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Breaking the Consumption Addiction: Can You Be Clever?

Americans are smelling their leftovers, asking "is this still good?" and digging in for the first time in 40 years. Some call it an economic crisis, others see potential for lasting change.

Now that the economic crisis has officially been dubbed a recession, and November employment stats have surpassed our most miserable expectations, let's take a moment to look on the bright side of this dismal situation. As history shows us, economic crises do have a way of producing positive outcomes, like great art, the New Deal and the charmingly depressive music and fashion of the 1990s grunge fad. But this current, entirely 21st century recession may promise to bring a different kind of change, ushering in a whole new era of postconsumerism.

Ever since the years just after World War II, when the United States was reinventing itself as the world's economic superpower, the American people have increasingly equated "citizenship" with "consumerism." The promotion of consumerism was part of a 1950s economic stimulus plan, in which the Eisenhower administration deliberately spun the nation into a vicious cycle of production and consumption with the end-goal of increasing employment and building a healthy economy.

Over a half-century later, the long-term result of this strategy has been the establishment of a nation with a chronic shopping disorder and an obsessive fixation on brands (are you a Mac or a PC?). We consider shopping a patriotic duty, and receive a constant supply of encouragement from our friends on TV, and occasionally from our president in the event of a national catastrophe. And while We The Consumers have gone above and beyond the call of duty in keeping up our end of the deal, America's manufacturing sector has crumbled, and millions of jobs have been lost as companies move overseas and American goods lose out to cheaper foreign-made products.

The economic gains of the production-consumption cycle are no more, but the consumerism remains, and we have mountains of waste to show for it. In fact, Americans throw out nearly twice as much stuff as we did 50 years ago, and twice as much as our European counterparts do today. Ninety-nine percent of the things we buy end up in the landfill within six months of their purchase (for more on this, watch The Story of Stuff).

Part of this can be blamed on industry, which has mastered the practice of design for obsolescence, but ultimately the responsibility lies on the shoulders of the American people, who have forgotten the lessons handed down by their Depression-era parents and grandparents. With the dawning of another recession, however, many Americans, plagued by debt and joblessness, are bringing back some of the Depression-tested techniques of their forefathers and choosing conservation over consumerism.

In November, the Chicago Sun-Times published the results of an informal survey where it asked people how they were saving money during the economic slump. Some of the common responses included eating more leftovers, buying fewer "nonessential groceries" and choosing generic goods over their favorite brands. Overall, Americans have been buying less these days, with November retail sales hitting lows like we haven't seen since the 1960s.

Considering the holiday rush and a Black Friday marked by frenzied shoppers-turned-manslaughterers, it's hard to believe that we're actually shopping less, but it's true. And now that the economy is already a mess, and Americans are simply unable to be the good consumers they once were, this economic crisis offers an opportunity to break the production-consumption cycle and create lasting change in our culture.

And the ecological benefits of this large-scale behavioral change could be huge. Those people who responded to the Chicago Sun-Times survey also reported that they were cutting back on bottled water and using smaller quantities of personal care and cleaning products to pinch extra pennies. This means less waste in the landfill, fewer tons of carbon in the air and lower quantities of toxins entering our water systems. If only half as many Americans buy an iPod this holiday season compared to last year (and if Apple reacts by reducing production), it would keep about a billion pounds of carbon out of the atmosphere.

This past summer, an eBay survey showed that 75 percent of adults save money by turning to used (pre-owned) goods -- an age-old, environmentally friendly way to shop that is only getting easier with the advent of Web sites like Amazon, eBay and Craig's List. What's next -- refraining from replacing appliances until they're actually broken? Or -- gasp -- maybe even having something fixed instead of simply buying a new one. The American people haven't confronted anything this revolutionary since 1776.

And it doesn't end there. In addition to simply shopping less, the recession is causing us to cut back on travel, with fewer Americans driving and flying for the holidays, even with low gas prices. And when we do travel, more and more of us are taking public transit. The American Public Transit Association reported a staggering increase in subway, bus and commuter-train use in the third quarter of 2008, up 6.5 percent from the previous quarter, while highway traffic dropped 4.6 percent.

When it comes to daily lifestyle choices, the cheaper option is usually the greener, with the exception of buying organic food (a sector which has seen a single-digit percentage drop in sales since last year).  Because of the recession's squeeze, we have an opportunity to retool and trim back our lifestyles and "go green," even if our primary goal is saving money. Every little change we make in the name of pinching pennies will also help to pinch oil, electricity, water and other precious resources. Little changes, like turning down the thermostat, turning off a light and using fewer disposable products like paper towels and cleaning wipes may save a family a few dollars a week, but the cumulative effect of our national adoption of conservation could save our country millions in environmental costs.

In the 1970s, Americans were hit hard by skyrocketing inflation, and gas that cost more than its weight in gold, but it didn't take long for the belt-tighteners of the disco era to forget the past and embrace the decadence of the Reagan years. It's tempting to be cynical and assume that this time around our consumer culture will rebound as soon as we get a few more dollars in our pockets, and that the new generation, raised on iPods and bottled water, will never embrace conservation and the ascetic lifestyle of their great-grandparents. It's also unfair to hope that the crisis continues and causes even greater suffering than it already has, forcing even more Americans into poverty and homelessness.

But is a postconsumer America (and the environmental benefits that it would bring) really too much to ask for? If the 21st century has shown us anything thus far, it's that this is an era of change and that the American people are open to trying new things, even if it means buying fewer of them.

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