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Essay of the Month: Alternatives to Consumerism? Part One

It does not take an economist or scientist to see that to sustain consumer societies on their current trajectories the earth’s resources will be spent in a few short centuries or sooner and the earth may no longer be fit for human habitation. It will not happen in our lifetime and not in the lifetime of our children either. While several centuries are the blink of an eye in relation to the age of the planet it is nearly three times the lifespan of a human being. To project our concern into such a time span does not seem a natural use of our consciousness, especially if one is enjoying the perceived benefits of the consumer system.

To base one’s economic system on consumption is a very modern form of human social organization. Certainly people have been consuming and with the elite consuming far beyond their needs since early civilizations, but the organization of the success or failure of a nation’s economy being dependent on excess consumption grew to maturity only in the 20th century. I was born at the halfway point of that century and have enjoyed the comforts of it for the past 61 years.

The end of the Cold War in the final decades of the 20th century and the dominance of capitalistic consumerism in the world market have increased the pressure on the planet’s resources. First world consumer societies have seen the re-forming of third world nations into consumer societies as primary new market. China’s remarkable transition to “Communist Consumerism” was alone a tremendous new pressure on the planet.

Global warming is in part a result of the consumer society and is but one symptom of the many to come as the more of the world’s population become modern consumers. I do not think that any person on the globe can be blamed for wanting to be comfortable – that is to have adequate food, shelter, clothing, education and medical care. The question is, “Can comfort be obtained without destroying the planet?” Since it is obvious that it cannot be obtained through the consumer society model, how can it be obtained?

I am certainly not the first ask these questions and one of the most appealing answers to me came from E. F. Schumacher, who in the 1970’s promoted a return to small, sustainable economic systems. Much has evolved from his and like ideas in the past 40 years, but nothing to keep pace with or challenge the huge expansion of the consumer society. The financial and political forces behind consumerism are monumental. This is remarkable if one again reflects on what a short time this system has been a dominant economic force.

I wonder, could people be happy with smaller, simpler, sustainable economic structure that did not demand consumption that destroyed the planet?  If the incessant pressure to consume were removed or drastically reduced (advertising), and a new emphasis was put on relationships with human beings and nature rather than stuff to buy, I believe many people would not only find it a manageable transition, but many would also be more content and less stressed.

But a problem arises when the consuming slows. In an economy that is based on consumption, we see the dire troubles that arise with a simple recession. Jobs are lost and people have nowhere to turn for making a living. So obviously, a different way to structure a society is needed. The potential of problems in large authoritarian governmental control of society was seen in the Soviet model of the 20th century. Scandinavian democratic socialism has fared better and been more sensitive to the environment but that does not seem the whole answer.

To me, even smaller economic units have appeal, such as social units based around natural geographic boundaries and ecosystems. Population limits seems inevitable. I am sure many brighter minds than mine are thinking about and working on this problem, but we do not hear much from them. This is no surprise considering our media is itself sustained by the consumer model.

I am sure there are those who say that we will economically evolve out of these problems. That may well be. Human beings are remarkably adaptable mammals. But I hope we will apply conscious, active problem solving to transform our society before massive suffering begins on a global scale, a catastrophe that could begin before the end of this century.

I don’t think it would be a matter of major sacrifice for the first world to begin this transition to non-destructive economic structure. It would more require a change in priorities and expectations. Now that the economy is showing most of the population in the U.S. a bleaker future with consumerism than the last generation experienced, it seems time to present alternatives. But again, where are those alternatives? I am going to start looking.

copyright 2012 Mark W. McGinnis

Walt Whitman #32, 8" X 8", Acrylic on Paper, 2011, Mark W. McGinnis---------- The old, old urge, Based on the ancient pinnacles, lo, newer, higher pinnacles, From science and the modern still impell'd, The old, old urge, eidolons. -- Walt Whitman

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