The Better Future We Left Behind

”The urge to buy is as manufactured as the stuff you have heaped in your shopping basket.”

The title of this bog entry is the subtitle of a particularly good article in the current issue of Orion magazine. The Gospel of Consumption by Jeffrey Kaplan provides some insights into the origin of mass consumerism, which has become the lifeblood of our economic system.

It wasn’t always this way.

Shortly after the turn of the previous century, the big manufacturers and industrialists of America were faced with a curious situation. It was referred to as ”need saturation.” Americans were traditionally frugal people. They bought what they needed. They bought some luxuries too. But, overall, they were not frivolous with their money. So, having what they needed, they were not inclined to keep spending.

The efficient machinery of American industry had done a remarkable job of meeting the physical needs of the population. That being the case, the factories would be able to work less. It looked like a three-day work week was a real possibility. Those people who worked in the factories could have more time to spend with their families, in community work, or on other interests. Were this to happen, we might say the machinery of industry had become an efficient servant to the citizenry of the country. Imagine that.

Well, as you might also imagine, such a scenario was looked upon as a very serious "problem" by the factory owners. The problem required a solution—a new approach. Instead of fulfilling basic human needs, as they had done in the past, the industrialists realized that they needed to create new needs. Americans had to be convinced that however much they had, it wasn’t enough.

One of the masters of convincing the population of their need for more unnecessary stuff was Edward Bernays, the nephew of Sigmund Freud. Bernays “used all manner of political propaganda, psychological manipulation, and celebrity endorsements” to “keep the consumers dissatisfied.”

President Herbert Hoover’s 1929 Committee on Recent Economic Changes observed in glowing terms the results:

By advertising and other promotional devices…a measurable pull on production has been created which releases capital otherwise tied up.”

”Economically we have a boundless field before us; that there are new wants which will make way endlessly for newer wants, as fast as they are satisfied.”

By creating needs that were never there before—needs for things that were not really needed, the possibilities for economic prosperity were seen as “boundless.” It appeared that the secret to perpetual economic prosperity had been discovered.

And that’s how American “citizens” became “consumers.” But more than that, all of We the Consumers (not to mention the economy of our nation) have become shackled to “an ever-accelerating cycle of work and consumption.” Instead of the machines becoming our servants, they became our masters. And the owners of the machines became richer and richer. And the environment was destroyed more and more. This endless cycle has...

”...impoverished our human communities with a form of materialism that leaves us in relative isolation from family, friends, and neighbors. We simply don’t have time for them.”

If you'd like to know more about all of this, please do read Mr. Kaplan’s Orion magazine article. Here’s the link again: The Gospel of Consumption. (Please note that practically all the words, phrases, and ideas I’ve expressed here have been taken from the article)

And here’s one more very insightful quotation that I'd like to draw your attention to:

”...if as a society we made a collective decision to get by on the amount we produced and consumed seventeen years ago, we could cut back from the standard forty-hour week to 5.3 hours per day—or 2.7 hours if we were willing to return to the 1948 level. We were already the richest country on the planet in 1948 and most of the world has not yet caught up to where we were then.”

Personally, I’m all for going back to the 1948 level. But I’m not normal. And I’d say the chances of our society willingly making a collective decision to do that are pretty much slim to none. But, the way our economy is floundering, maybe our society won’t have a choice in the matter....


mark said...

I thought that was a great article. I turned it into a PDF file for my later rereading. I'm not normal either. One of things about this time and place that I live in that I hate, is everything has to go faster, and faster, bigger, and bigger, etc. I would love to have more time to do other things than serve my employer, and their ends. I have plenty of the things I need for life, and pleasure. What I would really like is more time.

JBC said...

See "The Century of the Self" on
It is a three part BBC documentary on the century long manipulation of desires and opinions.


LadiesoftheHouse said...

Great article...I just happened to read it after getting home from work. I work for a Green Cleaning company using organic cleaning products. One thing I wasn't prepared for when accepting this job was the amount of consumerism I would see on a daily basis.

My husband and I and our 2 kids have lived well below our means on one income for the last 20 years. Just this year we decided I would take a part time job and put that money exclusively towards our property taxes and our retirement. Having lived so frugally for so long and actually growing accustomed to it I was in a sort of shock when I first started cleaning the people's homes that were willing to pay someone else to do their work.

The home I cleaned today had nobody there and every light and 2 televisions were on. The heat was set to 72 degrees even though the sun was shining. There is a brand new aluminum 6 person fishing boat, 3 brand new ATV's and a new car in the driveway. Last week when I cleaned the parents were in Mexico for 2 weeks without their small kids and 3 months before that it was Hawaii.

The thing that really put me into shock--their current house payment coupon laying on the counter that I had to clean: they owe $643,000. on their home and have a $4300. a month house payment. I would guess that they are both about 30 years old.

Herrick Kimball said...

You are right. Time is what I need too.

Thanks for the link. My dial-up internet service won't allow me to see the documentary. I'm still working with "old" technology here.

That monthly house payment boggles my mind.

Steve Williams said...

A fine post. The "need" to consume is a difficult ride to jump off.

Steve Williams
Theoretical Agriculture
Scooter in the Sticks

papabear said...

This is also a good short (20 min.) video to watch and to recommend to others:
The Story of Stuff

Ray said...

Indeed moving back to the level of 1948 would be great. It is where a lot of us are heading to and I for one will be glad to not be in the grind of tied up with things for an employer so much in the future.