Can we transcend consumerism?

consumption.jpgI’ve somehow got on a lot of email lists that I attribute to the Natural Patriot. Greenpeace sends me press releases with a lot of implied exclamation points, as do various purveyors of allegedly green consumer goods. I get excited announcements, often addressed to me by my first name from people I don’t know from Jack, that so-and-so is available for interviews. I have even been flattered to start receiving releases from various esteemed research universities flogging the latest accomplishments of their faculty. Not sure how they got my number so to speak.

I bring this up only as backdrop for one email I received recently that somehow, inexplicably, survived my highly practiced finger on the delete button. It is a very thoughtful, thought-provoking, and compelling essay by Amitai Etzioni in the New Republic arguing (much as Bill McKibben did in Deep Economy) that runaway consumer culture is the real root of America’s–and the industrialized world’s–creeping malaise (stop me if you’ve heard this one).

It would seem easy to dismiss such philosophical arguments as woolly-headed dreaming. But let’s not be premature. As Etzioni notes,”This mentality may seem so integral to American culture that resisting it is doomed to futility. But the current economic downturn may provide an opening of sorts.”

“The kind of culture that would best serve a Maslowian hierarchy of needs is hardly one that would kill the goose that lays the golden eggs–the economy that can provide the goods needed for basic creature comforts. Nor one that merely mocks the use of consumer goods to respond to higher needs. It must be a culture that extols sources of human flourishing besides acquisition. The two most obvious candidates to fill this role are communitarian pursuits and transcendental ones

I will leave you with this thought, and encourage you to read the whole article:

“All this may seem abstract, not to mention utopian. But one can see a precedent of sorts for a society that emphasizes communitarian and transcendental pursuits among retired people, who spend the final decades of their lives painting not for a market or galleries but as a form of self- expression, socializing with each other, volunteering, and, in some cases, taking classes. Of course, these citizens already put in the work that enables them to lead this kind of life. For other ages to participate before retirement, they will have to shorten their workweek and workday, refuse to take work home, turn off their BlackBerrys, and otherwise downgrade the centrality of labor to their lives. This is, in effect, what the French, with their 35-hour workweeks, tried to do, as did other countries in “old” Europe. Mainstream American economists–who argue that a modern economy cannot survive unless people consume evermore and hence produce and work evermore–have long scoffed at these societies and urged them to modernize. To some extent, they did, especially the Brits. Now it seems that maybe these countries were onto something after all.”

And may I add to that list some of my own favorite communitarian and transcendental activities: walking outdoors, camping, gardening (though I prefer to call it ecological engineering), puttering around looking at bugs and birds, fishing, neglecting the lawn, turning over rotting logs, among others. Mainstream American Economists? No wonder it’s called the dismal science.

About Emmett Duffy

I am a Natural Patriot and an ecologist with expertise in biodiversity and its importance to human society. My day job is Professor of Marine Science at the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
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One Response to Can we transcend consumerism?

  1. Pete says:

    Brilliant article! Thanks for passing that along.