index of Social Health, the quality of life has decreased 51 percent. A Gallup poll from 1994 found that approximately one third of all Americans would take a 20 percent cut in their income if they or their spouses could work fewer hours.Working Ourselves to DeathAccording to Dr. Juliet Schor, the Harvard economist who is the author of The Overworked American, in the last 20 years American workers have added one month of work per year to their schedules. "U.S. manufacturing employees work 320 hours longer a year than their counterparts in Germany or France," says Schor, who believes that a restructuring of work and play time is needed to rescue Americans from burnout. "Why are we choosing' money over time when we could now reproduce our 1948 standard of living in less than half the time it took in 1948?" she asks.Schor says her research suggests that Americans are working even longer hours in the 1990s than they did in the 1980s, and that burnout is driving the trend towards downshifting. "There's been a big shift towards people saying they want to work fewer hours, even if that means a reduction in income," says Schor. "In the 1970s, only about five percent of the population would have said that. Now it's maybe 17 percent, depending on how you ask the question.Schor says the voluntary simplicity movement "is exploding, growing very rapidly, mushrooming." How many of these new downshifters are environmentally motivated? Schor's not sure. "You definitely find a high percentage of environmentalists in the voluntary simplicity movement," she says. "Environmentalists are more likely to be doing this."Having an ImpactThe new movement towards "voluntary simplicity" and "sustainable consumption" is still relatively small, but it's growing rapidly. (It was called one of the "Top 10 Trends '94" by The Trends Journal, which predicts it will attract 15 percent of baby boomers by the year 2000.) For now, most Americans know they're dissatisfied with their lives, but find it difficult to "downshift" and change the consumption patterns that made them that way. It would take a powerful force to slow down America's consumerist engine, which has convinced a majority of American young people that it's "extremely important" to have at least two cars, the latest clothes, an expensive stereo and a vacation home. In 1987, a poll found 93 percent of American teenage girls describing shopping as their favorite activity.A profound value shift may be at work in America today. Downshifters, or at least downshift wannabes, are buying Your Money Or Your Life by the gross. The book has now sold more than 400,000 copies since it was released in 1992. This, obviously, could have made Robin and Dominguez rich -- and thus complicate their attempts to live simple lives -- but they haven't kept a dime of the book's profits, instead giving the money away through their foundation. They live (in Seattle, ground zero of the voluntary simplicity movement) on $6,000 a year each."I was an achiever in theater, working my way up the career ladder," says Robin. "We're all trained in this society to be hamsters running around on the earn-and-spend treadmill. But then, 25 years ago, I met my partner Joe Dominguez." A former Wall Street investment counselor, Dominguez had concluded that money can't be, as Robin puts it, "the determining factor in what makes life work. When you get rich you get more money, but you don't necessarily get any happier. Joe decided that maybe there was more to life than 'making and dying' -- because people aren't making a living."Dominguez created a nine-step program that he began sharing with people through a taped course. Some of the steps seem like common sense, but they were a revelation to millions of Americans drowning in credit card debt and working more and more to pay it off. "It's an approach to earning and spending money so that you discover how much is enough for you to have a comfortable life, with nothing in excess, " Robin says. "You learn how you can literally squirrel away most of what you make to develop an income-producing nest egg. It's a very, very simple, straightforward and pragmatic process."Since at least 1972, when Donella Meadows's book Beyond the Limits was issued and the economic impact of American consumption patterns became clear, Dominguez and Robin have recognized that voluntary simplicity is about more than cutting workload and stress levels. "It's become more and more clear that we cannot continue to consume resources at the rate we are," Robin says. "In particular, we can't have other people in the world catch the disease of consumerism and imitate the American experiment in trying to buy happiness. We will destroy the very biosphere on which life is based if that happens. What's so powerfully evident is that even though we're the most affluent nation on Earth, our people are not happy. Studies show we're no happier now than we were in 1957, long before there were microwaves in every kitchen and computers in every bedroom. We've hit a happiness ceiling."Skewed PrioritiesMaintaining our consumer culture is very costly to the global heritage. In the 1990s, a mere 20 percent of the world's people -- mostly in the West -- consume an incredible 80 percent of the world's natural resources and generate 80 percent of the pollution and waste. The United States, with only five percent of the world's population, is a resource glutton, consuming nearly 30 percent of the world's bounty but producing 19 percent of its waste. