Why Consumerism Still Consumes Us
April 2011By Eric Brende
Eric Brende is the author of Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology (HarperCollins; now in its twentieth printing). A graduate of Yale and MIT, he has adapted Amish lessons to urban life in old St. Louis. If youre ever in town, stop by the Soulard Market on Saturdays, where the Brende family sells their soap, and take a ride in Erics rickshaw. If youd like to visit the Brendes urban vertical-gardening oasis, make a rickshaw appointment, or order an autographed copy of Erics book, please let them know by calling 314-773-6227. This article originally appeared in somewhat different form in Disorientation: The 13 Isms That Will Send You to Intellectual La-La Land, edited by John Zmirak (Ascension Press; www.disorientationbook.com), and is reprinted with permission.
Conspicuous consumption has lost some of its former allure. For generations after Thorstein Veblen identified the phenomenon among the leisure class, people were proud of their material wherewithal and were eager to flaunt it. You built your big house on a big boulevard. You wore your fur coat, as it were, on your sleeve. You visited the opera not for cultural enrichment but to show you are rich. As soon as others could afford to do so, they followed suit. And so we became a society characterized chiefly by mass consumption, or maybe mob consumption, since it became socially obligatory to keep pace.
But a weird reversal has begun. We consume more than ever, mind you a poor person today revels in technological amenities no one could imagine in Veblens time. And yet a certain uneasiness has entered in. Few speak openly in favor of rabid, acquisitive behavior. When President Bush urged us to go shopping after 9/11, the comment dropped like a stone. Increasingly, ostentatious accumulation of stuff carries a stigma from which Church, state, and media, in one way or another, all recoil.
Of course, it has never been considered Christian to glut oneself on food or material things. But lately it has also become unfashionable, politically incorrect. It doesnt even accord with FDA recommendations on diet. President Obama sets himself apart from his predecessor, to a degree, by projecting the aura of a thrifty, green president, and his wife, Michelle, explicitly devotes herself to reducing consumption, at least at the dinner table, in her campaign against obesity.
None of this has kept us from sinking more rapturously into the arms of Uncle Mammon. Consumerism is the national open secret, the scarlet letter everybody wears under the lapel or purse flap. As we all know, raising the Gross Domestic Product, and with it the Consumer Spending Index, is the key to Obamas re-election, and it may well be the de facto linchpin of national economic recovery global warming be damned. Whenever economic indicators wobble this way or that, newscasters pant, breathless in the hope that more housewives may be driving to Target.
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