New Internationalist

Dead zone

Issue 336

John F Schumaker now lives and works in Aotearoa/New Zealand. But on a recent trip back home he came face-to-face with the monster of American consumer culture. The sobering encounter left him questioning both human greed and the pursuit of materialism.

On a recent visit home to Wisconsin I found myself sitting alone in a crowded shopping mall, feeling the same intangible revulsion that eventually banished me from America. Above me towered a brutish vending machine, complete with celestial chimes, rotating lights and a steely synthesized voice beckoning the assembly of dupes. A miserable young lad approached, dragging the body of his package-laden mother. He searched her eyes repeatedly until she finally fed the machine, got a Rocket Ranger toy and stuck it out to her child.

He slapped it onto the floor and screeched for still another selection. Mom stuffed in more bills until finally the boy was out of choices. ‘Well, for God’s sake, what do you want,’ she bellowed.

In a confused rage the boy bawled, over and over again, ‘I want something, I want something, I want something.’ As I watched the boy I thought that, after all these years, America is still shooting up the town, still digging its heels unnecessarily deep into the precious elements that sustain us, and still making me glad that I now live in New Zealand.

The boy seemed to forewarn of capitalism’s psychological dead end where life masquerades as a kaleidoscope of consumer choices. His was the collective voice of mindless consumerism as it has been perfected and amplified in America. It spoke too of the existential loneliness that gnaws at me whenever I return to the ‘all-consuming society’ as some sociologists have come to call America.

American culture has assigned its fate to institutionalized overconsumption. This radical psycho-economic device lies at the heart of the country’s much celebrated economic boom. What we see unfolding in the US is a human tragedy that was foreseen by Thornton Wilder in The Bridge of San Luis Rey. There he describes a people who are ‘drunk with self-gazing and in dread of all appeals that might interrupt their long communion with their own desires’. Scratch the surface of the economic boom and you see a grotesque epidemic of desire and greed. This is what America’s bold experiment with radical consumerism is all about.

As I sat in the mall that day I wondered what my hero Albert Einstein would think about the patterns of cultural consciousness that are encouraged in present-day America. In an interview he once said: ‘The ideals which have lighted my way, and time after time given me new courage to face life cheerfully, have been kindness, beauty, and truth. The trite subjects of life – possessions, outward success, luxury – have always seemed contemptible.’

Late in his life Einstein expressed grave concerns that trite commercial values were beginning to silence loftier human motivations among Americans and he feared the wider consequences of the social sanctioning of greed. Yet not even he could have foreseen the degree of authority that would eventually be commanded by all things trite.

However, as we all know, the person-as-customer cultural strategy is a sure winner from the standpoint of an economy driven by overconsumption. The percentage of total economic activity that is generated in America from personal spending has reached 70 per cent, far more than any other nation.

In a spending showdown, no-one is faster or more deadly than Americans. We spend hugely more on ourselves than our closest rival. Private spending is between 50 per cent and 90 per cent greater than in all major European countries. Over the past five years the savings rate in the US has fallen to a negative rate so that we now spend around $35 billion more than we earn. Virtually all shame has been erased from indebtedness. In 1999 US citizens racked up credit-card debt of $1.5 trillion, while total consumer debt reached a mind-boggling $6 trillion. The one million bankruptcies filed annually due to credit excesses are readily absorbed by an economic system that flourishes on consumer foolhardiness.

When it comes to the physical-waste side of the equation, Americans are leaving Sasquatch-sized footprints. The strategy of overproduction, overspending and overconsumption sees Americans piling up far more solid waste than any other nation. The typical US family of four amasses a seemingly impossible 13 kg of solid waste per day.

Like guns and God, overconsumption has very special meanings to Americans. Most feel proud as well as fortified by the cultural assumption that overindulgence is good for the country. By sheltering them from all the bad news about overconsumption, the US media has suppressed most environmental awareness, even in the face of an impending ecological holocaust. The bulk of the American public accepts the primitive economic reasoning underlying their collective assault on the world’s resources. The triumph of consumer consciousness has seen banality and vulgarity anointed with respectability. The utterly superfluous has become a noble pursuit and the quest for personal and intellectual growth is fading quickly. Greed has lost most of its negative connotations.