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) says that, as the world's leading spenders, Americans use 20 percent of the world's metals, 24 percent of the world's energy and 25 percent of the world's fossil fuels. Americans own twice as many cars, drive two-and-a-half times as far, and use 21 times more plastic than their 1950 counterparts. American ownership of air conditioners also increased from 15 to 64 percent between 1960 and 1987; color TVs from one to 93 percent.According to Zero Population Growth, the average urban American consumes 150 gallons of water, 3.3 pounds of food and 15 pounds of fossil fuels a day, at the same time producing 120 gallons of sewage, 3.4 pounds of garbage and 1.3 pounds of pollutants. In Calcutta, India, average waste production is only 1.25 pounds a day.The West's orgy of consumerism is now a worldwide model. With the rise of market economies in Eastern Europe, many "repressed consumers" began to emulate the uninhibited buying they once could glimpse only on imported television signals. People living in the former East Germany bought 200,000 used Western cars in the first half of 1990 alone. Chinese color TV ownership increased from one to 35 percent between 1982 and 1987. And because television has so successfully spread the religion of conspicuous consumption, the world consumed as many goods and services in the 46 years since 1950 as had all previous generations together.Friedrich Schmidt-Bleek, an economist with the Wuppertal Institute, a German environmental research center, predicts that, to arrest present global environmental degradation, we need to reduce worldwide materials consumption by 50 percent -- and that industrial countries need to aim for a whopping 90 percent reduction. That global goal is highly elusive, but at least it is being recognized. The 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janiero called for changes in "unsustainable consumption patterns," and that goal is being pursued by the UN Commission on Sustainable Development, which organized a conference on the subject in Oslo, Norway last year."The majority of Americans don't think they have sumptuous lifestyles," says Dr. Michael Jacobson, who founded the Center for the Study of Commercialism (CSC) in 1990 and co-authored (with Laurie Mazur) the book Marketing Madness: A Survival Guide for a Consumer Society. "They think they're ordinary. But when you compare our lifestyle to that of a Third World country, or even to the U.S. 40 years ago, it's astonishing." He adds that "we're reminded 100 times a day to buy things, but we're not reminded to take care of them, repair them, reuse them or give them away."It's an Ad, Ad, Ad WorldAmericans didn't become such voracious consumers without mass media assistance. According to Alan Durning, a former Worldwatch Institute researcher/writer who is now executive director of Northwest Environmental Watch, the $161 billion U.S. advertising market is leading Americans to overconsume. According to a 1990 Worldwatch study, U.S. marketers have the world's highest per capita expenditures in advertising dollars -- $468. Japan comes in second at $300, and Western Europe follows at $200. Since the 1950s, global advertising spending per capita has steadily increased from $15 to $50 per person.On September 24 last year, the Canadian-based AdBusters magazine sponsored its fourth annual "Buy Nothing Day," sending a defiant message of resistance to the $355 billion world advertising market. AdBusters reports that American children in 1995 spent over $10 billion and influenced over $150 billion worth of family purchases. Those same kids watch 40,000 TV commercials a year each.And the pitch doesn't stop when kids go to school, where educational programs receive funding from advertisers who take advantage of the free marketing. One example is Pizza Hut's "Book It" campaign, used in over 600 classrooms across the United States and Canada. The program rewards students with a free pizza when they reach their book-reading goals. Both parents and children are pushed into patronizing Pizza Hut and accepting the false set of "rewards" which come with the promotion. In another celebrated case, Channel One Communications broadcasts a 12-minute news program, including two minutes of commercials, to 350,000 classrooms nationwide in grades six through 12. The news service offers "free" televisions, satellite dishes and VCRs to schools in exchange for required viewing of Channel One's program.Looking For a Way OutJacqueline Hamilton of NRDC says Americans "need to increase our ability to make choices consistent with our values." Her model includes construction of energy-efficient homes closer to schools, shopping areas and entertainment venues, all linked by efficient mass transit systems to lower resource consumption while benefiting the planet.Alan Durning agrees. He says that Americans drive twice as far and have a greater dependence on their cars than Europeans because of city designs which emphasize suburban sprawl. Workers have to spend more time commuting, gobbling up non-renewable resources and polluting the atmosphere with exhaust emissions. Durning also calls for a "green tax" that would measure the environmental costs of production. Manufacturers would be given a tax incentive to cut down on resource consumption, pollution and waste.Another way to think globally and act locally is to form a community exchange. In 1992, for instance, Olaf Egeberg founded The Philadelphia-Eastern Neighborhood (PEN) Exchange in Takoma Park, Maryland. Then there were just 11 residents trading goods and services. Now there are 317 people bartering everything from computer skills to home tutoring and construction work. In lieu of cash payment, they trade in their own "local currency," which can be used to buy other participants' services. A similar concept is at work in Ithaca, New York, where residents have printed their own "Ithaca Money." Instead of monetary denominations, the bills are marked in "Ithaca Hours." The concept is being explored in 400 other communities in 48 states. (Kansas City, Missouri, for instance, has the "Barter Buck"; Eugene, Oregon has "Cascadia Hours.")Egeberg, a former biochemist, says he first realized the possibilities of neighborhood organizing while studying the properties of living cells -- which must work together for the body to function. "I'm excited about how awesome we can be together on a human scale," he says. "And putting emphasis on our neighborhoods really creates the support systems we need for eldercare, childcare and, of course, the environment." Another one of Egeberg's ideas -- trading rent for skills -- has gotten him free quarters in Washington, D.C., Cambridge, England and California.The social critic Jeremy Rifkin, in his new book The End of Work, applauds the idea of "barter bucks" and work exchanges, but he'd like to take these community empowerment schemes even further. Rifkin argues that we should be encouraging the growth of what he calls "the third sector" -- volunteerism. "As long as people's identification is with the marketplace, as long as they conceive of themselves primarily as spending and consuming, they'll still be on that cycle and they won't change their thinking," Rifkin says. "I think we should be working to get people out of the shopping mall and into the Lions Club, Greenpeace or Habitat for Humanity." To this end, Rifkin -- who notes that 89 million Americans spend four hours or more a week volunteering -- is serving as a consultant to school systems to both create a curriculum that teaches the history of non-profit work and encourages its development as part of graduation requirements.Enough, Already: Downshifting Gets OrganizedSome consumer advocates are concerned that the voluntary simplicity movement -- at least as portrayed in the mainstream press -- emphasizes lifestyle over environmental impact. To make the environmental connection explicit, activists who met through the Merck Family Fund's 1995 "Redefining the American Dream" conference are organizing a new non-profit organization. "The public is anxious about the future, tired of politics as usual, weary of the work-and-spend cycle, and hungry for leadership and lifestyles characterized by human- centered values," says a draft mission statement from the group, tentatively called the Center for the New American Dream. Betsy Taylor, executive director of the Fund and a Center organizer, adds, "We're addicted to spending at the expense of citizenship, and it's really damaging to us mentally and morally."The new group has ambitious plans in its first year. It intends to build an organizational base, form four to six working groups, develop an advisory council, create a homepage on the World Wide Web, distribute a newsletter and launch its first strategic campaign, which will try to answer the question, "How much is enough? How much do people need to live a balanced life?"One of the people putting together the Center for the New American Dream is Hooper Brooks, environmental program officer for the New York-based Surdna Foundation. "It's a very necessary first step," he says. "Of all our seemingly immovable environmental problems, this is one of the biggest. Every American has some sensitivity about consumption, but getting the population to the point where we actually reorient our thinking and our behavior is a central challenge."The Center is very aware that it faces an uphill task in convincing low-income people -- particularly in developing countries -- that they should voluntarily retreat from a materialist vision that has not, until recently, been within their grasp. "A lot of Americans don't have enough, and that is as much part of our agenda as the excessive consumption of many other Americans," says Durning, who's also active in the Center. "Survey research shows that poor Americans feel deprived to a much greater degree than the average Chinese or Indian because they are at the bottom of the ladder, and are constantly surrounded by reminders that they have less than the norm." Brooks adds, "Unless we can talk about these issues and develop a consensus with people in all economic spheres, this group will not get out of the gate."The fight for the hearts and souls of American consumers