So just how shallow have we Americans become under the reign of consumerism? In 1970, a large-scale survey of US university students showed that 80 per cent of them had as a goal ‘the development of a meaningful philosophy of life’. By 1989, the percentage had fallen to 41 per cent. During the same period, the number of those aiming ‘to be very well off financially’ increased from 39 per cent to 75 per cent – which explains the wholesale shift to studying ‘marketable’ subjects.

American-style radical consumerism has succeeded to the point that social analysts now speak of things like ‘consumer trance’ and ‘ecological dissociation’. Take the fascination with sport utility vehicles (SUVs). Who would have thought in these delicate environmental times that the public could be sold a popular mode of transport that consumes one-third more fuel and creates 75 per cent more pollution than ordinary cars? And who would have guessed that the average fuel efficiency of US cars in the year 2001 would be less than in the hog-car days of the 1950s and 1960s? Environmentalists have calculated that the SUV fad has caused Americans to waste 70 billion gallons of gasoline in the past 10 years – an immense price for an outdoorsy image.

An article just appeared in my local Christchurch Mail newspaper, titled ‘New Zealand Fails To Measure Up Against United States’. Comparing ten economic indicators across the two countries it left no doubt that America was leaving New Zealand in the dust. It is a standing joke that New Zealand is 20 years behind developments in the US. Yet many Kiwis are catching up. Imported SUVs parade through the streets of Auckland, 24-hour shopping is being tested and Kiwis are becoming gradually fatter. But New Zealand has not yet made overconsumption its national pastime and the core of its national identity.

Eighty-five percent of Americans indicated in a recent poll that a ‘six figure’ income would be required to service their yearned-for lifestyle. Yet nearly 30 per cent of those actually earning six figures reported that their ‘basic needs’ were not being met. This dizzying degree of consumer desire and the exquisitely concocted discontent underlying it cannot be achieved overnight.

While most societies throughout history have organized themselves in order to curb natural greed, America’s devoted consumers are encouraged to respect, nurture and act on the subtlest stirrings of their avarice. As a result materialism has reached fever pitch and continues to rise sharply. In a 1976 survey of US high-school students, 38 per cent indicated that having ‘a lot of money’ was a primary goal in life. In 1988, the figure had risen to 63 per cent. Today one would feel downright silly for even asking if ‘a lot of money’ is important.

Of special concern to mental-health professionals are studies showing that high degrees of materialism have a toxic effect on psychological and social well-being. A strong materialist orientation has been associated with diminished life satisfaction, impaired self-esteem, dissatisfaction with friendships and leisure activities, and a predisposition to depression.

Escalating materialism may be the single largest contributor to Western society’s tenfold increase in major depression over the past half-century. It certainly features in the worrying rash of ‘consumption disorders’ such as compulsive shopping, consumer vertigo and kleptomania.

Hyper-materialism also features prominently in the emerging plague of ‘existential disorders’ such as chronic boredom, ennui, jadedness, purposelessness, meaninglessness and alienation. Surveys of therapists reveal that 40 per cent of Americans seeking psychotherapy today suffer from these and other complaints, often referred to as all-pervasive ‘psychic deadness’. Once materialism becomes the epicenter of one’s life it can be hard to feel any more alive than the lifeless objects that litter the consumer world. In a recent study of US university students, 81 per cent of them reported feeling in an ‘existential vacuum’.

And children are on the frontlines of the consumer blitz. An average eight-year-old in the US can list 30 popular brand names. More than 90 per cent of 13-year-old girls in one survey listed shopping as their favorite pastime, followed by TV watching. In 1968 US children aged 4-12 spent around $2 billion a year; today they spend nearly $30 billion. And savvy marketers now concentrate on ‘cradle-to-grave’ indoctrination strategies.

The world seems hellbent on following America’s lead. But there is nothing useful to be learned from the American Dream in its present hyper-commercialized form. The toxic consciousness that it fosters has transformed the dream into a nightmare. Finding an antidote to the Americanization of the world must be the top priority of the international community.

As a very first step we can discipline ourselves to be critical of all the ‘positive economic indicators’ that we hear about the American economy. We do not want to measure up to the cultural greed and shared mindlessness that has earned America its pre-eminent economic status.

The footprints of tomorrow’s people must be very light indeed. Let it be our job to set an entirely different example that can take us more safely into a highly uncertain future. Buy nothing for a day and try to rise above your sense of cultural failure.

John F Schumaker is a Senior Lecturer in Clinical Psychology at the University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand. His latest book, The Age of Insanity (Praeger), will be released later this year.

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