is just getting started. It took a towering figure like Ralph Nader to convince Americans that consumers had any rights at all, but now that the sleeping giant is awakened -- and in a position to actually withhold its buying power -- the world is beginning to take notice. If we can stem the seemingly inexorable rush to constantly buy and consume more, the beleaguered planet will have gained some valuable breathing room.Contacts: Center for the Study of Commercialism, 1875 Connecticut Avenue NW, Suite 300, Washington, DC 20009-5728/(202)332-9110; Merck Family Fund, 6930 Carroll Avenue, Suite 500, Takoma Park, MD 20912/(301)270-2970; The New Road Map Foundation, P.O. Box 15981, Seattle, WA 98115/(206)527-0437; The PEN Exchange, c/o McGee Street Foundation, P.O. Box 56756, Washington, DC 20040/(301) 608-8008.SIDEBAR 1: Getting Off the TreadmillWhen the voluntary simplicity movement first started, the idea of "retiring" from the consumer culture was more theoretical than real. Buying and spending was, after all, supposed to be a lifetime commitment. But now the movement is getting mature enough so that some people are getting out while the getting's still good.Amy Dacyczyn is an excellent example of that. She's the editor of the Maine-based Tightwad Gazette, a monthly newsletter that was the first of several publications to serve as a practical guide to cutting down expenses and living a simpler life. (Since the Gazette came out, it has gotten competition from, among others, Cheapskate Monthly, Living Cheap News, Penny Pincher Times, The Frugal Bugle, The SAVing Source, Saving Green and Downscaling for Professionals.)Dacyczyn says she started the newsletter after she and her husband, a retired military officer, saved $49,000 in seven years on a combined income of $30,000. "I thought that what we had done was something most people didn't believe possible," she says. Dacyczyn, who visits up to 30 yard sales a day and lets her six kids pick one -- and only one -- new Christmas present, says that "most people just aren't really being honest with themselves about money. They believe the mythology they get from television."If people are serious about changing their lives, Dacyczyn says, they should "pay attention to the disposables, like food, entertainment and clothing. The areas where people really waste the most are where they should make the most radical changes immediately."All that penny-pinching has paid off. Dacyczyn's very profitable newsletter has built up a circulation of 45,000, and its revenues are combined with the income she gets from book spin-offs and her husband's retirement money. That means this very frugal family, which still buys most of its clothing, toys and household goods used, has a six-figure income. In Maine, that's more than enough to live comfortably.Dacyczyn says that she's been inundated with offers to write syndicated columns, host television shows and write more books. But, frankly she's not interested. In fact, she's closing the newsletter this year because she thinks it has said everything it needs to say. "The back issues and the books are out there," she says, "and there's just not much more I could add to them."In retirement, Dacyczyn, who's only 40, plans to refinish furniture, make quilts, read novels, look into her family history and genealogy. And become a volunteer, too. "I don't think I'll have trouble finding things to do," she says. -- Jim Motavalli SIDEBAR 2: Consumption IndexPercent of Americans who agree with the statement, "We buy and consume far more than we need":82Percent of Americans who say they have voluntarily "downshifted" in the last five years:28Percent who have "upshifted":35Percent of Americans in 1957 who said they were "very happy":33Percent in 1991:33Percent of Americans who agree with the statement, "I would like to have more balance in my life":67Percent who say they would rather have more free time, even if it means having less money:51U.S. advertising expenditures per capita (in dollars) in 1950:198In 1989:498U.S. average annual spending on pornography (in billions):8On cookies (in billions):5.6Percent of American teenage girls who say shopping is their favorite pastime:93Percent of retail sales which take place in shopping centers:55In Spain:4Percent of Americans with air-conditioning in 1960:15In 1987:64Average number of hours working Americans spend driving per week:9Percent of new cars that are air-conditioned:90Steel consumption per capita in the U.S.:417In Bangladesh:5Percent of Chinese owning color televisions in 1982:1Percent of Chinese owning color televisions in 1987:35Percent of world population living in industrialized countries:20Percent of the world's timber and energy consumed by that 20 percent:75Percent of the world's radioactive wastes and chloroflurocarbons generated by that 20 percent:90U.S. world ranking as producer of municipal waste per capita: 1U.S. world ranking as producer of greenhouse gas emissions:1Index Sources: Center for the Study of Commercialism; Technology Review; The Harwood Group; U.S. News and World Report; President's Council on Sustainable Development. -- Jim Motavalli Jim Motavalli is managing editor of E.; research assistance by Anne Wilke
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